Linsey McGoey is professor of sociology at the University of Essex. She was one of the earliest major critics of the Gates Foundation’s work, and her 2015 book No Such Thing As A Free Gift: The Gates Foundation and the Price of Philanthropy is a stinging criticism of “philanthrocapitalism.” McGoey’s book goes through the history of business tycoons trying to save the world through charity, beginning with Andrew Carnegie in the 19th century. McGoey came on the Current Affairs podcast with editor-in-chief Nathan J. Robinson to discuss the career of Gates, the problems with billionaire charity, and the reasons philanthrocapitalists often escape serious criticism. They also discuss Prof. McGoey’s work in the field of “ignorance studies.” In The Unknowers: How Strategic Ignorance Rules The World, McGoey studies the way institutions carefully exclude ideologically inconvenient information, creating a kind of useful ignorance. This interview has been edited and condensed for grammar and clarity.
When you published your book on the Gates Foundation, No Such Thing As a Free Gift, back in 2015, there wasn’t much criticism at all of the Gates Foundation. There was really a sense that they could do no wrong. Now, with some of Bill Gates’s actions surrounding vaccinations and COVID, and his very public divorce and personal scandals, some of the shine has come off the Gates Foundation.
It’s an interesting sociological question to try to understand how Bill Gates went from being a hero to a villain in such a short time span. In the general public, it was generally assumed that to give money away to any cause was a good thing. But for people who come from a socialist background, people who are anti-capitalist, there was concern about the idea that you could link the realms of philanthropy and capitalism in the manner that Mr. Gates was proposing to link them. The idea that Gates was a defender of the rights and the entitlements of people who are most disenfranchised by circulations of global capital is simply a ludicrous proposition. So when it came to the general public, my criticisms of Mr. Gates might have been surprising, but in some of the left-wing circles that I hung out in that I had been involved in for over a decade before I began to research the Gates Foundation more directly, my criticism was not that surprising. It was a bit outlandish to assume that Mr. Gates, chief monopolist, was somehow going to be a defender of the rights of the poor, and someone who could close the global inequality gaps. In reality, he was really at the forefront of helping to perpetuate inequality through his approach to labor contracts and through his approach to patent protections.
Let’s lay out what the Foundation actually does—this sprawling colossus of global philanthropy—and then what it seems like it does and the degree to which those two things coincide or diverge.
The Foundation was established in 2000 as a result of the amalgamation of two earlier smaller foundations that had been set up by Bill Gates in the ‘90s. So it was set up with a lot of fanfare in the year 2000. And the big announcement that Bill and now former wife Melinda made at the time was that not enough was being done to try to ensure improved outcomes in three main areas: global development, global health, and U.S. education, mostly at the primary and secondary level. They said that was where their foundation was going to devote its resources. Having traveled the world, they argued that these were areas that they could make a major difference in, to try to close the gap between the haves and the have-nots at the global level. And I think this is a very important thing to understand.
You could argue that addressing gaps like that at the globe level was easier than trying to solve things domestically, where you actually had to engage a bit more explicitly with things like universal health care, which would be one of the best things to ensure a closing of gaps when it comes to livelihoods in the United States. But, of course, they never really wanted to do that, because they’ve never been in favor of things like universal health care programs. They’ve never once advocated for that when it comes to U.S. policy. So they claimed they were trying to help people who had been left out globally.
And they had a bullish attitude to their ability to do so by harnessing the skills and the acumen of business people in ways that they argue had not been tried before in philanthropy. They said they were going to solve problems that no one had really tried to solve. Actually, many people had tried to solve these problems in the past. And they came up against major problems: global monopoly protections hindering access to antiretroviral medicines, for example, in Sub Saharan Africa, and low wages.
They decided that they were going to deliver a lot of grants and resources to combat these three main problems, and they had a fairly large endowment when they were set up in 2000. But then that endowment was essentially doubled on paper by Warren Buffett when he pledged to give the majority of his fortune accrued from Berkshire Hathaway to the Foundation. And that was a process that was to take place in incremental stages, but on paper it increased the Foundation size from about $30 billion to $60 billion. They started to attract a lot of attention as they gave a lot of money to places like the World Health Organization. At one point they were the second largest donor to the WHO behind the U.S. government. At the same time, the WHO budget is not that large. So the amounts that they were giving were peanuts in comparison to World Bank divestments toward global health initiatives.
