12 December 2008

Altruism v. Benevolence

At a Liberty Fund conference this last weekend, the discussion touched upon the role of informal institutions on cultural behaviour and, separately, why there seems to be a decline in honesty among the youth. After some thought, I postulated that the two subjects might be linked.

As our society increasingly emphasizes, both in theory and in practice, that one person's need implies an obligation of others to share. If somebody has less food, we should feel guilty that we have more and donate. If somebody has less money, we should pay higher taxes so that they can have a minimum of comfort. We use euphemisms for our guilt, like "paying it forward," or "giving back to society," when really we simply mean a morally mandatory redistribution of wealth.

Worse yet, we downplay greatness and achievement. Many of our schools, even private ones, offer financial aid on the basis of need alone while even their top students of any given year receive not a farthing in scholarships. Bill Gates, Rockefeller, and Carnegie, rather than being praised for realizing the American Dream by producing incessantly better products that improve the lives of millions at steadily declining prices, we vilify them. Instead, we worship volunteerism and pop stars who ask us to ask our government to help poor Africans.

Among this orgy of selflessness, is it surprising that students have less and less respect for the answers and property of others? If those who have less of anything have almost a right to receive from those who have more, why is copying wrong? Why is stealing wrong? If the government is morally justified in taking from the wealthy and giving to the poor, why shouldn't the private redistribution of wealth be equally justified? What if Johnny has a better brain than Jane, shouldn't Johnny have to share his intellectual wealth with the less endowed?

We have replaced benevolence, the voluntary, discriminate giving by one person to another whom he finds deserving, with a cultural obligation to engage in indiscriminate giving by all who have more to all who have less. Whereas benevolence engenders profound satisfaction on the part of the giver and gratitude on the part of the receiver, institutional altruism engenders resentment in the giver and entitlement in the recipient. Where weakness is rewarded and achievement scorned, we should expect life to once again become nasty, brutish and short.

1 comment:

  1. I don't know that Rockefeller and Gates should be the poster children of worshipful success. Rockefeller made his fortune by getting secret rebates from the railroads and gaming the system. Gates made his fortune basically by stealing Apple's WYSIWIG interface and securing market share by monopolistic practices.

    These men are the "great criminals" which kids who cheat on SATs aspire to become.

    Let's look at a few other "great figures" of our age. George W. Bush's administration illegally wiretaps Americans, promotes torture as policy, and engages in private dealings with Energy, Oil, and other contractors (Blackwater, Haliburton, etc) and he doesn't even get a slap on the wrist. Blackwater has literally gotten away with murder in Iraq for years.

    Every day, I read about corporate titans driving companies into bankruptcy and skating away with millions. Do you think the actions of Angelo Mozilo are not reported? Do you think that Finance students don't hear about Jamie Dimon stealing BSC with the help of the Fed (whose board he's on)? Huge wings of major accounting firms are devoted to developing tax shelters. Major US companies move to Dubai or Bermuda to evade taxes and you think that this has no impact on our business schools?

    Young people are not stealing and cheating because "those who have less of anything have almost a right to receive from those who have more". They are stealing and cheating because there are no repercussions for bad behavior. There is no incentive to play by the rules - in fact, quite the opposite: only by being a crook can you be successful.