Why Jeff Bezos should donate $100 billion to the humanities

A true legacy project would be to create an American Athens

John Paul Rollert

In-House Ethicist

John Paul Rollert | Aug 06, 2021

Sections Behavioral Science

Collections Ethics

Not long before the shroud of COVID-19 was drawn over our social calendars, I attended an annual conference that fancies itself an “ideas festival.” Like other events with similar pretensions, its organizational sensibility is inspired by the incompatible (and grammatically infelicitous) intuition, “It’s not what you know, but who.” 

During a lunchtime event, I was part of a group of people who were to take turns offering an “Immodest Proposal.” The charge recalls the title of Jonathan Swift’s satirical pamphlet, A Modest Proposal, in which he suggests that the plight of the poor in 18th-century Ireland might be remedied by selling their children for food. (“A young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled.”) The invitation to fine dining was ostensibly aimed at a selection of Swift’s readers, the members of the commercial and aristocratic elite who supported legislative schemes reflecting a callous disregard for the poor in general and a contempt for the Irish in particular.

While the organizers decided to forgo the ironic surprise of Swift’s essay by affirmatively announcing that our proposals would be “immodest,” I decided that I would pay tribute to the author’s mischievous spirit. As each of us were only allotted a few minutes for our proposals, I remember mine fairly well. “Jeff Bezos is now estimated to be worth more than $100 billion,” I began.

He recently said of his wealth, “The only way that I can see to deploy this much financial resource is by converting my Amazon winnings into space travel.” You may notice that “only” is doing a lot of work in that sentence. I can think of other ways Mr. Bezos might deploy his fortune, and I want to commend one to him. Rather than spend his $100 billion trying to establish the first Amazon warehouse on Mars, I think Mr. Bezos should spend it on the humanities. All of it. Every last penny.

I realize this is not a fashionable suggestion. In the past few decades, as our work lives have increasingly fallen under the sway of a cold, calculating logic and our free time overwhelmed by technological diversion, the luster of the humanities has comparatively dimmed. Now, of course I too enjoy many of the small miracles of our modern, mechanized world—I like microwavable popcorn as much as the next guy, in addition to movies on demand—but a market economy affords these things quite efficiently. What it doesn’t afford, or at least what it doesn’t particularly encourage, are the inquiries and careers that aren’t principally remunerative. You do not study Stoic philosophy or ancient Sanskrit—or take up contrabassoon, jazz choreography, or cabinetry—because it will make you rich. None of these pursuits will, but then again, that’s not the point. The point of such undertakings is not to fill one’s pockets but to explore some custom or complexity of the collective human experience, the very things that distinguish us as a species. If the aliens Mr. Bezos hopes to encounter should some day visit our planet, the revelation for them won’t be linear algebra or the chemical equation for water. It will be the splendid evidence of another intelligent being: the nocturnes of Chopin, Michelangelo’s David, the riddles of the Gita.

 Sotheby’s might like us to think otherwise, but money is not a measure of artistic achievement. It can, however, create a generous space for such inquiries. So if Mr. Bezos should like to establish some legacy by his fortune, I think he should invest in the institutions, the projects, and above all the people who devote their lives to the humanities.

Finally—and this may be the element of my proposal that is most provocative—I think Mr. Bezos should not spread his largesse the world over. Instead, I think he should make his full investment, all $100 billion of it, in a single metropolitan area. Doing so would transform one city into an American Athens and a hub for the humanities. It would also represent a remarkable experiment in what it would mean for a large community of people in a capitalist society to pursue the creative arts and humanistic inquiry, liberated in large part from the distractions of the marketplace.

Now I would like to explain why Chicago is an obvious site for this enterprise, but in addition to my time having expired, I’d risk careening from strong prejudice to outright bigotry. So I will conclude by simply saying that it only seems fitting that a man who built an empire on books endow a second Renaissance. If anyone in this room agrees with me and happens to know Mr. Bezos, you can find me after lunch. I would be delighted for the chance to persuade him.