So the Gates Foundation was rightly criticized for being this private actor playing a larger role than is really beneficial. But at the same time, they sometimes receive disproportionate praise for alleviating different health outcomes that had much more to do with, say, China’s overall economic growth, which led to an overall reduction in global under-5 childhood deaths, for example. Sometimes you would see a place like the Gates Foundation say things like, We did that. Well, what a joke. Of course they didn’t do that.
I co-wrote an article about Bill Gates last year. I had to read a lot of Gates Foundation publicity material. One thing I noticed was the careful conflation of things that happened in the world. The Foundation tried to take credit for anything good that happened that they might have spent any kind of money on, such as reduced poverty.
They seem to have a real problem with correlation and causation. I’m not sure that the Gates Foundation leadership completely understood this, or at least they feigned ignorance surrounding it. Sure, you might be giving money to a cause. That means that you and many, many other people are playing some role. But to claim some primacy in these areas was really problematic.
One of the reasons that for a long time there was so little criticism of the Gates Foundation, as I understand it, is that they could point to things that they did that were demonstrably positive. It was difficult to go after them because they had a certain set of things that the Foundation did that it was hard to argue were bad. Surely the WHO used their money to improve people’s health, right? Talk about what the Foundation has done that has been fairly unambiguously good. And then talk about what has been controversial.
Great question. I don’t want to completely undersell other prescients who realized that this organization needed more scrutiny. I did go down a road that was seen by many people as very ill-advised. Some people were horrified when I told them I was working on criticism of the Gates Foundation. They’d look at me like I wanted to prevent children from getting to school in Ghana—because who can argue against philanthropy?
Especially when speaking with people in Canada, where I’m from, or the United States, I found that the further you were from having a close personal understanding of the impact of how money is given and distributed, the more likely you would be to really praise distant aid and health initiatives that you assumed were at least doing some good in a space where there was a presumption that no work was actually being done.
So to give you an example of this very early on, I got a great response from education activists in the United States who were very worried about the rise of charter schools and the impact on a divestment of funds away from public education, and especially the rise of for-profit charter schools, which are fairly unique to the United States, although some other countries were getting into them, and then actually pulled away from it. You can really see the problem with introducing a profit incentive into public education. It just lines the pockets of the people who are profiting from the delivery of a public service while stripping resources away from students and teachers who need it most. But if you add the word “private” to any initiative, someone like Bill Gates loves it, because he thinks the markets provide the best answers to any problem.
So he really wanted to marry the worlds of private enterprise with public education and public health. So he went along with some other donors into this effort to overhaul public education in the U.S. by funding charter schools as much as he could. People working in education in the U.S. who were trying to maintain a certain level of funding for public education could see the problems happening firsthand. But they would always say to me, “We know Gates is doing so much good work globally. We don’t want to take away from that. We don’t want to undermine the great work he’s doing globally.”
My background was in global development before I came to look at the Gates Foundation. I traveled around South America and had been quite involved with efforts to contest IMF and World Bank influence in those areas. So I had a solid awareness of the concern over a corporate approach to global development. And I saw that globally, even though it seemed like the Gates Foundation was doing a lot of great work around public health initiatives like vaccines, he was also calling actively for the same thing that he was calling for in the U.S., which was to get more private sector players involved in global health and delivery. That meant that, for example, he was heavily involved in the establishment of something called the Global Fund. The Global Fund works on three main areas: HIV, tuberculosis, and malaria. These were areas that no doubt needed a lot of attention and investment. But in reality, you need to build up the public health capacity and the universal healthcare capacity of developing regions, not introduce more market actors who have incentives to drive up the costs of different medicines and interventions.
So the Global Fund, people started to realize, was quickly being organized in a way that was trying to rival the power of the WHO to be a kind of arbiter of what’s cost effective. Global vaccination rates did improve, but the cost also skyrocketed because more private actors were taking their cut. And that actually puts a lot of downward pressure on governmental actors in developing regions. So when I traveled, for example, to Ghana to conduct interviews on how the Foundation was perceived and its influence there, some people did have some good things to say. But the vast majority of activists and health workers I met with were very critical of the Gates Foundation because they could see that, essentially, this was just strengthening this problem of a two-tiered health and development infrastructure in which private sector players are paid so much more. And this drains resources from the public sector, just like what’s happening in global health and public education in the U.S.
