How Much of Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan’s Money are You Entitled To?

charityAre people who are critical of Mark and Priscilla’s donation more like Robin Hood, or the Sheriff of Nottingham?

I am sure you have heard the wonderful news: Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan have a new daughter, Max. Mazal tov! They are doing some pretty heavy-duty estate planning for both her benefit and mankind. It’s called the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, LLC, and is a family-run foundation. Here is a news bulletin on it.

Good for them. I hope that we all have the money to do what they are doing.

Let me ask you something:

Do you think that the world can tolerate only a fixed amount of rich people? That for every rich person there must necessarily be a poor person? Or worse, a thousand poor people for every one person with money?

That seems to be the viewpoint of people who are criticizing Mark and Priscilla for their good deed. Their complaints are instructive for getting a firmer understanding of wealth and estate planning. More than that: they point to what I think is a misinformed notion of morality.

Here are some examples:

Complaint #1: Mark and Priscilla will realize tax benefits when making their donations.

To quote the Daily Beast:

Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t need massive tax benefits to do whatever he wants. He can just do whatever he wants. But he will get those tax benefits and estate planning benefits and he’ll be able to give up his stock while holding onto power over his company. So will others. Yermack’s work reveals that, in aggregate, when we pay people like Zuckerberg to fund their own foundations, we are really helping the rich and coddled few even as we thank and honor them for their charity.

Here are my questions:

Are we looking for some type of “moral purity” in people who are generous? Is their gift somehow “tainted” if they benefit in the process – even if the benefit is just to pay less taxes than they would if they had used another legal tool for the gift?

What is so bad about rich people getting to keep more of their money so they can put it to further use for the betterment of society?

It doesn’t seem fair to castigate people who take advantage of existing tax laws. If people think we have an unbalanced taxation system, then they should fix the system. That should not involve attacking people who are legally and legitimately making use of it. Does that seem fair to you?

Complaint #2: Mark and Priscilla will control where the money goes.

To quote

It is absolutely fair and necessary to be critical of Zuckerberg’s philanthropic efforts, both past and present, to ensure that this gift of $45 billion dollars is put to good use…   The most valuable path may well be to simply invest this enormous pool of resources in the people and institutions that are already doing this work (including, yes, public institutions funded by tax dollars) and trust that they know their domains better than someone who’s already got a pretty demanding day job.

Here are my questions:

Since when should a private donation be considered public property? By what right is anyone entitled to tell somebody else what to do with their money?

If people don’t like the way Mark and Priscilla are allocating their money, aren’t they free to allocate their own money the way they see fit?

If Mark and Priscilla had obtained their fortune illegally or unethically, then people could legitimately protest. Then you could say that one person’s illicit gain was another person’s tragic loss, and justice must be served. But if they got their wealth through entrepreneurship and smart financial management, then no one has a right to complain. Do they?

I get the feeling that people who are criticizing Mark and Priscilla are trying to play Robin Hood, but in a misguided way. Robin Hood did not steal from the rich to give to the poor. He took back from the Sheriff of Nottingham the money this tyrant had stolen from the people of the land, and returned it to their rightful owners. To me, going after people’s money that is not yours is a bit too much like what the Sheriff did, and not Robin Hood. What do you think?

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