The 1990s are back, it seems, as two of the decade’s most notorious figures, O.J. Simpson and Bill Clinton, have recently returned to the headlines.
O.J. seems to have given up on being remembered as anything other than a criminal.
Clinton, on the other hand, besides campaigning to get his wife and himself back in the White House, is also working hard to change his image and be remembered as something other than a party to history’s most famous act of oral sex.
Specifically, Clinton wants to be remembered as a great philanthropist. And he’s having no trouble finding media people to play along. Indeed, a fawning cover story in the October Atlantic Monthly suggests Clinton may one day be known "as a philanthropist who happened to have been president."
Bill Clinton, a philanthropist? Aren’t philanthropists usually people like Andrew Carnegie, who first make a lot of money and then give it away? Clinton never made a fortune as a captain of industry, and the only thing he’s ever been known for giving away is semen.
No, Bill Clinton isn’t a philanthropist in the usual sense. Rather, he wants to redefine philanthropy, sort of like how he redefined "is."
Clinton wants us to believe that his new philanthropy is superior, because of its supposed "entrepreneurial" nature and respect for markets and profit. Clinton says he understands that corporations are not charities. "I think it’s wrong to ask anyone to lose money," he says, and he claims he’s found a way to help the world’s poor while helping businesses make a profit at the same time.
That sounds good: the late Milton Friedman argued that corporations should never engage in charity, because they exist only to make their shareholders the most profit possible. Charitable work should be left to individuals and non-profit organizations.
But the Clinton scheme, if ingenious, isn’t quite the respecter of free markets some might suggest it is.
Let’s consider two projects that Clinton believes exemplify his foundation’s work.
First, Clinton sought to help fight HIV/AIDS in impoverished countries by making expensive drugs available at lower prices. Individually, those countries’ governments had little bargaining power to negotiate lower prices and couldn’t afford them in large quantities. Clinton’s foundation negotiated on behalf of a number of them together and as a result was able to get the drugs for them much more cheaply.
After that project, Clinton moved on to fluorescent light bulbs and other green technology. Prices for those things were high, too: The companies that made them didn’t have a predictable demand and weren’t producing enough of them to make them cheaply. City governments in the U.S. wanted to switch over, but couldn’t afford it. Again, Clinton’s foundation stepped in to negotiate low prices.
Clever. But the trouble with this innovative "philanthropy" is that it relies not on charity, but on theft.
True, in contrast with old-fashioned welfare statism or corporate guilt-tripping, Clinton isn’t seeking wealth transfers from big corporations to poor people. Instead, he’s seeking wealth transfers from you to big corporations that make politically correct products.
After all, who pays for all those drugs and light bulbs? Not Bill Clinton. The money for those products comes from governments — that is, from taxpayers. France, for example, gave millions for Bill Clinton’s AIDS drugs by imposing a new tax on air travel. The costs of those supposedly environmentally friendly technologies that city governments buy will, of course, be passed on to productive people in those cities.
Moreover, Clinton’s green-technology scheme distorts the market by causing companies to direct scarce resources toward products that are favored by politicians and away from what consumers want. As for those AIDS drugs, experts agree their prices would have fallen anyway.
The reality is, the free market doesn’t need help from Bill Clinton to serve society. It already produces the goods the masses want — not necessarily what politicians think they should want — at ever lower prices, with no third party forced to pay for them. Some parts of the globe suffer, but typically only where government impinges on markets and property rights. (For example, if Bill Clinton really wanted to help humanity, he might have lifted the deadly embargo against Iraq while president.)
If Bill Clinton wants to be a philanthropist, then he should make some honest money himself, and give that away instead of other people’s money. His speaking fees, which bring him millions each year, would be a good start, along with all (not just a portion) of his profits from his new book, "Giving," in which he tells the rest of us to give more of our money away.
For a future fund-raising project, Clinton might literally take a page from O.J.’s book and produce a pornographic movie titled "If I Did Have Sexual Relations with That Woman." It’s better, after all, to be remembered as a giving philanderer than as a phony philanthropist.
Reprinted from the Orange County Register with permission.