In a recent interview with the Atlantic, Bill Gates revealed his utter confusion when he claimed that “only socialism can save the planet from climate change.” If the founder of Microsoft and the world’s richest man cares about human survival and flourishing, he is also utterly wrong. Leaving aside the almost unquestioned dogma that man-made climate change is a serious threat to human well-being and worth fighting—the climate is always changing and humans have adjusted through ingenuity–let’s analyze and counter Gates’ claim.

Socialism, a system where the government controls the economy and where all property is collectively owned, is not able to “save the planet” for human habitation. Even a cursory look at the evidence of the impact of socialism on the natural environment and resources would confirm this. The earliest experiments on collective pastures led to their erosion and destruction, identified by philosophers as the “tragedy of the commons.” Without private ownership, there was no incentive to invest in the maintenance of collective property. Similarly, collective ownership under socialist regimes has led to the worst cases of industrial pollution (in China and the former Soviet Union, for example).

The defenders of socialism would argue that these examples don’t represent “real” socialism, which would truly make the planet and the people better off. But socialism cannot achieve that—a fact that Bill Gates fails to grasp—because it is a system inconsistent with what human survival and flourishing requires (including a life-facilitating natural environment).

Socialism cannot promote human survival and flourishing because it takes away their fundamental requirement: freedom. People, including businesspeople, without the right to liberty and property lack the incentive to develop solutions for any human problems (including those related to the natural environment and resources); that is why we see very little innovation coming from socialist countries. Why would someone invest time and resources to solving problems if there is no reward, such as being free to commercialize the solutions and to trade with others?

Contrary to Bill Gates’ mistaken belief, it is capitalism and free markets that we need to maintain a natural environment conducive to human survival and flourishing. By capitalism I don’t mean the current mixed economy where government restricts individual freedom through various regulations, but a true laissez-faire system where “individual rights are recognized and all property is privately owned,” as per Ayn Rand’s definition.

Gates argued that the private sector is “generally inept:” too “selfish and inefficient” to solve what he considers the problem of climate change. According to Gates, there is no incentive for companies to develop solutions, because “there is no money to be made” from technologies combating climate change. Therefore, the government must take over, he argued, and impose socialism to save us from ourselves.

But capitalism and the private sector are not “inept.” Privatize all property and restore the government to its proper role of protecting individual rights, including property rights—and the problem of degradation of man’s natural environment would be solved. Private property and property rights would solve the “tragedy of the commons.” They would also solve the issue of pollution: every time you would create emissions proven harmful or dump toxic waste, you would be polluting someone else’s property (including their air space, soil, and ground water) and violate their property rights—which the government would protect. Under capitalism, there would be significant incentives to develop solutions to be problem of harmful pollution, because violating others’ property rights would be costly.

As for human impact on the climate, if it indeed were significant and negative (the data show that the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere went up from .03 percent to .04 percent in the last century, some of it possibly attributable to human activity), it would also be addressed by the free markets under capitalism. No government intervention would be needed, as companies would be competing to bring best possible solutions to the market, with the incentive of making profit from such productivity. If CO2 emissions from industrial activity were proven harmful to humans, property owners could depend on government to prosecute and penalize the perpetrators.

Under capitalism, any additional costly action against ‘climate change’ such as the upcoming international climate summit in Paris and the untenable commitments to cut carbon emissions that will be made there, would be unnecessary, and human life on Earth would be freer, longer, healthier, and more prosperous. But recognizing that would require logical thinking by all of us, including Bill Gates.

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Jaana Woiceshyn teaches business ethics and competitive strategy at the Haskayne School of Business, University of Calgary, Canada.She has lectured and conducted seminars on business ethics to undergraduate, MBA and Executive MBA students, and to various corporate audiences for over 20 years both in Canada and abroad.Before earning her Ph.D. from the Wharton School of Business, University of Pennsylvania, she helped turn around a small business in Finland and worked for a consulting firm in Canada.Jaana’s research on technological change and innovation, value creation by business, executive decision-making, and business ethics has been published in various academic and professional journals and books. “How to Be Profitable and Moral” is her first solo-authored book.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Bill Gates is hypocritical.
    The freedom in the US allowed he and partners to start a company, then prosper when an established company faltered.
    Microsoft got a running start developing a Disk Operating System for IBM’s new Personal Computer, by purchasing a surplus operating system from a company that no longer had a need for it but needed money, then developing it further. Under collectivism they’d have had to get many permissions etc.

    Gates succeeded in one of the least encumbered fields, small computing. That field is littered with the remains of companies that became complacent. For example, WordStar was a widely used word processor, but the company became complacent. Two professors wrote an editing program in summer break, to satisfy customers of a specialized program they had – that small effort grew into WordPerfect which became very popular. But WordPerfect got bloated, couldn’t put product into stores, and made a strategic decision to put other projects ahead of embracing Windows – the combination led to people embracing Microsoft Word for Windows.

    Bill Gates did not learn from his own history.

    • Thanks, Keith–I completely agree that Bill Gates is a hypocrite. It is hard to believe that someone as brilliant as him doesn’t get it, but the failure to make the connection between his own success and the relative freedom of his industry (the opposite of the yoke of statism and socialism), i.e., to integrate, is probably a consequence of active evasion by him. That is what his contradictory comments in the Atlantic interview suggest.

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