The Problem with Bill Gates

With almost $40 billion in assets, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation possesses incredible influence, and is unafraid to use it. As one staffer put it, the foundation’s greatest strength is “setting agendas, framing debates, advocating the foundation’s point of view and taking action … an unchecked way of getting things done,” although some might find this worrying given the propensity of free peoples to hold checks and balances rather dearly.

Of late, the foundation has devoted enormous resources to school reform, even though some teachers and parents remain skeptical of Gates’ experimental schools and of the Common Core, to which many retain a visceral antipathy.

Even with billions invested in that campaign, the foundation shows no signs of donor fatigue, and is, in its own words, “always looking for new ways to foster and accelerate innovative ideas that can improve, and even save, people’s lives.” In this context, funding the “next generation” of condoms which make sex feel better. As Chris Wilson, the foundation’s director of global health discovery, wrote in a news release on condom funding in June, they’re “continually impressed by the talented people … with exciting ideas that can help address issues of great importance to women and children.”

Birth control is in the news, with the Hobby Lobby decision prompting feverish reactions, including some downright wild claims on how the five white male members of the Supreme Court had made Christianity the official religion of the United States, trampled the constitutional right to free contraception, and all but precluded women from the social and economic aspects of our common life. With all this chatter, the foundation’s interest in prophylactics made of leftover beef tendons (!) seems insignificant, but far more noteworthy is their investment in remote control birth control.

 

Inserted into the abdomen, the “tiny implant … acts as a contraceptive for 16 years—and can be turned on or off using a remote control.” This is really remarkable. Contraception has fairly low failure rates when used as intended, but humans, being what they are, forget to take their pills or utilize the various barrier methods correctly and “mistakes” happen. Already various implants reduce the need for care, but 16-year remote control birth control allows for complete and utter mindlessness.

The possibilities are astounding. Consider the reality of injecting, at around the age of 10, a young woman with the implant. If she’s already hit puberty we hit the “Play” button and presto, a better, braver new world. If she hasn’t reached sexual maturity we’re still ready to activate in a moment. If her parents are of the right sort, they can be entrusted with the remote, but if not public health authorities could step in to assume that responsibility. No one need think about it again for a decade and a half!

Now she’s 26 or 28 years old, at which point she will either be on her parent’s health insurance or eligible for free contraception through her employer. She can elect another 16 year dose or choose more conventional means to delay having her 1.86 children until her mid-thirties. This might be pretty bad public policy, but it would allow for almost unlimited freedom, of a sort, or as many understand it.

I’ll admit I find the idea of remote control birth control somewhat worrisome given the panacea-like mythos associated with contraception in the popular mind. For instance, just now there are many protesting illegal immigration outside of detention centers throughout the southwest, including a facility in Murrieta, California. This protestor suggests sending all the illegals back to wherever they came from with birth control. Her logic is fairly obvious, and sinister: If the tens of thousands of youngsters went home without the ability to reproduce—and recall that fertility rates in central America tends to around 3 children per woman—she imagines saving American taxpayers from hundreds of thousands of potential illegals. Part of me wonders what this woman would suggest if she knew about the remote control option—could we just activate it from afar and be done? I exaggerate—I hope—but the mindset which so easily and angrily thinks a human problem like immigration and poverty could be easily ameliorated with birth control is similar to those investing in “better” condoms and birth control activated with a “clicker.” These are minds which first turn to technique and method as ways to bend the world to our will rather than consider what virtue requires.

With respect to immigration, Gates recently joined Warren Buffett and Sheldon Adelson in calling on Congress to enact sensible and humane policies. In this, like so many other things, he seems a person of decency, moderation, and basic common sense. Here is a man who has devoted enormous sums of his own money to create “opportunities for catalytic change which can transform people’s lives,” in Africa, including “the foundation’s key program areas such as agriculture, family planning, financial services for the poor, HIV, malaria, polio, and vaccines delivery.”