It probably won’t come as a surprise to hear that no one in the ballroom was inspired to pass along the phone number of the richest man in the world. Instead, I received polite applause and a reaction shared, I suspect, by more than a few readers: this proposal isn’t immodest so much as slightly absurd.

For those who feel this way, it is worth considering the source of the absurdity. Is it the sheer nerve of telling Jeff Bezos what he should do with his money? Is it that, much like space travel, the proposed outlay seems morally inferior, even frivolous? Or is it simply that no single person, however enlightened, should ever wield such power in a democratic society?

Meet the new boss

We sometimes forget that among the cultural consequences of the rise of capitalism, perhaps the most durable and conspicuous has been the elevation of a new class of individuals with extraordinary power: the commercial elite. 

No one was more ambivalent about this development than Adam Smith, who memorably described “the disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and powerful” as being “the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments.” Wealth has an overpowering effect on us, Smith knew. It doesn’t merely warp our opinions and make us especially liable to excuse bad behavior. In preposterously large sums, money has an almost occult power, capable of inverting our assessments and turning our moral sensibilities inside out. 

“Thus much of this will make black white, foul fair, / Wrong right, base noble, old young, coward valiant,” Timon of Athens says of gold in the eponymous play by William Shakespeare. Smith was surely familiar with the work, whose publication nearly a century before he was born underscores the fact that the problem of protuberant wealth long predates any problems of capitalism. Smith also knew, however, that the economic insights of his own work would only exacerbate this problem by accelerating the rise of a new commercial class, a group of elites who would come to power by virtue of their money, in contrast with members of the aristocracy, who came to money by virtue of their power.

In preposterously large sums, money has an almost occult power, capable of inverting our assessments and turning our moral sensibilities inside out. 

What Smith didn’t fully anticipate was that the rise of this new class of capitalists would help to dissolve the peerage or at least make them as a rival power in society so irrelevant as to seem slightly ridiculous. This was Karl Marx’s insight in The Communist Manifesto 50 years after Smith’s death. “All fixed, fast-frozen relations” of feudal society “with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away” by capitalist advancement, Marx wrote. The bourgeoisie, “wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations” and “pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his ‘natural superiors.’”

Whatever you make of such displacement, Marx’s point was seriously disputed by almost no one. History was leaving the relevance of lords and ladies in the rearview mirror. As a factual matter they mostly remained, but increasingly they were regarded as the musty remains of a bygone era rather than potent actors of the present day. 

This was especially true in the United States, a nation not only unburdened by any feudal figures but whose self-conception embraced the disinheritance of such a legacy by force of arms. “The most democratic of them all,” as the economist Thorstein Veblen dubbed the American republic, a land where, unlike Europe, a commercial elite might rise unimpeded. “So the captain of industry came into the place of first consequence and took up the responsibilities of exemplar, philosopher and friend at large to civilized mankind,” Veblen declared, surveying the cultural consequences of industrialization in 19th-century America. “The larger the proportion of the community’s wealth and income which he has taken over, the larger the deference and imputation of merit imputed to him.”

High-class consciousness

For the most part, Veblen was contemptuous of such developments. (“There is no branch or department of the humanities,” he said, “in which the substantial absentee owner is not competent to act as guide, philosopher and friend, whether in his own conceit or in the estimation of his underlying population.”) But at least one substantial absentee owner issued a call to his fellow captains of industry to embrace the grandest sense of civic responsibility. 

That man was Andrew Carnegie, who published “The Gospel of Wealth” nearly 50 years after the appearance of The Communist Manifesto. The essay shared with Marx’s polemic the aim of raising class consciousness, except, in the steel magnate’s case, it wasn’t the proletarians he concerned himself with but the men who owned their factories. 

After providing “moderately for the legitimate wants” of his family, Carnegie contended, “the duty of the man of Wealth” is “to consider all surplus revenues which come to him simply as trust funds, which he is called upon to administer” to “produce the most beneficial results for the community.” The rich man, in other words, is called upon to act as “the mere agent and trustee for his poorer brethren, bringing to their service his superior wisdom, experience and ability to administer, doing for them better than they would or could do for themselves.”

