James Stephen “Jimmy” Donaldson, better known by his professional moniker “Mr. Beast,” has made a name for himself — and hundreds of millions of dollars for humanitarian causes — by leveraging his social media platform.
He’s cleaned up our oceans, planted 20 million trees, and fought hunger by feeding needy people in communities across the US. In his latest effort, Mr. Beast built 100 wells in Africa, bringing clean drinking water to an estimated 500,000 people in countries from Kenya to Cameroon to Zimbabwe.
Not everyone is happy with Mr. Beast’s latest campaign, however, or his broader philanthropic efforts.
One Kenyan politician told CNN Mr. Beast’s well campaign fed the perception that African countries are “dependent on handouts,” while the founder of a charity complained that “a white male figure with a huge platform…gets all of the attention.”
While this might sound simply like sour grapes — and some of it likely is — the criticisms against Mr. Beast are much broader than many might suspect. For years, many have complained that Mr. Beast’s “philanthro-tainment’ strategy — combining philanthropy with online entertainment — is exploitative.
“…it is all in the service of enriching himself,” one person tweeted.
“He cares about poor people and disabled people because they make him money,” another one said.
“Doctors/nurses don’t exploit their patient’s dignity for profit.”
‘The Stranglehold of the Profit-Seekers’
The last word is key: profit.
Profit has become a dirty word over the last century. Ayn Rand explored the growing distaste for profit at length in her classic work Atlas Shrugged, a dystopian novel that depicts a society in which the titans of industry who produce the goods and services of society are viewed with contempt by many — particularly moochers — for pursuing profit.
James Taggart, a villain in the novel, talks of “breaking up the vicious tyranny of economic power” and setting “men free of the rule of the dollar.”
“We will liberate our culture from the stranglehold of the profit-seekers,” thunders Taggart.
Rand was conscious of the fact that our modern world was turning the idea of profits into a sin, even though economist Adam Smith long ago observed that self-interest is the source of economic prosperity in society.
“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest,” Smith famously wrote in The Wealth of Nations.
Smith understood that self-interest isn’t just healthy and rational; it’s the economic engine of society. In pursuit of his own desires, the butcher provides an essential service to others, just as the brewer and baker do.
Yet profit is anathema to many today, particularly those who’ve been inundated with social justice tropes at universities. The Marxist notion that profits are mere exploitation has been adopted by many, even by people who likely would never consider themselves Marxists.
Like the failed businessman in Atlas Shrugged who defends himself by saying “I can proudly say that in all of my life I have never made a profit,” many young people now see profit as synonymous with exploitation.
“Inspiring people to help others is great, but encouraging young [people] to exploit vulnerable communities for content which they can then profit off of enormously, is the issue,” tweeted the Washington Post’s grievance correspondent Taylor Lorenz.
In other words, the scorn heaped on Mr. Beast stems from the fact that he has accrued an estimated $500 million fortune while pulling off his remarkable humanitarian achievements.
And it’s worth noting that the criticism he’s received is in notable contrast to the (initial) widespread praise of Sam Bankman-Fried, the FTX founder who built an empire singing a song of effective altruism and rejecting the importance of profits.
“It’s okay to do a deal that is moderately bad, in bailing out a place,” SBF said during a 2022 talk with Bloomberg.
SBF let it be known he wasn’t very concerned about crass profits; he was far more focused on helping others. (A closer inspection of SBF’s private rhetoric and business shows he was far more concerned with making money for himself than he let on.)
The difference is that Mr. Beast’s humanitarian efforts actually worked, whereas SBF’s “altruistic” efforts failed miserably (and he’s now facing more than 100 years in prison).
This is the real reason Mr. Beast is taking so much heat. He’s showing the power of voluntary action and the miraculous power of the profit motive. This isn’t just a stark contrast to SBF’s altruistic efforts, however.
One of the best quotes you’ll find on Mr. Beast’s humanitarian work in Africa comes from Kenyan journalist Ferdinand Omond.
“[I]t’s embarrassing that a YouTuber jetted into Kenya on a charity tour to perform tasks our taxes should have completed ages ago,” said Omond.
These words have to sting, in large part because they ring so true.
Is this an embarrassment for the Kenyan government, which has long been plagued by inefficiency and corruption? Undoubtedly. But it’s also an embarrassment to every public intellectual who insists profits are evil and that government-led efforts are the solution to poverty, despite their dismal track record.
And it should be pointed out that the Kenyan government is not the only one that has proven utterly inept at fighting poverty.
In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson famously declared “war” on poverty. Over the next five decades, the average wealth transfer, in real terms, to a low-income family increased from $3,070 per capita (1965) to $34,093 (2016). Economist Vance Gill last year estimated the federal government has spent a total of $25 trillion in its nearly 60-year War on Poverty.
What do we have to show for this fortune in federal spending?
According to the United States Census, in 1966, the percentage of American families living in poverty was 12.4 percent. Today, according to new data from the US Census, the percentage of Americans living in poverty is … 12.4 percent.
That’s right. Since 1964, despite tens of trillions of dollars in spending at the federal level alone, the poverty rate in America has not budged; it has merely bobbed around the same level since the Beatles arrived in the British Invasion.
Some could argue that poverty in America could be much worse if we hadn’t spent $25 trillion fighting it, but this ignores an inconvenient truth. In the two decades before the War on Poverty, poverty had fallen from 32.1 percent to 12.4 percent.
All of this helps explain why Mr. Beast is being attacked despite all the good work he is doing.
Milton Friedman famously said that one of the biggest mistakes humans make “is to judge policies and programs by their intentions rather than their results.”
The results of Mr. Beast’s philanthropy, which is all voluntary and profit-driven, surpass government-led efforts by miles. And that’s what his critics can’t handle.