American Traditions

Let's Pass the Hat

In this undated photo provided by Mark Zuckerberg, Max Chan Zuckerberg is held by her parents, Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan Zuckerberg. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife announced the birth of their daughter, Max, as well as plans to donate most of their wealth to a new organization that will tackle a broad range of the world's ills. (Mark Zuckerberg via AP)
Donating his fortune.


Let’s imagine the following headline: “I am donating 1 percent of my shares to charitable endeavors.”

What upheaval would have followed!  Mark Zuckerberg is a cheapskate who would prefer to keep his $45 billion to himself, many would have said. People would have looked down on him as an example of the nouveau riche from Silicon Valley who have no interest in social responsibility.

But actually Mr. Zuckerberg is giving away 99 percent of his fortune.

While the news hasn’t provoked much negative commentary in America, in Germany many have criticized Mr. Zuckerberg accusing him of having done it all for marketing purposes and tax reasons. There was no proper announcement and not enough details on the donation, many said. 

It is worth looking more closely at the matter.

Mr. Zuckerberg’s donation is one of many in the long tradition of donations in the United States.

It was Benjamin Franklin who founded the first charity in 1743 under British rule.

The “first American” as the politician and scientist is often called thereby sent a strong personal message out into the world: help yourself and then help others.

This is the founding principle of America. Individual freedom is high on the list. The state regulates the basics but nothing more. What followed was country based on the idea of tough individualism. Whoever made something out of themselves gained respect. Becoming rich was not seen as a gift of the gods but as a gift to the gods.

This way of looking at things does not leave room for envy.

On the contrary, the rich man – whether in terms of money or fame – is looked up to and not viewed skeptically as is the case in Germany.

This admiration is surprising because entrepreneurs don’t cast themselves as do-gooders.

“In front of our eyes, there is an industrial aristocracy that acts harsher than any aristocracy before,” Alexis de Tocqueville wrote 200 years ago when travelling the United States extensively.

However, the French philosopher simultaneously wrote about the charitableness of Americans.

He explained the fact that they are far more likely to offer help as a result of America’s individualism and the equality of opportunity.

“They are free but are also at risk of thousands of accidents which makes them realize that even though they may not need help often there will most definitely be an occasion where they are dependent on the help of others,” he wrote. 

Strolling through American cities shows how charitable Americans are.

Andrew Carnegie, the 19th-century tycoon, helped build Carnegie Hall in New York and the Carnegie Museums in Pittsburgh. In Denver, many young people are able to study economics in one of the oldest American institutions, which ince 1989 has been called Daniels College of Business, named after Bill Daniels, the “father of cable TV.” A total of 131 billionaires signed the “The Giving Pledge” which obliged them to donate the greater part of their fortune.

However, it is not just the rich who donate.  Americans gave a record $358 billion to charity in 2014. By contrast, Germans only donated €6.4 million. In other words: Every American spends €1,040 on average whereas each German spends €80.

In comparison to GDP, the state spends far less on development aid. Many of the rich in America also use charity to promote their own interests.

Of course, in the United States, the state plays a different role. Comparitively, the state spends far less of GDP on development aid. Many of the rich in America also use charity to promote their own interests.

For example, the Rockefeller Foundation which has donated a lot of money to great causes for over a 100 years. The origins of the foundation were, however, not as idealistic: oil tycoon John Rockefeller wanted to embellish his image after his company Standard Oil was criticized for its monopolistic approach at the beginning of the 20th century. So he gave away company shares worth $100 million to the charity.

Even though this may have served Mr. Rockefeller’s interests at the time, without his donation there would have been no vaccine against yellow fever.

These days, it is the IT sector that sees a huge concentration of wealth. From Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, to Mark Zuckerberg, this new generation of donors has firmly found their place in American tradition.

For many years it looked as if Silicon Valley believed only in the power of its technology. More knowledge through computers and the Internet, more connections through social networks.  Now, with its massive donations, the technological elite is acknowledging its limits.

We should welcome this move, not criticize it.

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