Thursday, December 16, 2010

Owning Oneself and Loving Life

"Every dollar in your bank account came from some individual
who voluntarily gave it to you--who gave it to you in exchange
for a product he judged to be more valuable than his dollar.
You have no moral obligation to "give back," because
you didn't take anything in the first place."
--Yaron Brook & Don Watkins,
The Guilt Pledge (in Forbes)

When I was a teacher of the intellectually gifted, I used to hear comments about the kids I taught from time to time that implied that because my students were geniuses they therefore had some extra responsibility to "give back to society", a responsibility that did not belong to those blessed with a more ordinary level of intelligence. This well-meaning but poorly thought out type of statement was usually said in order to justify the education dollars spent on special services for the intellectually gifted. But it has a rather ominous ring to it, as if the children I taught had some a priori moral duty to unspecified others because of their intelligence. It was but a small step to saying that highly intelligent children have no right to establish their own life's purpose, and no right to the pursuit of their own happiness.

Recently, I posted a quote from ARI's Yaron Brook on my Facebook Status, a quote that a collectivist FB friend took exception to, and in a series of comments, he tried to show that Yaron was wrong. This man is somewhat of a second-hander, as are most political hacks--their side is right because it is their side--and he is certainly no match for Yaron Brook. But in the course of reading his comments, I found that he promotes the same idea about those who have created great wealth, as people did toward my gifted students. In very nearly the same paragraph that he claimed that the authors of "the Giving Pledge" did not believe that people should do what they do for the sake of others, he also said that "to paraphrase Spiderman, with great wealth comes great responsibility."

The first question that came to mind about this statement was, "Responsibility? To whom?"
I didn't ask it in my reply though because I know the answer would have been that great modern glittering generality: society. But even as I wrote a very short reply, I was thinking about how much that statement echoes the ones I was constantly hearing about my gifted students. And both imply that in some way the success of extraordinary individuals is an unearned gift from society. That somehow, the successful entrepeneur, or the academically successful gifted student both took something from others who are not successful, and that now they owe those people something in return. In fact, in his FB comment, my FB collectivist friend not only implied it, he said it:

"After all, success in business doesn't occur in a vacuum and always depends on the community to some extent. Warren Buffet, Paul Allen, Michael Bloomberg, George Lucas and others know that they would not be where they are today without some pretty significant assistance from others."

"Well, no," I want to reply, "success in business does not occur in a vacuum." But my FB collectivist conveniently ignores the fact that the successful businessman paid those who "assisted" him for that help, and that he earned the money--as Yaron Brook says above--by producing something of value to those who were willing to pay for it. Something of value that those who work for him, and those who benefit from his work did not create. In fact, quite often, the kinds of breakthrough technologies and efficiencies created by the work of entrepeneurs is far more valuable than what people actually pay for them. This is so because technologies and efficiencies cut down on work, and multiply both the power of a person to apply their efforts elsewhere, and they also multiply time. (These concepts: work, power and efficiency are real physical entities that can be calculated). In this way, the entrepeneur has already benefitted others--even those who do not buy his product--through his pursuit of his own happiness. What Yaron Brook was saying in the essay is that this productivity is in itself a great moral good, and it need not be justified by whether or not it benefits others who are not as productive, even though it does that too.

And demanding that someone who has already produced something of value, something others are willing to exchange their own work to procure, must also be responsible to some vague collective (the community, society) for a value so vague that it is essentially a blank check is exactly what that statement from Spiderman means. And it is but a small step from that idea to the idea that individuals do not own themselves and their work, but that they are slaves to some collective--whether that be "society" or some supreme soviet state--and that the harder they work and provide value to others, the MORE they owe the collective. And it is but a small step further to make the claim that a person's existence can only be justified by their use to others, rather than by their ability to provide for themselves and their own happiness. And in the bloody 20th century, we have seen all too often where this leads. Even before the Nazi genocide and Stalin's purges, the Fabian Socialist George Bernard Shaw said these words on film in the Soviet Story:

"You must all know half a dozen people at least who are no use in this world, who are more trouble than they are worth. Just put them there and say Sir, or Madam, now will you be kind enough to justify your existence? If you can’t justify your existence, if you’re not pulling your weight in the social boat, if you’re not producing as much as you consume or perhaps a little more, then, clearly, we cannot use the organizations of our society for the purpose of keeping you alive, because your life does not benefit us and it can’t be of very much use to yours." (Emphasis added).

The point that my FB collectivist friend evaded, the point that brings the whole house of socialist cards down is that socialists believe that they--by some magic endowment--are the sole arbiters and deciders of the worth of every human being. And as Shaw candidly admitted earlier in the same film: "I don't want to punish anybody. But there are an extraordinary number of people whom I want to kill."

Chilling words, those. And those are the words that will eventually come out of the mouths of those who believe that people owe something to some amorphous "society" beyond the ordinary good will that comes as each individual pursues his own happiness and his own benefit, and in so doing--as an unitended side effect--benefit others as well.

I will take C.S. Lewis over George Bernard Shaw any day. Lewis wrote:

"It is easy to think the State has a lot of different objects --military, political, economic, and what not.But in a way things are much simpler than that.The State exists simply to promote and to protect the ordinary happiness of human beings in this life.
A husband and wife chatting over a fire, a couple of friends having a game of darts in a pub,a man reading a book in his own room or digging in his own garden --that is what the State is there for.And unless they are helping to increase and prolong and protect such moments,all the laws, parliaments, armies, courts, police, economics, etc., are simply a waste of time."-- C. S. Lewis

Oh, the collectivists sound like they have the moral high ground, until one considers where such thinking has led throughout time. The Fabians, the Communists, the National-Solcialists--make it sound as if we will all live our lives with great and sacrificial purpose, or we shall not live at all. And they made damn sure that billions didn't.

