In a widely viewed 2015 TED talk, Bill Gates warned of the risk of a global pandemic for which we were unprepared. Now that we’re actually in the midst of a global pandemic for which we are woefully unprepared, Gates has spoken out against the US government’s inadequate response, and his philanthropic foundation has pledged $250 million to help with the manufacture of promising vaccines for the novel coronavirus.
For his foresight and willingness to help combat the pandemic, Gates deserves admiration. Instead he faces suspicion, attacks and vilification. Why?
Two narratives from opposite ends of the political spectrum shed light on the peculiar reaction to Gates’s forward-thinking philanthropy.
Progressive Suspicions of the Wealthy
For some progressives, behind Gates’ philanthropy lurk unsavory ulterior motives—a desire for influence and power. Since the pandemic erupted, Gates has spoken out on CNN, The Daily Show, in the Washington Post, on Reddit, and in his own blog. Post-pandemic, some complain, this could give him undue influence as a thought leader.
But Gates has been pouring his wealth into vaccination campaigns in the third world, funding sanitation projects and clean water supplies in Africa and building factories to produce coronavirus vaccines—none of which is geared towards seizing political power. Unlike many others in the national spotlight, Gates has seriously engaged with the relevant scientific, technological and policy issues surrounding pandemics. What should matter for a thought leader is whether he (or she) puts forward ideas based on fact and sound arguments. How much, or how little, money such a leader has is irrelevant.
These attacks on Gates are rationalizations for an under-recognized form of prejudice.
The suspicion of Gates has the same source as the hate-fueled crusade to abolish billionaires, epitomized by Bernie Sanders’ comment: “I don’t think billionaires should exist.” The billionaire class, we’re told, are villains. If you made such a sweeping moral judgment about any other minority group, we would properly call it out as prejudice. But it’s just as irrational to view billionaires as a group, rather than individuals, and condemn them wholesale. That, too, is a form of prejudice: against the wealthy.
Such condemnations wilfully ignore the decisive factor of how Bill Gates obtained his wealth. In sharp contrast to, say, Russian oligarchs and Saudi princes—who literally lie, cheat, steal and murder their way to billions—Bill Gates earned his wealth. Over decades at the helm of Microsoft, he led the creation of blockbuster software products—Windows and Office—that tens of millions of individuals and corporations freely chose to purchase and use. To disregard how wealth is acquired, treating it as an obvious insignia of wrongdoing, is a travesty of moral thinking.
This anti-wealth prejudice is reinforced by prevailing moral ideas. Centuries of Christianity and the secularized version of its teachings have taught us that “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” What disqualifies someone from heaven is not ill-gotten wealth: it’s simply wealth.
But Gates is also facing vilification due to another kind of prejudice.
Right-Wing Conspiracy Theories
Conspiracists have spun out assorted claims, including the ideas that Gates has engineered the pandemic and that he is pushing for Big Brother-like population tracking. Such claims have swept across Facebook, YouTube and the outlets favoured by conspiracy theorists. Some well-known Trump loyalists have promoted these conspiracist fantasies.
For example, Fox news host and Trump supporter Laura Ingraham recently shared the conspiracy theory that Gates wants to digitally track Americans with her 3.3 million Twitter followers. Likewise, longtime Trump fixer Roger Stone (who was sentenced to prison for felonies connected to Trump’s 2016 campaign) insinuated in a radio interview that Gates had a role in the creation of the virus and that he and “other globalists are using it for mandatory vaccinations and microchipping people so we know if they’ve been tested.”
The anti-Gates narrative that Ingraham and Stone are amplifying is the result of prioritising loyalty to a tribal leader (Trump) above a regard for facts. Is Gates right? How good are his arguments? Are any of his points true? None of that matters. What does matter is discrediting Gates because he has spoken out about what he regards as the US government’s shortcomings in its response to the pandemic. What better way to demonstrate group loyalty than by deflecting attention from Trump’s conduct and attacking a prominent critic?
Both kinds of attacks against Bill Gates are unjust. To recognize these injustices doesn’t mean you necessarily agree with all of his views or philanthropic ventures (I do not). But it does mean that you take seriously the idea of objectivity in evaluating people.
Both attacks represent intellectual pathogens that we must combat. Both types of prejudice are forms of collectivism. Instead, we should judge Gates—and everyone else—on his merits as an individual, based on the facts.