When I was doing research for my article, I was shocked to find that the Gates Foundation was often excluded from criticism of philanthrocapitalists. One very good book on the subject, Winners Take All, has only a few sentences about the Gates Foundation. Your book is a good resource. It’s easy to criticize the influence of Charles Koch, Jeff Bezos, and other billionaires. But Bill Gates has essentially made the argument that the wealthy can, in fact, do good and have a positive impact on the world. Bill and Melinda Gates have tried to use the Foundation as proof of a model, which is that there is nothing inherently wrong with being a billionaire. You just need to be the type of billionaire who takes seriously the obligation of the rich to give a little something back to the poor.
Yes. That’s such a good point. Bill Gates was really at the forefront of this “exceptional billionaire” perspective. Sure, some billionaires are doing some bad. Gates himself was found guilty of different antitrust infringements by the DOJ and the European Commission. He was found guilty of illegal activity. But he then said, you know, even if we can concede that there are problems with global inequality, we should praise the ability of billionaires to be good moral citizens—in a sense, good global citizens. And the extent to which people bought that, I think—until very, very recently—is really concerning, for a number of reasons. It suggests that people haven’t really understood the history of philanthropic failures in the past.
Yes, people like Carnegie funded public libraries, for example. But it was only when the U.S. government in the Roosevelt era really cracked down on things like monopolistic protections and when later, FDR, in the 1930s, tried to set up more Social Security programs that we really saw an end to some of the huge problems of worker discrimination and huge problems with market excesses that led to the crash of 1929. So people like Carnegie were always trying to fight against those types of government regulations. They were not heroes, just as Gates is not the hero he claims to be when he would say things like, “We’re going to give our money voluntarily, and that’s going to make a difference.” In reality, he was really just calling for band aid solutions. And even though he paid a lot of lip service to the idea that billionaires should pay higher taxes, whenever there’s been a concrete proposal on the table for trying to find a mechanism for doing so, he never comes out truly in favor of any real overhauling of a system that’s so geared to protecting the interests of someone like him and militating against the interests of workers. So there’s a kind of amnesia or strategic ignorance on the part of leftists and even new critical actors like Anand Giridharadas. Giridharadas wrote an excellent book. He’s a great communicator. Smart guy, for sure. But he wrote it strategically.
Another figure who’s really taken that excellent phrase, the good billionaire, and is now doing great work on it, is Tim Schwab. But I think Tim Schwab is an exception. Tim Schwab was really willing to criticize the Gates Foundation in a way that few other journalists in the U.S. were willing to.
One of the values of your book is that it looks at the history of philanthropy. You point out the idea, which Gates has pointed out, that you can make your money in somewhat unscrupulous ways but then get absolution for that if you give it away. This, in fact, comes straight from Carnegie’s Gospel of Wealth, which I read for my piece on billionaire memoirs.
It’s an incredible piece of work. He says very explicitly: I can make my money however I want in the capitalist system. You can’t criticize the capitalist system. I reject every single criticism of it. I’m going to ruthlessly crush labor unions, and I’m not going to feel bad about it. Then he talks about all the obligations of the rich to the poor, and how tragic poverty is, and how important it is to have a heart and to do good with your money and how evil and terrible it is to be selfish. It’s this incredible bifurcation that he sets up where there’s no link between how you make your money and the philanthropic part of it. And that idea has been present now for a century, and it’s a very satisfying idea for people like Carnegie and Gates.
I’ll have to check out your piece on billionaire memoirs. I think it’s even worse than you suggest. Carnegie was one of the first to excel in this genre. He wouldn’t have been a billionaire at the time. This was the era of the billionaire profile that was first started by people like Ida Tarbell but then became a genre of complete veneration and hagiography by new magazines emerging in the 20th century. So we started to get these magazines that really make it hard to pierce the veneer of heroism that so many of these wealthy figures were able to maintain.
But what was really novel to the new philanthrocapitalism of those like Bill Gates is that in ways they actually were worse than even the writing of people like Milton Friedman, who said that the only responsibility of business is to increase its profits. Bill Gates came along and said, Oh, that’s not true, you’re accepting that business is always a force for narrow self-interest. If you maintain that perspective, you can actually marry the world of business and the world of philanthropy in ways that increase the efficacy and the value and the positivity of both.