But if you look behind the curtain, you see that Gates thinks we need to reduce human population by 10-15 percent of its projected growth. One of his stated motivations for vaccination is to limit human population, not only to save lives but to reduce lives—a strange and convoluted decision calculus. The very same “decency,” reduced to a kind of technocratic and secularized utilitarianism, is really extraordinarily callous, even abhorrent, although couched in the most benign form of cheeriness, optimism, and expertise.

In a recent article on educational reform, Andrew Ferguson notes Gates’ commitment to the cult of expertise:

Evidently Bill Gates doesn’t have a political bone in his body. His intellectual loyalty lies instead with the ideology of expertise. His faith is technocratic and materialist: In the end he believes the ability of highly credentialed observers to identify and solve problems through the social sciences is theoretically limitless. “Studies” and “research” unlock the human secret. This is the animating faith of most educationists, too. All human interactions can be dispassionately observed and their separate parts identified, isolated, analyzed, and quantified according to some version of the scientific method. The resulting data will yield reliable information about how and why we behave as we do, and from this process can be derived formulas that will be universally applicable and repeatable.

This very same technocratic mindset explains, in part, the odd contortions our cultural gatekeepers undergo with respect to the Church. For instance, just as the administration and Senate are doing their best to subjugate Catholic Charities on birth control, the immigration crisis prompts the administration to reach out to the Church to provide housing and other forms of assistance for these immigrant children, although pastoral work and care is not encouraged. When the Church is “useful” it can be tolerated, even utilized, but insofar as it maintains other claims about morality, human purpose, and God, it really is not welcome to speak and live as if it had a truth to say.

In the mind of a technocrat, objectivity assumes that we throw reality over and away from ourselves. Jacio—to throw; ob—against. That is, objectivity, or at least objectivity of a technical sort, requires our detachment or dis-involvement, and since religion tends to include, even demand, the personal, they cannot, it is thought, be objective. As subjective, they may be held close, but silently, no matter how sincere (or how true). We have, then, a technocratic mindset which claims to own the ground of objectivity, public policy, the human good (understood technocratically), and in that space Common Core, remote control birth control, sterilization, and population reduction make eminent sense. They just are what counts as sense, in fact, and religious claims about the real meaning of dignity, a civilization of love, and solidarity are humored as subjective emotions so long as, and only so long as, they do not interfere with the real business of the technocrats.

Catholics, of course, are firmly committed to securing and providing basic human goods and working toward integral human development, in all its forms. At the same time, however, we know that “human beings always need something more than technically proper care.” We know that no one can live without love, and we know that love, before anything else, “signifies much the same as approval … loving someone or something means finding him or it probus, the Latin word for “good.” It is a way of turning to him or it and saying, ‘It’s good that you exist; it’s good that you are in this world.’”

It is impossible for us, or should be, to look at a child, an immigrant, a student and wish them away. We are called to love them, to affirm that their existence is a deep and profound good. Love doesn’t magically solve immigration policy, of course, and right prudence is a form of love, but we cannot, must not, give ourselves over to a technocratic mind which is largely immune to love, let alone a love approving of the mystery of the Image of God carried by every person.

We are, and let’s hope faithful enough to remain, signs of contradiction, and particularly to the mindset which reduces human worth, even when doing so in the name of development. Our way is hard, for at times “easy solutions” are right before us, and we risk looking benighted and obscurantist as we, yet again, dissent, claiming that there is a better way, a more human way, a way of divine love, even when that way fits uneasily with a bold and triumphalist technocratic world.

But our way is best, and the “decency” of technocracy is increasingly ugly.

(Photo credit: Photo of Bill Gates by REUTERS / Antony Bolante)

R. J. Snell

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R. J. Snell directs the Center on the University and Intellectual Life at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, New Jersey, and is a senior fellow at the Agora Institute for Civic Virtue and the Common Good. He is the author (with Steve Cone) of Authentic Cosmopolitanism: Love, Sin, and Grace in the Christian University. His latest books are Acedia and Its Discontents: Metaphysical Boredom in an Empire of Desire and The Perspective of Love.

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