A charter for Buffett-Gates

William F. Buckley
Posted: Jun 27, 2006 12:01 AM
A charter for Buffett-Gates

The marriage of Buffett and Gates was a truly exhilarating event, even though it leaves the world hanging on the question whether there will be offspring remotely tall enough to do their parents proud.

The achievements were of separate orders. In the case of Bill Gates, you have, really, an invention. Whatever else came along, it is Microsoft's evolving operating system that was at the center of it, just as the automobile was at the center of the career of Henry Ford.

In the case of Warren Buffett, it was prudential brainpower working with the power of compounding. His company, under his direction, bought and sold for more than 40 years. He was not a man who contributed the idea of an automobile, or an operating system to drive a computer that did the work of 10,000 scribes. He simply looked around and bought this and sold the other, and in a little while he discovered that he was the second-richest man in the world.

What do you do when you are the second-richest? Why, unite with No. 1. The two men spoke admiringly of each other on the Charlie Rose show, revealing quiet admiration for singular talents and the special kind of joy that comes to an entity (the Gates Foundation) that yesterday was worth $30 billion, today is worth $60 billion.

But here are critical matters Buffett and Gates didn't discuss. First of these is retrospective.

What thoughts do we have about the means by which these two men accumulated a greater wealth than all the silver and gold brought out of the New World by Spain? After the Gilded Age was done, a generation was given to analyzing what had happened. Resentments and recriminations crystallized, and Major reforms were institutionalized, which provided against monopoly agglomerations.

But there hasn't been much critical commentary in the matter of Buffett-Gates. In the matter of Buffett, the reason for the lack of criticism is pretty obvious. There isn't a law against trading, and shouldn't be. In the matter of Gates, it is generally sensed that competition is already modestly in play. In any case, it can't any longer be contended that he alone controls computer communications, in the sense that he alone controlled Windows. It would not be easy to describe a single law that we all wish might retrospectively have been enacted 40 years ago to prevent Gates from accomplishing what he did. There is no canvas, save that which fumes at the capitalist system, in which he figures as a predatory beast.

But there was something else missing from the collaboration of Buffett and Gates with Charlie Rose. It was to be expected that Buffett would say about the Gates Foundation that it was the best foundation, so to speak, on the market. But he failed to say what it was that made it distinctive, beyond that it is worth $30 billion. We did get from Buffett that he thinks the market does a pretty good job. "I'm a big believer in the market system 95 percent of the time, but -- it's done pretty well for me."

The stated goal of Buffett-Gates is to go out into the world and address the two enduring problems of mankind, pestilence and poverty. But they did not tell us what exactly they intend to do, and it was disappointing that they didn't inquire into what it is that engenders poverty and sustains it.

One way to end poverty for the few is to give out packets of $10,000. Quite a few such could be handed out by the new foundation. Melinda Gates said, "We've got 1,000 kids a year on scholarships through one of our programs." But for all that Gates and his wife talked about the poverty they have seen all over the world, no thought was expressed on the cause of it. There was a passing derogation from Buffett: "A market system has not worked in terms of people, poor people around the world, with something -- with a disease (cure) that should be available for just peanuts."

What they did not talk about, and have given no evidence of preparing to address, is the endemic economic ignorance. More money even than their new foundation has accumulated has been spent in the same 40 years attempting to alleviate the hunger and poverty and disease of the continent of Africa, but journalists and scholars and travelers have relentlessly documented the terrible misjudgments -- and they are political misjudgments -- that stand in the way of a quiet productive war on poverty, which is what happens only when property is private and secure, government is nonintrusive, and political ideologies run out of town.

There is a challenging charter for Buffett-Gates.