And so Gates, I think, has never really accepted that a lot of business practices that many other people would see as unscrupulous are unscrupulous. He is really just incredibly blind to some of the problems of monopolistic capital. He doesn’t think it’s a problem for one player to become so dominant in a market that they have disproportionate power to just suppress any worker demand. He really doesn’t accept that that is happening in capitalism.
I find it odd that nowadays there’s a real blindness to the deep problems of capitalism. Even people like Friedman accepted that you don’t actually necessarily want some of these people running local councils or different types of public service delivery. As Friedman says in one essay, then you’ve got to have much more democratic oversight of their operations than he wants to concede. Even though Friedman’s held up as the villain of big, bad business—and he is, in many ways—he’s also willing to allow space for democratic oversight of governmental budgets in a way that he claims wouldn’t be feasible if you had corporations doing public service delivery. He thinks that maybe they could do it more efficiently, but it would have to be subject to more democratic oversight.
Now, we’ve got the worst of both worlds, where you’ve got a lot more corporations involved in service delivery, involved in prisons management, private equity just completely decimating the sector of old-age homes in the UK right now. There’s been this bonanza of opening up public service contracts to private players in a way that was more restricted in the past to, perhaps, military operations. But even that’s been relatively new because there were, in a way, constraints on that in the mid 20th century that were lifted, just as you used to have private prisons in the early 20th century. But they were better regulated in the mid century because of the possibility for exploitation and misaligned incentives. But Gates has come along and said, No, businesses can be great.
That’s a fascinating point. Carnegie, as I said, has this bifurcation where he says, Oh, there’s the ruthless world of capitalist accumulation, and you build your money however you like. But then there’s the sense of guilt, right? This sense of obligation. And then you have to do charity, the good stuff. But, as you say, Gates is something different. It’s called social entrepreneurship, which is to say that business itself can be a force for good. We don’t have to feel bad. You can make money and do good at the same time, not make your money and then use the money to do good.
Gates probably thinks that pharmaceutical companies are a force for good in the world. It’s not that they are profit-seeking entities that are essentially sociopathic, or that we need to be really careful about them because we know that they have all these really, really bad incentives to make money at the expense of sick people. To Gates, they are a benevolent partner, and it’s a win-win.
Yes. I think this has been such a subtle change. An insidious movement has been veiled as a beneficial one. But you can see this over time, especially when you look at some of the management-speak that was coming out of Harvard in the ‘90s by people like Michael Porter and Mark Kramer.They were the ones who first started to propose this idea of a win-win solution. So Gates was able to take or hinge his own approach on the authority of these Harvard management specialists. And that just added legitimacy to his really dubious claims about the ability to marry the worlds of doing well, socially, and doing good in a business sense, which was really the defining feature of philanthropic capitalism.
The history is so fascinating. If you go farther back, this is really a battle that was also being played out in the late 18th century surrounding perceptions of the ideas of people like Adam Smith. So someone like Gates claims that he’s appealing to this vision of Smith, who claims that the market can be a force for good in and of itself, not just by a cap on negative business activities. In many of his speeches at Davos in the past, Gates would often appeal to the lineage and the authority of Adam Smith in order to ground what Gates called his vision of creative capitalism in a longer history of classical liberalism.
But of course, he’s also misreading these figures, too. Smith makes calls for regulation of spurious business practices in a way that Gates has never advocated. Smith, in The Wealth of Nations, actually calls explicitly for the need for governments to restrain usury and unsustainable lending practices. I don’t think people today at the Adam Smith Institute, which takes his name, ever call for similar restraints on usury. They’re not at all using his writing in a fair way. They’re using it in bad faith to make arguments that Smith didn’t make.
Another facet of the Gates Foundation which I find so problematic is that they’ve really been at the forefront of unsustainable, burgeoning personal debt programs in regions like Kenya by calling for all sorts of new mobile lending practices, which could be good if they’re better regulated. But the Gates Foundation has never gotten behind the idea that these things need to be regulated.
