Is Bill Gates a hero or villain? Is he good or bad? It’s complicated. The most complicated thing about it is the people who answered the question one way five years ago say the opposite now.
Like many aging tycoons, Bill Gates changed as he aged and started thinking about his legacy. That’s why people who used to think of him as a villain to think of him as a hero today, and people who once idolized him to think of him as a villain today.
Bill Gates, the brutal capitalist
Bill Gates was the most brutal capitalist of his generation. He dropped out of college to start a software company with his friend Paul Allen. The company became successful, mostly selling computer languages for early 8-bit desktop computers. Then in 1981, he secured a contract to supply IBM with an operating system for its upcoming IBM PC. Cleverly, he licensed the system to IBM, retaining the right to license it to others, which he soon did. Along the way, he cheated Paul Allen out of more ownership of Microsoft than he deserved, built a monopoly, then used that monopoly in operating systems to get monopolies on office suites and web browsers.
That’s illegal, but the US government lost interest in stopping him. There was an anti-trust case, and in June 2000 Justice Thomas Penfield Jackson ordered the company broken up, but the trial took place during Clinton’s second term, under Clinton’s Department of Justice. Early in Bush’s first term, his Department of Justice announced it was no longer seeking to break up Microsoft, and Microsoft and the DOJ settled.
Dropping out of college, founding a billion-dollar company, becoming a multi-billionaire himself and then the richest man in the world, and running out the clock to escape an anti-trust suit with a sweetheart deal made him a hero of the right. It was the American Dream on steroids and speed.
And I heard it relentlessly in the circles I ran in during those years. Microsoft’s software made Gates the world’s richest man, therefore, Microsoft’s software must be the best, and Gates had the God-given right to do anything he wanted. And if you thought otherwise, you were just a pinko commie.
What drove Bill Gates
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Gates had a nightmare scenario in his mind. There were always about 10 things that, if they happened in the right order, would sink Microsoft and potentially take Gates and his wealth down with it.
And that mindset would come out with the release of new products. With the release of each new version of Windows for the first half of the 90s, Microsoft would say they bet the company on that product’s success.
This mindset didn’t stand the test of time. If any version of Windows failed, it’s not like computer makers had much in the way of options. They’d just ship computers with the previous version of Windows instead, or just DOS. Microsoft would still make money. Just maybe not as much as they wanted. Microsoft Bob was a flop. It didn’t sink the company. Windows ME was a flop. It didn’t sink it either. Neither did Vista, Windows 8, or Windows 8.1. It just meant Windows 98SE, XP, and 7 remained the most popular version of Windows for a couple of years longer than Microsoft wanted.
But in Gates’ mind, as long as there was a sequence of events that could take him down, Microsoft was vulnerable and couldn’t possibly be a monopoly. And it was his birthright to crush anything that might participate in that sequence. The likelihood of the sequence of events happening was minuscule. Usually some of the events in the sequence were highly unlikely to ever happen, let alone in the right order. But Gates didn’t have the perspective from the inside to see it that way.
Bill Gates, philanthropist
Gates slowly stepped away from Microsoft, leaving the CEO role in 2000 to take the title of Chief Software Architect, which he held until 2006 when he left the company. I still get puzzled looks when I say Bill Gates doesn’t work at Microsoft anymore. But he doesn’t, and hasn’t for years.
Gates married in 1994 and fathered three children. Having a family changed his perspective on things. It certainly appears that at some point, Gates realized he had more money than he or his family could ever spend. He and his wife started the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in 2000, the same year he started to step back from his role at Microsoft.
Their plan is to leave their children with $10 million each, and give away the rest of Gates’ fortune.
This is exactly the ideal right-wing vision of a billionaire. Let the tycoon make his money, then he’ll give it away when he’s done.
So why is Gates a villain in the circles who held him up as the ideal American as recently as 2015 or so?
It’s the way Gates gives away his money.
What drives Gates today and why it makes him unpopular
Melinda Gates is a Roman Catholic, and they have raised their children in the Catholic faith. Gates has said he participates in religious activities and sees the value in religious morals. He has stated that believing in God is logical, but he also doesn’t reject the thought of Richard Dawkins. Having one foot in the Catholic faith and one foot in agnosticism isn’t a good way to endear yourself to the religious right.
Much of the way they spends their money doesn’t endear Gates to the religious right. They’ve spent several billion dollars on disease control in impoverished countries, including vaccinations. Not all religious conservatives are anti-vaxxers, but there is a very strong anti-vax contingent in many conservative churches.
On April 25, consipracy nut Alex Jones led a rally in Austin and provoked the crowd into chanting “Arrest Bill Gates.” Various conspiracies are flying around regarding Gates and COVID-19, including that Gates is part of a plot to use COVID-19 to implant computer chips in humans.
Gates has been funding COVID-19 research, but there’s no reason to see it as anything other than his reaction to a pandemic. This pandemic is just closer to home for him than any other that has happened in his lifetime.
Conspiracy theories about Gates aren’t exactly new. As far back as 1994 I’ve heard speculation that he had Gary Kildall killed to silence him. There’s nothing to that theory either. The modern conspiracy theories about Gates are generally fueled by people who don’t understand how immune systems work, and who are prone to assume anything they don’t understand must be sinister.
Is Bill Gates good or bad?
So is Bill Gates a hero or a villain?
I find it ironic to be defending Bill Gates. I use Microsoft products reluctantly and I’ve never been a big fan. It’s easyto imagine a world where he and his competitors could have coexisted and the industry, fueled by fair competition, would have innovated and grown much faster. Gates made contributions to the field, but his paranoia caused him to mercilessly crush others who also would have made contributions to the field. Steve Jobs is far from the only guy outside of Gates to have good ideas about how computers should work.
I’m not here to whitewash Gates’ past.
That said, Gates mellowed out once he got married and had a family. That’s not unusual, though it’s also not universal. He went from a CEO who closed doors so others wouldn’t have the opportunities he had to someone who could recognize that large parts of the world don’t have simple, basic things he takes for granted, like clean drinking water. And then he used his wealth to try to do something about it.
That’s admirable. And it’s admirable that the transformation started when he was in his mid-40s and not on his deathbed.
People can be redeemed, and I think Bill Gates is a great American redemption story.