On Thursday, June 6, 2007, Bill Gates gave a commencement address at Harvard. While he joked a bit about being a Harvard dropout, it didn’t take him long to get to the heart of his message. I include a few of his quotes here:

But taking a serious look back … I do have one big regret.

I left Harvard with no real awareness of the awful inequities in the world – the appalling disparities of health, and wealth, and opportunity that condemn millions of people to lives of despair.

I learned a lot here at Harvard about new ideas in economics and politics. I got great exposure to the advances being made in the sciences.

But humanity’s greatest advances are not in its discoveries – but in how those discoveries are applied to reduce inequity. Whether through democracy, strong public education, quality health care, or broad economic opportunity – reducing inequity is the highest human achievement.

I left campus knowing little about the millions of young people cheated out of educational opportunities here in this country. And I knew nothing about the millions of people living in unspeakable poverty and disease in developing countries.

It took me decades to find out.

Gates later goes on to make what I think is a critical sociological point about the limits of the market and the failure of government action to address these inequities:

We asked: “How could the world let these children die?”

The answer is simple, and harsh. The market did not reward saving the lives of these children, and governments did not subsidize it. So the children died because their mothers and their fathers had no power in the market and no voice in the system.

But you and I have both.

What I hear in these comments is a call to responsibility. After recognizing the consequences of difference (something he admits hadn’t happened for him as a student at Harvard) and the failure of the current system to address those consequences, those of us in positions of power bear responsibility to change those outcomes.

[Update:]

My thanks to Edie who posted a comment about the practices of the Gates Foundation. You can check out her full comments, but because I think she raises a really important issue I wanted to bring the links she recommends up into the main post so people wouldn’t miss them.

Dark cloud over good works of Gates Foundation

www.latimes.com/gates

The L.A. Times has done a series of stories investigating the practices of the Gates Foundation. For me such investigations are critical because they get at something I emphasize in the final chapter of the The Big Picture: Do our principles match our practice?

That said, for me the part of the quote from the commencement speech that has stuck with me most is this:  “The market did not reward saving the lives of these children.” Too often in the U.S. the knee-jerk response is that we should let free markets solve social problems. Any social system we might establish does some things well and other things not so well. There are reasons we make some things public goods, that we take them out of the free market, and all we need do is look to history (or in this case to Africa) to see what happens if we don’t.

To put it in what are overly simplistic terms: For some things we think that access regardless of ability to pay is more important than free market competition. For example, we don’t expect all to pay equally (or per use) for things such as infrastructure costs (roads, bridges, fiber-optic cables, etc), police & fire protection, public education, etc. We know what happens when we let the market function in these areas: substantial inequality results, and only those with sufficient resources have the capacity to provide these goods and services for themselves and their children. Such issues are not solved by the free market, and yet we then expect government to be efficient and cost-effective in its provision of these services (mandating some kind of market principles on these programs). In other words, we expect the government to do something the free market has already established it can’t do well, and to do it in the most efficient and frugal means possible. Fairly or not, part of what I heard Gates saying is that we need to recognize that the market doesn’t handle everything well, especially when it comes to the value of human life and the reality of human suffering.

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