When I was researching Bill Gates, I thought, What are the things that are wrong with this kind of model? One of the key things that seemed to be wrong was the exclusion of the possibility of any solution that conflicts with certain bedrock ideological assumptions. For example, anything that involves building the public sector. Gates has written a book about climate change, but he’s incredibly scathing about, for example, the Green New Deal (GND). He says the GND is Marxist because it includes a jobs guarantee. Well, there’s a reason that it includes a jobs guarantee, which is that you’ve really got to address the economic fallout of climate change. And you’ve got to make sure that your means of fixing the climate problem don’t hit the poor and exacerbate inequality. But Gates totally excludes that as a possible solution. So there is this set of possible things that’s taken off the list of things you could do. You get this very, very narrow range of acceptable responses to social problems. And they have to be things that do not in any way challenge unregulated free market capitalism.
That’s a good point. Gates upholds his own vision and his own giving practice as if he’s trying to broaden the conception of what a good global citizen can be. But he’s actually, in practice, narrowing them, because he refuses to ever think differently than through the narrow ideological lens which he has been trained to think in since his early days at Harvard. He left Harvard, but he studied economics there, and we know from the work of people like Gregory Mankiw and other free marketers based in Harvard that they’ve got a narrow economic lens and they impose that lens on others. They maintain ideological echo chambers in place for as long as they can.
But now you see that fracturing. People rightfully see that someone like Bill Gates is not exactly the savior that he purports to be. Now, I don’t think he deserves some of the extreme conspiracy theories that have circulated around him. But he certainly is doing enough wrong to invite justifiable concern.
From one perspective he should have been a hero of the pandemic, right? He was very prescient about pandemics. He had been talking about pandemics before COVID happened. He’s a global health guy. But the limits of his ideology became obvious during this pandemic. It became clear that some of the things that he refused to entertain as responses to a public health crisis were things that were urgently necessary and that, therefore, he was an obstacle to solutions to the problem that he said he cared about.
That is a really good way of putting it. I wonder if this really forced Gates to come against the limits of his own ideological blinkers. He claimed things that you could see were clearly untenable, but which he seemed to believe in genuinely. At the beginning of the pandemic, he said, the United States is particularly well prepared for a pandemic of this nature because we’re such a wealthy nation. Well, not necessarily true: in the U.S., wealth is hoarded in the hands of so few, the systems for tracking and recording deaths are so dispersed and variegated, and justifiable concerns about inequality have caused people to gravitate to conspiratorial images of world power. So I think some of these conspiracy views are clearly not based in fact. But I think the motivations behind them are clearly understandable. And it stems from people who are rightly feeling a lot of anxiety over economic concerns and over the treatment of racialized people who are discriminated against by the healthcare system.
So when you have a history of something like Tuskegee, of course you’re going to have people be fearful of imposed vaccine mandates. So here’s Mr. Gates saying, Oh, we’re so well prepared in the U.S. It’s the rest of the world that’s got a problem. In places like the U.S. and the UK (and, increasingly, Canada), where the wealth is not shared effectively and where you’ve got a massive inflation problem and a massive housing problem in all major cities—of course that’s going to lead to problematic concerns.
But Gates just lives in a bubble where he thinks the only inequality to worry about is at the global level, and even then he finds ways to selectively choose the type of metrics that he likes, and he claims he’s winning certain goals when it comes to something like increased improvements in under-5 mortality. But there’s growing inequality in every nation globally, which is a huge problem. He doesn’t ever talk about that because it really undermines his ideological vision of what’s possible.
The Financial Times quoted a Trump voter who wouldn’t get the vaccine. His rationale was, they’re giving it away for free, and the American healthcare system doesn’t give anything away for free, so I don’t trust it. That is fascinating. If you don’t have health systems that people trust, then you’re not going to succeed in persuading them to do something that you need them to do. If, on the other hand, you have a well-trusted, beloved public healthcare system like the NHS in Britain, you’re going to see higher vaccine uptake because people trust and know their doctors.
The other big controversy for Gates is his allegiance to patent protections. And there’s this idea that you can have any solution you like so long as it does not involve undermining or questioning intellectual property rights. Intellectual property rights are the fundamental bedrock assumption around which all solutions have to be built. And that’s been another thing that’s ended up making him quite unpopular.
Exactly. It was validating to see that his incredibly problematic stance on intellectual property was exposed for the problem stance that it is. We can improve access to health globally. We can challenge a really vicious and self-serving system of global intellectual property which protects the interests of large corporations at the expense of the global majority. So this is a system that Gates benefitted from. It made him who he is. And it’s not one he is ever going to ideologically shift away from defending.
