This month I’ve written two posts condemning the get-rich-quick, get-everything-for-nothing mentality prominent both in evangelical Christianity (The Root of All Evil) and in New Ageism (The Secret). (It occurs to me that this is April – tax month, for us Americans – and though I didn’t intend these posts to appear during this month, the correlation pleases me.) This brand of supernatural selfishness has never brought humanity any benefits, instead only giving grief and distracting us from truly important paths to achievement. But I don’t think the desire to be rich is always a bad thing. Consider this post from the New York Times Dealbook blog, from last December, titled Craigslist Meets the Capitalists:
Jim Buckmaster, the chief executive of Craigslist, caused lots of head-scratching Thursday as he tried to explain to a bunch of Wall Street types why his company is not interested in “monetizing” his ridiculously popular Web operation. Appearing at the UBS global media conference in New York, Mr. Buckmaster took questions from the bemused audience, which apparently could not get its collective mind around the notion that Craigslist exists to help Web users find jobs, cars, apartments and dates — and not so much to make money.
Wendy Davis of MediaPost describes the presentation as a “a culture clash of near-epic proportions.” She recounts how UBS analyst Ben Schachter wanted to know how Craigslist plans to maximize revenue. It doesn’t, Mr. Buckmaster replied (perhaps wondering how Mr. Schachter could possibly not already know this). “That definitely is not part of the equation,” he said, according to MediaPost. “It’s not part of the goal.”
…Larry Dignan, writing on Between the Lines blog at ZDNet, called Mr. Buckmaster “delightfully communist,” and described the audience as “confused capitalists wondering how a company can exist without the urge to maximize profits.”
I have to admit that I, too, find something faintly hilarious in the image of an audience of baffled analysts and investors, unable to comprehend the idea that the owner of a massively popular service like Craigslist would not want to extract as much revenue from his company as he possibly can. But strange as it sounds, I think this decision is worthy of criticism.
Some of the commenters on Dealbook have praised Craigslist owners Jim Buckmaster and Craig Newmark for not selling out, calling their business model “benevolence baked in” or “business for the greatest good”. However, several other commenters raised a point which I would like to echo: wouldn’t the most benevolent thing to do here be to indeed monetize the site, and then use the profits to fund some worthy charitable efforts?
There are billions of people in the world who lack access to clean drinking water, who suffer from treatable disease, who scrape by in desperately poor living conditions. Wouldn’t a greater good be served by leveraging Craigslist’s vast popularity to transfer some wealth from relatively prosperous people of the First World to those who have far greater need of it? (How much would a million, or even a thousand, dollars mean to Dr. Alain Mouanga?) Indeed, who has done more good for the world: Buckmaster and Newmark, who seem content in the knowledge that they have everything they need, or Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, who have pledged billions of dollars to relieving human suffering? And even beyond human needs, there are the many species in critical danger of being driven to extinction, the hot spots of biological diversity being irreversibly destroyed by human activity, the climate change that threatens to disrupt vital ecosystems all over the planet. A measly few billion dollars spent to defend our world’s environment from these threats could pay dividends for thousands of years to come.
The larger point is that neither money, nor even the desire to make money, are intrinsically evil. In itself, money is nothing but a measure of ability: the ability to work one’s will, the power to affect and change the world as one desires. A person can have a strong desire to become wealthy so that they can advance the cause of human happiness in general, or they can become rich and then think of nothing but their own comfort. The latter is wrong, the former is not. In either case, it is how one uses one’s money, not how much money one has, that is the determining factor in whether its acquisition is for the good.