In light of so much chaos that has gripped the world lately, I wanted to change focus briefly and reflect on the passing of one of the most titanic, sovereign-minded human beings in modern history.
Most people have never heard the name Chuck Feeney… and he worked very hard to keep it that way. Given everything he accomplished in life, maintaining his anonymity was a pretty extraordinary feat.
You see, Feeney was one of the wealthiest men who ever lived. And that’s pretty hard to keep a secret, especially since he made his fortune helping people dodge taxes.
I’m not joking.
Feeney came from humble beginnings, born into a blue collar family in northern New Jersey. After a brief stint in the Air Force, Feeney and his college roommate started selling “duty-free” alcohol and tobacco to American soldiers who were stationed overseas.
The concept of tax-free shopping was still in its infancy back in the 1950s when Feeney got started. But it caught on quickly, and their venture expanded rapidly.
For the next four decades, Feeney and his partner’s company– DFS Group– became the largest and most prominent chain of duty free shops in the world. You’ve probably walked through many of these shops at international airports, where they sell everything from cigarettes to sunglasses.
Personally I’ve always thought that duty free shops are a bit of a scam; the markups are outrageous and shoppers don’t really save any money.
Nevertheless, duty free shopping is wildly popular, and DFS Group has raked in billions of dollars in profit over the years by helping shoppers avoid duty, sales tax, and VAT on their purchases.
This means that Feeney was responsible for depriving governments of more tax revenue than just about any other human being who ever lived.
But Feeney’s aggressive tax strategy didn’t stop with selling duty-free alcohol to tourists.
He was relentless throughout his life to set up structures that would minimize his taxes; he set up offshore companies in Liechtenstein and Bermuda (both zero-tax jurisdictions), and had the companies legally owned by his wife– a French citizen who was not subject to US offshore tax reporting.
By the time he sold his stake in DFS Group in the mid-1990s, his company was paying out hundreds of millions of dollars in distributions EVERY YEAR. And Feeney’s zealous tax avoidance ensured he paid as little to the government as possible.
What’s even more unique about Feeney, though, is that he gave away nearly his entire fortune– while he was still alive.
Feeney never had a taste for the high life. He flew literally millions of miles in economy class. He wore a cheap $15 watch. He took the bus and train. He pinched pennies and lived in a modest apartment.
Despite all of the money he made from his business, and from the sale of his company, and from avoiding taxes, Feeney left himself $2 million (with an ‘M’) for retirement… and gave away $8 billion (with a ‘B’).
This is what makes his anonymity so incredible; making billions of dollars attracts attention. Doing so and not paying taxes attracts even more. Giving it all away attracts even more.
But Feeney managed to stay in the shadows, often making anonymous donations in order to avoid the spotlight.
He endowed universities, funded life-changing medical research, developed advanced healthcare centers in the developing world, and so much more. In his own words, Feeney said merely, “I guess I’m happy when what I’m doing is helping people.” And that’s what he did.
Don’t get me wrong– I’m not suggesting that people should give away all of their money like Chuck Feeney did. And frankly I wouldn’t support many of the causes that Feeney chose to fund.
But that’s the whole point. What Chuck Feeney did with his own money wasn’t anyone else’s business but Chuck Feeney’s. It wasn’t my decision. And it certainly wasn’t the government’s decision.
The world is full of politicians these days who want to raise taxes ever higher, to take more money out of your pockets and decide for themselves what to do with it.
And let’s be honest– their track record is appallingly bad.
In the Land of the Free, for example, politicians have used tax dollars to pay people to NOT work, to create more inflation, to make the economy less productive, to support inefficient green energy fantasies, and to weaken the military.
Barack Obama used to famously tell his supporters, “Don’t boo. Vote.” The idea– which has cascaded across American democracy –is that citizens should voice their opposition in the voting booth.
I don’t think it’s controversial anymore to point out that elections aren’t helping; I’m reminded of the old joke about the definition of insanity: ‘trying the same thing over and over again, but expecting a different result.’ That’s what elections are in the US now.
A much more effective way to voice opposition and advocate for change is by taking completely legal steps to reduce what you owe… and keep control of your money.
This is why I admire Chuck Feeney so much– not for what he chose to do with his money, but for the fact that he put himself in control.
Joe Biden, AOC, and Elizabeth Warren want everyone to believe that they (and they alone) know best how to spend your money. They act as if we are feudal serfs living in the Dark Ages, obliged to serve the nobility.
Chuck Feeney had a completely different mentality. And I think it’s safe to say that he did a lot more good in the world than most politicians.
The truth is that each of us is in control; our incomes, our assets, our choices are up to us. How we raise and educate our children, what we choose to put or not put in our bodies… it’s all up to us.
Feeney had the right idea. And the sooner people start taking back control of their own lives from governments-gone-wild, the better, more peaceful, and more prosperous the world can become.