If you look at the history of nations that have managed to develop globally, they’ve done so by not respecting the patent protections that other nations had in place. Look at the United States in the 19th century. Hamilton basically said, We’re going to have to have support for domestic industries, and there’s going to have to be some willingness to use scientific advances dynamically and in a deliberately nationalist way in order to grow.
But nothing’s really happened globally except for deliberate efforts to flout the protections and to copy different vaccines, potentially in breach of WTO protections. I don’t think Gates has ever defended the idea of a patent waiver even though his foundation finally conceded that it was a good idea. I’ve never heard him admit that a waiver would be a good idea.
Your book lays out many important problems with the philanthrocapitalism model, the lack of accountability for these giant private foundations, the way that they can crowd out or erode support for public services, and the way in which they extract concessions to suit underlying business interests.
Let’s talk about your most recent book. You are now considered a pioneer in the field of what is called ignorance studies. Strategic ignorance is a concept that you’ve worked on and thought about a lot. It’s the way that people selectively exclude information about the world. It applies very well to what we’ve been talking about. You have cited the way that people don’t look at the parts of Adam Smith that might undermine their ideology, the way that people who have received certain Gates Foundation grants don’t look at other things. Everyone is not looking at things that might contradict or undermine or challenge them. This is fascinating.
I have a huge interest in a growing field known as ignorance studies. It has expanded at an incredible rate over the past 15 to 20 years. It has really been influenced by a wide variety of different social theorist philosophers like Charles Mills, who sadly died recently. He developed this notion of white ignorance, which has to do with how white supremacy is or isn’t taught in schools. And then, my interest in ignorance came from what I was working on during my PhD. I was looking at pharmaceutical regulation. Pharmacological interventions can have a huge benefit, but they can also have negative iatrogenic effects or even lethal effects. There was an effort not to know the scope of some of those more rare, but still lethal, effects. I was struggling with and trying to understand that. So I started to read more widely about what was really not written about at the time, which is the productive uses of ignorance.
Strategic ignorance is a term that’s often defined in two different ways, or at least it was mostly defined in one way that I felt was too narrow. So it was defined in psychology as a confirmation bias. We all look at the world through different frames. And when we come across facts that we don’t necessarily like, we don’t necessarily rush out to see how they can counter an earlier viewpoint. Across the political spectrum, we tend to devalue and turn away from facts that overturn an earlier ideological assumption. This is a really widespread problem. I get frustrated by this.
The Left does it, too, for example, when they praise a future socialism that might come to pass by denying all the problems with earlier socialist systems in practice. That’s a type of strategic ignorance. And it happens at the individual level. But I was really frustrated by how psychological accounts really were not taking into account institutional strategic ignorance. Some groups have the power to systematically ignore inconvenient information in a way that helps to consolidate their power. And that power tends to be rooted in different government or corporate sources of authority. So I tried to define strategic ignorance in a wider way that took onboard some of these institutional advantages to systematically ignoring inconvenient information.
It’s one of these ideas that once you hear it, you really start seeing it. I wrote recently about World War Two. We have the National World War Two Museum here in New Orleans. This concept actually helped me understand what I found wrong with the museum. It tells the story of the war as a good American war, as a just war in which we saved democracy. And it selectively excludes all of the data that challenge the easy moral story: the horrific bombings of Germany and Japan that killed so many people. The exclusion of information that shows human suffering allows institutions to perpetrate atrocities. This concept is applicable in lots of different ways.
We can purposefully see the world with a deliberate emphasis on what might be possible if we try to think imaginatively. We can strategically harness ignorance in a good way, too. I argue that we have to dare to know differently in order to really bypass this stalemate between socialism and capitalism that we have today. We need new vocabularies for understanding the possibility of new economic systems. Same with your work on World War Two. How can we think about military dominance in a way that reckons with the past?
Sometimes it takes someone who doesn’t know anything coming into a situation fresh and seeing it from a position of ignorance. Noam Chomsky always says, Well, let’s think about this from the perspective of the Martian who doesn’t know anything. How does the person who doesn’t know anything see this? It can be really intellectually productive.
That’s a beautiful sentiment. Let’s all be Martian children.