The limits of auto-pilot altruism

Note that generosity has many forms, including commitment and creativity. Don’t let others define for you the form and limits of your generosity. And, above all, remember where any wealth comes from

Does giving really help?
Charles Crawford
On 30 April 2012 08:52

Daniel J Mitchell asked an interesting Ayn Rand question here last week:

Rand seemed to think (and some Randians definitely think) that voluntary acts of charity and compassion are somehow wrong. In some sense, these folks take an ultra-homo economicus view that people are relentless utility maximizers based on self-interest.

… I don’t want to sound too warm and fuzzy and ruin my image, but aren’t children, friends, family, and love the things that make the world go ’round for most of us? Yes, we also value achievement, but even that can be unrelated to pecuniary considerations.

Fair enough. There is a major moral hole in Rand’s great novels, namely children. There are a few grown-up whiny parasitic children who have sprung from manipulative mothers, but children as young, defenceless phenomena needing nothing but love and care from their parents and others? They feature not.

Be that as it may, let’s go to one of the many caustic observations Rand herself made about ‘altruism’. This one is straight to the point:

Do not hide behind such superficialities as whether you should or should not give a dime to a beggar. That is not the issue.

The issue is whether you do or do not have the right to exist without giving him that dime. The issue is whether you must keep buying your life, dime by dime, from any beggar who might choose to approach you. The issue is whether the need of others is the first mortgage on your life and the moral purpose of your existence. The issue is whether man is to be regarded as a sacrificial animal. Any man of self-esteem will answer: “No.” Altruism says: “Yes.”

The significance of this question today is heard in the fevered demands of collectivists of all shapes and sizes for ‘social fairness’. They never identify what fairness is, insisting only that it means that those who have more must give (specifically must be compelled to give) to those who have less, and that only the state can effect that transaction and determine its moral worth. Worse, they are not prepared to accept that there may come a point where the statist demands of such ‘fairness’ substantively have been met. Rather the demands for more and more taxation - and more and more coercion - rise inexorably, even though public sector debts needed to fund it accumulate to the point of insanity.

Thus today’s Greece. European auto-pilot altruism (rebranded as ‘solidarity’ and EU Cohesion Funds) poured billions of other Europeans’ taxes into that country, subsidising a feckless population to avoid paying taxes and so live well beyond their means. I know it’s not as simple as that. But that is a key feature of the situation. Now Greece’s population is reaping the consequences: ‘solidarity’ ebbs away.

Nowhere is the failure of altruism more explicit than in overseas aid. Such is the clamp of redistributive collectivists on the political imagination in this country that before the last election the Conservative Party was at pains to show its ‘moderation’ by pledging to maintain generous levels of foreign development assistance, despite the need for savings in other areas of public life. However, the trouble with auto-pilot altruism of this sort is that, at root, it is profoundly selfish and self-absorbed. It is all about us as givers, not about the value of our giving to the recipients. You have more – therefore give!

Back in 1987 Patrick Marnham wrote The Fantastic Invasion, a devastating analysis of the failure across Africa of successive waves of imported –isms: socialism, communism, capitalism, developmentalism and the rest. If your nerves are not strong enough for that, try this short fierce piece by Quinn Zimmerman on the horrible waste of assistance funds in Haiti as driven on by the ‘white savior industrial complex’:

I still believe in helping people. I still believe my heart is in the right place. But I question myself more these days, and question what I'm doing and how I'm doing it. I question whether the work I've done here will really even make any difference. Is it even working? ...

Every biosand filter I've ever seen in Haiti that was not one of ours was broken and unused. Just today I went to get a sandwich and found four or five of them in front of the sandwich shop, all in various stages of malrepair, waiting to be turned to rubble and probably used to patch holes in the street. The problem is we're giving people a "solution". They tell us they want it, but it's not of their own design.

The key reason to run screaming from any philosophy founded on ‘altruism’ is that it is essentially a static or passive view of the world. It downplays to nothing the value of the generosity represented by the human creative instinct.

Take the inventor or entrepreneur who works day and night trying to create something which was not there before. And succeeds. Yes, there may well be poorer people down the street or far away whom s/he might have helped by not working so hard, or by giving money to charity which instead s/he invested in those new ideas. But such obsessive if not ‘selfish’ investment of time, money and commitment created new medicines and machines and processes and insights and (yes!) clever financial instruments, which no less directly have helped poor hundreds of millions of people improve their lot.

Think too about the force of a morality founded in self-respect and free trade between free people. What’s the alternative? The beggar says: “I exist, and I have misfortune. Please give me money,even though I’ll do nothing for you in return.” What do you do to such people by tossing some money to them? Do you promote their self-reliance and thus their self-respect? If some prissy Leftist appears telling you that basic morality compels you to help the beggar or else, does that not make you a slave - and the sly beggar the master?

Conclusion? Give away as much or as little of your wealth and energy as you like. Help elderly people across the road, if they ask for help. No-one compels you to be a selfish hoarder. If you have some good fortune, why not share it if that’s what you like doing? Be generous in spirit and deed.

But note that generosity has many forms, including commitment and creativity. Don’t let others define for you the form and limits of your generosity. And, above all, remember where any wealth comes from:

It is not the moochers or the looters who give value to money. Not an ocean of tears nor all the guns in the world can transform those pieces of paper in your wallet into the bread you will need to survive tomorrow. Those pieces of paper, which should have been gold, are a token of honor - your claim upon the energy of the men who produce.

Your wallet is your statement of hope that somewhere in the world around you there are men who will not default on that moral principle which is the root of money. Is this what you consider evil?

Charles Crawford is a Contributing Editor to The Commentator. A former British Ambassador in Sarajevo, Belgrade and Warsaw, he is now a private consultant and writer: He tweets @charlescrawford

blog comments powered by Disqus