The passing of Steve Jobs means that we will soon learn where he chose to bequeath his vast fortune, estimated to be in excess of $8 billion. In Jobs’s case, the question is particularly interesting because Jobs was notoriously un-philanthropic in public settings throughout his life. Jobs largely escaped the typical miserly-capitalist critique, but occasional complaints about his supposed lack of concern for philanthropic causes have lingered.
Jobs may have been privately philanthropic, so his charitable giving is simply unknown. This seems unlikely. The Steven P. Jobs Foundation was closed less than a year after opening, having given away very little money. Under Jobs, Apple’s philanthropic arm closed, and Apple was branded one of “America’s Least Philanthropic Companies” by the Stanford Social Innovation Review. Additionally, Jobs refused to join the “Giving Pledge,” an organization aimed at convincing America’s wealthiest to give away at least half their fortunes.
Far more likely is the possibility that Jobs viewed Apple’s output as hugely valuable in raising social welfare. Just like Sam Walton, who thought Wal-Mart’s core contribution to social benefit was to reduce the cost of living for ordinary Americans, Jobs viewed Apple’s operations as a means of making life better for people through innovation.
Jobs realized his comparative advantage was in creating new technology, not poverty alleviation, education transformation, cancer treatment, or any of the other causes he could have offered his wealth. As he told Playboy in 1985, “in order to learn how to do something well, you have to fail sometimes… most of the time, the people who come to you with ideas don’t provide the best ideas. You go seek the best ideas out, and that takes a lot of time.”
By using his comparative advantage in the marketplace, Jobs has done a lot to better many other people’s lives. Apple employs 34,000 people directly and thousands more in factories around the world. Jobs worked tirelessly to create devices that can identify currency for the blind, raise money for charities, accelerate the transfer of medical records, teach dyslexic and autistic children to read and write, and do scores of other things that benefit real people.
Jobs dedicated his life to free enterprise—something that has reaped dividends in increasing standards of living. Absent a better guide, we should probably judge Jobs through his own words on philanthropy: “In that area, actions should speak the loudest.”