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Peter Foster: Bill Gates’ Energy Views Are A Turn-Off

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Peter Foster, Financial Post

There are signs that Bill Gates — multi-billionaire do-gooder, Giving Pledge arm twister, and “leverager” of your tax dollars — is at last catching on to the nature and benefits of capitalism, although he still has some way to go.

Peter Foster: It might seem strange that Bill Gates, one of the world’s most successful capitalists, might not comprehend the system that enabled him to become so fabulously rich, but it’s not unusual at all.

Peter Foster: It might seem strange that Bill Gates, one of the world’s most successful capitalists, might not comprehend the system that enabled him to become so fabulously rich, but it’s not unusual at all.

The breakthrough has come because he finally started thinking about everything that goes on behind his light switch. Unfortunately, he also believes that when people in poor countries get around to having a switch to flip, they should be plugged into “clean” energy, promoted by government R&D and rendered “affordable” by, well, wishful thinking.

Like I said, he still has some way to go.

Significantly, Mr. Gates finds himself — and not for the first time — opposing aid experts, in this case those who maintain that what Africa actually needs is not windmills and solar panels, but coal and oil. India and China have already worked that out for themselves.

The most prominent recent example of expert enlightenment is Caleb S. Rossiter, an adjunct professor at American University, whose apostasy on both climate science and fossil fuels got him excommunicated from the Institute for Policy Studies, a U.S. left-wing Don’t Think Tank.

As for Mr. Gates, it might seem strange that one of the world’s most successful capitalists might not comprehend the system that enabled him to become so fabulously rich, but it’s not unusual at all. You don’t need to grasp the Invisible Hand to thrive under its guidance any more than you need to read Gray’s Anatomy to stay alive. Also, successful entrepreneurs almost invariably have a sense of personal exceptionalism that encourages them to see themselves as different from their competitors (whom they regard as grubby and greedy). Finally, businessmen often imagine that the economy is like a gigantic business, thus what it needs is a strategic master plan.

The hopeful sign — as noted — is that Mr. Gates has finally caught on that he has been taking the benefits of the market for granted. Evidence appeared in a recent blog post in which he admitted “There’s no telling how many times I walked into my office, flipped a light switch, and powered up a PC without thinking at all about the magic of getting electricity any time I wanted it.”

Well hold on there a second, Bill. It’s not actually “magic.” It’s what happens when you have people serving others in pursuit of profit, under a system of relatively sound property rights. Admittedly, statists since Lenin have been very keen on getting into the electricity business, but it was existing, private, electricity businesses that gave them the idea.

What made Mr. Gates glimpse – if not quite see — the light? Travelling to poor countries, where poverty is related to a lack of reliable and affordable energy (although that’s a symptom of poor regimes, not their cause).

Mr. Gates rightly points to the adverse impacts of truly “dirty” energy, such as indoor fires and diesel generators. Unfortunately, however, he still appears captive to the capitalist guilt complex. In the middle of his blog post, he inserts a chart noting that a typical U.S. refrigerator uses as much electricity as 9 Ethiopians. I hope he realizes that’s an indictment of Ethiopian governance rather than U.S. consumerism.

Mr. Gates suggests that curing poverty starts with energy. In fact, it starts with curing lousy governments and installing the rule of law. Mr. Gates notes that the average American’s energy usage increased by a factor of 60 in the twentieth century, even as the price of electricity dropped by a stunning 98%. But here, unfortunately, Mr. Gates feels compelled to insert one of the key tenets of what British economist David Henderson called “Global Salvationism:” that climate change is a “huge problem.” Thus visible hands are required to keep the poor away from “today’s technology” because it will release more carbon dioxide. And so Mr. Gates demands that energy for the poor must be both affordable and clean. By edict.

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