Not all wealth is used selfishly

“The Music Man” was a hit Broadway musical, first opening in 1957, but it has been a favorite for generations since.

One of the subtle undertones of the play was Marion the librarian’s suspected inappropriate relationship with Old Miser Madison. He was the despised rich guy who, with his excessive wealth, had built the town library.

The problem for the people of River City is that, when he died, he left the library to the town, but he left all the books to her. To them, this implied a sordid affair. As we find out later, though, he was a close friend of her deceased father and, in order to guarantee income for the family, he secured permanent employment for her, meaning his bad reputation came from ignorance and malice. It is interesting to note that not only had he built the library, he also built Madison Hospital, Madison Picnic Park and Madison Gymnasium, yes, that miser Madison.

Most cities in real life have, or have had, their Madisons, patrons who build or contribute significantly to public facilities. Universities and hospitals have buildings or wings constructed with money donated by and named after wealthy individuals or families.

Though ancient Roman society was certainly different from ours, public facilities even of that time were built by wealthy benefactors, and primarily for the same reason: the respect, admiration, and honor that it would bring to them and their posterity, as well as the loyalty of the beneficiaries.

Private funding for public benefit is not just the construction of facilities.

Today, millionaires and billionaires donate tremendous amounts of money to charitable causes they deem important. For some, it is a public relations ploy, others might be trying to make up for past wrongs, while still others probably have a true interest in making a difference. Whatever the reason, the results are the same: the public benefits from voluntary private contributions.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that all rich people are good, honest, upstanding creatures. Some earn their wealth through fraud, politics, or violence, which hurts the public. The reality of a market society, however, where rights are protected and government is limited, is that most businesses become successful because they offer significant value to a large number of people.

The Bill and Melinda Gates foundation is able to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on charitable works only because hundreds of millions of people found that computers with the Microsoft operating system were worth the price. Whether you like that operating system, or whether you agree with the foundation’s priorities, if Microsoft didn’t offer value to customers, Bill Gates wouldn’t be a billionaire and wouldn’t have the capacity to do such things. The same goes for a tremendous volume of private charitable funding.

Bill Gates, the Koch brothers, and the Waltons of Walmart fame, along with hundreds of other big-name business owners, are the Miser Madisons of our age. Most people can’t comprehend how anyone can amass such wealth legally and morally, but if a company earns $10 profit per item, and a hundred million people like it enough to buy one, the company earns a billion dollars in profit. That is simple mathematics. As long as every part of the transaction is voluntary, every person was involved because they thought they would be better off than if they weren’t.

There is a lot of private funding of public facilities and of charity in America, and it is not just billionaires. The American people have been generous through the decades through fraternal clubs, religious organizations, and other charitable efforts, and we should appreciate everyone’s contribution, but we should also recognize that all charitable giving, without exception, comes from wealth produced by someone.

Dan McLaughlin, a Randolph resident, is the author of “Compassion and Truth – Why Good Intentions Don’t Equal Good Results.” Follow him at daniel-mclaughlin.com