The Bezos game: Is big philanthropy a masquerade?

Getty Images

“Large fortunes,” the American industrialist Andrew Carnegie said, “are great blessings to a community.”

There is no doubt that the beneficiaries of multibillionaire Jeff Bezos’s new philanthropic fund will agree on it.

The richest man in the world, announced Thursday that he would give $ 2 billion (£1.5 bn) of his fortune to fund a network of kindergartens and homelessness in America.

But far from being universally applauded, the founder of the Amazon commitment has been criticised.

James Bloodworth, a writer who went undercover to expose working conditions in the company in the fulfilment centres, said it was “something slightly ironic about Mr. Bezos.

“There have been credible reports from Amazon warehouse workers to sleep outside in tents because they cannot afford to rent houses on the wages paid by the company,” he told the BBC.

“Jeff Bezos may any himself as a great philanthropist, but it will not absolve him of the responsibility if Amazon workers continue to be afraid to take of the toilet and the days of sick leave because they are afraid of disciplinary action at work.”


The Accusations of hypocrisy flooded social media, with many links pointing to Amazon in its efforts to reduce its tax bill in the united states and abroad.

Others have pointed to Amazon’s recent successful attempt to void a law in Seattle – the home of the online shop of the seat which has been designed to raise millions of dollars to reduce the city’s homelessness crisis.

For his part, Mr. Bezos, who is thought to be worth more than $150bn, at a little distance from its philanthropic efforts from the business model of his company.

The end of the Twitter post by @JeffBezos

“We’re going to use the same set of principles that led Amazon,” he said in the statement announcing his fund.

“The most important among these will be authentic, intense customer obsession.

“The child will be the customer.”The Carnegie legacy

However, the idea that the corporate titans should apply the principles of their counsel and of the public space is nothing new.

It was first presented by Andrew Carnegie in 1899, in an essay entitled The Gospel of Wealth.

The mogul – himself once the richest man in the world, the man describes what he saw as the moral duty of the super-rich: “consider all surplus revenues which come to him simply as trust funds which he is called upon to administer.”
Zuckerberg defends philanthropy plans
What motivates philanthropists?
How has evolved

The men of business, Mr. Carnegie has argued, are best placed to do so, the administration said.

“The man of wealth thus becoming the sole agent and trustee for his poor brethren,” he writes, “bringing to their service his superior wisdom, experience and ability to administer – doing for them better than they would or could do for themselves.”

At the time of his death in 1919, Mr. Carnegie was estimated to be parted with 90% of his fortune, to the funding of scientific research, pay teachers, build schools, and establish more than 2,000 public libraries.

His doctrine became the template for donations by colleagues, industry leaders, including John D Rockefeller, who saw no conflict between their approach to the business in which they have built monopolies, and crushed the unions and their philanthropic work.

It is a model that has prepared the way for the modern-day benefits of Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and Mark Zuckerberg – whose works of charity are distinct from the way they manage their businesses.

This year at the annual meeting of his company Berkshire Hathaway, Mr. Buffett could not have been more clear.

“I do not believe in imposing my political views on the activities of our businesses,” he said to the assembled shareholders, when asked whether he would divest from gun manufacturers.


“Not to put a band-aid on the cancer”

But according to Anand Giridharadas, Mr. Carnegie approach has helped give birth to the mass of the inequality.

Mr. Giridharadas, whose book Winners Take All the ropes of the so-called “charade” of philanthropy in the modern, characterizes Carnegie’s approach as “extreme” decision, followed by the extreme giving”.

The super-rich, he argues, to “transform the system at the top of which they find themselves.”

While Mr. Bezos’s donation is admirable, he said, he did not tackle the “deep and complex root causes” of homelessness and poverty in the united states include Amazon itself, since the company has been a beneficiary of the new world of precarious employment.

A good motto for the likes of Mr. Bezos, he suggests, would be: “Ask not what you can do for your country, ask what you have done for your country.”


The approaches adopted by the super-rich, says Mr. Giridharadas, are less bold than the companies they helped to create.

“If you want to wade into public policy, you have a moral responsibility not to put a bandage on the cancer,” he said, adding that Mr. Bezos might influence policy in place.

One way it could do that is by fighting for a change in the law when it comes to corporate responsibilities to the shareholders, and the bottom-line – paving the way for corporate structures who sacrifice a portion of the profits in the pursuit of social good.

Getty Images

Matt Kilcoyne, free-market think-tank the Adam Smith Institute, disagrees.

“Frankly, Bezos is the greatest act of philanthropy is Amazon itself,” he argues.

“Lower prices, more choice and competition have delivered billions to Bezos and billions of euros to hundreds of millions of customers that it serves.”

What’s more, Mr. Kilcoyne rejects any talk of the super-rich of the moral responsibility to respond in a certain way.

“Jeff Bezos has the right to spend his money as he wants.

“Armchair commentators may, as if to say that they know better than Bezos on what he should spend his money, but they would do better to try to convince him of their philanthropic cause to chastise him for his choice.”