But I'll take the chat by the fire, that game of darts, that book and that garden--ordinary as they may seem, over all of the high and awful purposes on earth. For they are all symbols of the pursuit of happiness of many people over the generations. They are the more ordinary expressions of the extraordinary pursuits and great achievements of entrepeneurs who have created such value that others willingly exchange their work for that greatness. These are all, great and small, expressions of human individuals loving life.


Luke said...

I agree. ...but there is an aspect here that must not be missed: Human charity and generosity is a vital aspect of life. And, while is true that people like Steve Jobs and George Lucas in many ways earned their success built upon the willful exchange of others, I know many, many successful people were given great advantages that--while certainly not in a vacuum--were unique blessings they enjoyed. This is much the point of Malcolm Gladwell's "Outliers." There is more to success than simply "pulling oneself up by ones bootstraps."

And, while, again, I completely agree that we don't owe nobody nothing, that when we make an honest buck it is ours, and "Society" certainly has no say in how we spend out time, society is much benefited from the generosity of the "haves." Don't get me wrong, this generosity is best given within the context of shrewd investment rather than "governmental liberality" ...but I feel a not-inconsequential push to bless others with the blessings that have been poured out on me.

I guess this is the tension inside me: I love open source/free resources while still firmly believing that those who wish to be paid for their goods/services be paid extremely well.

I try to live in such a way that I keep these two extremes in healthy balance.

My two cents.


Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

Luke: if you read my blog, you know that I have posted a great deal about charity, which is a very different thing from the goverment taking a person's wealth by force for the purpose of redistribution.
One exception that I take with you is the implied idea that because some people are born with advantages others do not have, they have some obligation that others do not have. And that was the point of my post. Life is not fair. And even the smartest, most advantaged person will encounter unfairness and the difficulties it creates. This does not and cannot imply that slavery is ever moral. And the apriori assumption that one person--by virtue of advantages of nature or those that are earned--has an obligation to provide a blank check on their futures for the benefit of others--is slavery. It is the assumption that certain people exist for the purposes of others, and no matter how fancy the moral reasonsing that surrounds it, the results are always evil.

Further, I think it is interesting that among collectivists, and those with mixed premises--like you seem to have--this is the first objection to the idea that people own themselves and the product of their work, even though Americans in general are the most generous of people who are the most willing to help others out of personal choice.

I suggest that you consider your mixed premises. If people are given advantages by virtue of goverment power and regulation--as they are in our present state--then the answer is to remove that power of government, and treat each person as equal under the law. Not to insist that an altruistic motivation (in the original sense of the word altruist)is moral, thus making slaves of each person to every other. That is definitely NOT a way to create "good will toward men."

Brianna said...

The funny thing about Gladwell's "Outliers" is that I seem to have taken the exact opposite lesson from it that almost everyone else has. Most other people see the good fortune that Gladwell's outliers enjoyed, being in the right place at the right time. But the lesson I took from the book is that those lucky circumstances would have not done any of those outliers any good if they hadn't put in the effort to achieve what they did. Most Canadian hockey players may be born in January and February, but not every young boy born in Canada in January and February becomes a great hockey player.

Life is unfair. And it is unfair that life is unfair. But you will not make it more fair by embarking on some sort of quest for cosmic justice, you will just tear down the high while failing to help the low. There is nothing wrong with the successful wanting to use what they've gained to help others. But they have no moral duty to do so, and we have no right to demand it of them or try to guilt them into it.

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...


I have not read Gladwell's Outliers, so thanks for providing your take. I am continually amazed at the lectures Americans get about charity, when once again, as in every year of my life, Americans have given more charity by far from their own funds than have any other people on earth.

Given those facts, then all of these "worries" can be seen in quite a different light. They are charity puritans. There are collectivists that lie awake at night worrying that somebody somewhere might actually be enjoying the giving of charity. I think to these people, if it's fun to give charity--like going to a benefit concert--then it can't be moral. This bespeaks the rightness of Yaron Brook's premise: the real concern of the people who wrote the Guilt, er, the Giving Pledge is that they don't really believe they earned their money and have a right to it. Which makes me wonder . . . if they didn't earn it, how did they get it?

Brianna said...

"I have not read Gladwell's Outliers"

It's worth reading. Not very long, and interesting.

"if they didn't earn it, how did they get it?"

They stole it from the people who don't have it of course, doncha know? Everybody in the world would be rich except Bill Gates and Steve Jobs if only Gates and Jobs hadn't robbed every house in America in the middle of the night *rolleyes*

HaynesBE said...

Excellent post. Thank you for your thoughts and analysis.

One reaction I have is---although there is no duty to "give" to society, when one lives in a free country, generosity flows freely as well. Many people contributed to where I am today. Some of the help I paid for. Others gave it for free. The end result is a general sense of good will that spills over into charitable acts.
And, as one good deed deserves another, the random acts of kindness keep flowing.

Myrhaf said...

Shaw was a horrid socialist, and he had other strange ideas. He thought vaccination was an atrocity and he believed in something called the "Life Force." For all that he is still one of my favorite playwrights because he wrote comedy with intelligence. He knew how to get laughs. He's not in the first rank of dramatists, but solidly in the second.