In Carnegie’s view, such an approach to wealth served to distinguish the self-made American man from the blue bloods he left behind in Europe. “In monarchical countries,” he wrote, “the estates and the greatest portion of the wealth are left to the first son, that the vanity of the parent may be gratified by the thought that his name and title are to descend to succeeding generations unimpaired.” Such legacies, Carnegie held, were not only disadvantageous to those who inherited them (“generally speaking, it is not well for the children that they should be so burdened”), but they were also at odds with what he saw as the meritocratic spirit of American society. 

Most of us are like fans sitting in the stands watching some match that affects our fate without having any real opportunity to participate beyond rooting for a winner.

That spirit had welcomed Carnegie in his adolescence as a penniless immigrant from Scotland and provided him the tools and opportunities to become, for a time, the wealthiest man on the planet. “The best means of benefiting the community is to place within its reach the ladders upon which the aspiring can rise,” he maintained, a mandate that included investing in “public institutions of various kinds,” such as research hospitals, museums, and universities. 

In word and deed, Andrew Carnegie lived by the courage of his charitable convictions, giving away during his lifetime nearly his entire fortune, more than $350 million. Among his many philanthropic investments—Carnegie Mellon University, Carnegie Hall, the Peace Palace at The Hague—the most astonishing was his commitment to public libraries. He endowed 2,509 of them abroad and 1,689 in his adopted home, a number representing nearly half of America’s public libraries at the time of his death in 1919. 

More important than any of these gifts, however, Carnegie’s life and writing formed something of a philanthropic template. Though it was less successful in convincing the super wealthy to stiff their descendants and forgo establishing aristocracy by another name, “The Gospel of Wealth” broadened their dynastic ambitions to include philanthropic benefactions that have transformed the modern world and especially the US. 

Such gifts are generally met with the same acclaim Carnegie once enjoyed, and understandably so. Exceptionally wealthy individuals so often squander their money on trinkets and baubles whose consumption serves no greater purpose than personal aggrandizement that the choice to give back is refreshing and welcome. No one but a surly misanthrope seriously doubts that endowing a cancer wing at a hospital is money better spent than buying a private jet or, in Jeff Bezos’s case, a tandem of yachts, one to trail the other, but that doesn’t resolve the separate question of whether the democratic spirit can be squared with any great dependency on philanthropic largesse. 

In the West, the rise of democracy coincided with the rise of capitalism, and, in many ways, these developments have been mutually conducive, especially in respect to formalizing a substantial property-rights regime and the growth of a middle class. And yet the power of extremely wealthy individuals to shape society has always been a source of tension between them. Take the US, where the philanthropic activities of individuals such as Sheldon Adelson, Michael Bloomberg, the Koch brothers, Rebekah Mercer, and George Soros have included social, educational, and political initiatives whose primary aim is to enshrine a particular vision of a just society. Such individuals have used the power of their incredible fortunes to change our world, and whatever we make of their individual aims—which taken as a whole are mercifully incoherent—the fact remains that as a civic and social matter most of us are like fans sitting in the stands watching some match that affects our fate without having any real opportunity to participate beyond rooting for a winner.

I am one such fan, and given my life choices, I can’t imagine there will ever be room for me on the playing field, so I can only scream my suggestions at the top of my lungs or share them at fancy luncheons. Jeff Bezos has yet to respond to my proposal, but there is hope. His ex-wife, MacKenzie Scott, is apparently worth $60 billion, and given that she is also a novelist, she may be more receptive to my vision for a second Renaissance centered in Chicago. (Her first blush with philanthropic giving includes substantial gifts to the arts, which makes me think I might be in luck.) As such, I am putting the word out with this essay and will wait by my phone to see if she calls. In the meantime, I will see if I can resolve the conundrum that makes my own proposal most immodest: whether the democratic spirit can long abide any single individual having such astonishing power to publicly enact a private vision.

John Paul Rollert is adjunct assistant professor of behavioral science at Chicago Booth.