Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Nauseating Assault on "the Rich"

In June I discussed the rise of morality
into the political arena. More and more, political issues are being discussed in ethical terms. Since both modern liberals and modern conservatives both agree that sacrifice and service to others – i.e., altruism – is the essence of moral action, the debate over political issues has always revolved around practicality. Since all sides accepted altruism by default, the Left has always been able to advance their statist agenda over time. Since all forms of socialism are based upon altruism, the Left has merely had to tell us how some people need this or that, therefor it is the duty of the rest of us to put aside our selfishness and empower government to satisfy those needs at taxpayer expense. Since conservatives accepted the moral premise of altruistic sacrifice and service to the needs of others, they have been powerless to stop – and sometimes even helped advance – the Left’s socialist agenda.

But now the Left’s moral hegemony is being challenged. The result is that statists of all stripes find themselves in unfamiliar territory – fending off ethical arguments from the Right. This new phenomenon is increasingly evidenced in the media. For example, Onkar Ghate recently cited an article by Leftist star Paul Krugman entitled “A Tale of Two Moralities
”. Summing up Krugman’s piece, Ghate wrote:

[G]one are the days when policy disputes were about pragmatic differences in accomplishing the same goal. Today we see a difference in moral principle: one side considers the modern welfare state morally superior to capitalism and the other side considers capitalism morally superior to the welfare state.

The moral factor has surfaced in regards to an issue that figures prominently in the current debate on the Federal debt ceiling – taxing the rich. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, in an article focussed on the budget and economics, included this:

Besides this economic problem, I also see a moral issue with Ayn Rand's insistence that all of us, CEOs included, should be totally free of the ties that bind. I especially disagree when it comes to CEOs. As I wrote here a few months ago, the wealthy have a special responsibility. Much will be asked of those to whom much has been given. Participating in government and civic life, serving in war, helping the less fortunate, and--yes--paying a fair share of taxes are inescapable responsibilities for all Americans, especially for those who have realized the American dream that inspires us all.

I find this issue particularly nauseating. Cutting through Townsend’s twisted logic, we find altruism: Those who earn more owe an unchosen duty to hand over their wealth to those who earn less - through the intermediary of government, of course. If you think that statement is grotesque, how about a recent study that “proves” why the rich “are such a selfish, less empathetic and less altruistic lot” than lower income people. Aside from the battery of corny tests employed, the study relies on the assumption that selfishness is evil and altruism is virtuous. The rich, you see, have an “ideology of self-interest”.

Not surprisingly, and perhaps by design, that study serves as ammunition for the tax-the-rich crowd, but not necessarily in the exact way one might imagine. The NJ Star-Ledger recently ran an editorial lauding both the poor and billionaires, while panning the moderate rich whom they call the “affluent”. In an apparent paradox, the Editors write:

[A]ffluent Americans have been found to donate a much smaller proportion of their annual income than do very poor contributors, who are strikingly generous.”

But psychologists say it makes sense. Lower-class people depend on others for survival, so they learn social behaviors like understanding and empathy, and give more to those in need, says Dacher Keltner of the University of California-Berkeley, co-author of a study published this month in a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

The wealthy don’t need to lean on each other so much and that causes differences that are apparent in psychological studies, Keltner says. Rich people are usually less empathetic, less altruistic and more selfish than poor people, according to numerous experiments.

“Our data say you cannot rely on the wealthy to give back,” Keltner said, because it’s “improbable, psychologically.”

The editors, relying on the conventional view of ethics, concludes that “Of course, there are plenty of exceptions — just look at [Warren] Buffett. But it’s another reason he’s right that the rich must be taxed, not trusted to tithe.”

But there is an Achilles’ Heel in this line of logic. If selfishness is so bad, and altruism is so good, why are the bad guys affluent and the good guys poor? I addressed that “paradox” in some comments I left:

Posted August 21, 2011 at 10:54PM

“Rich people are usually less empathetic, less altruistic and more selfish than poor people.”

This statement should be a tip-off to the real ideal ethical standard. Imagine if everyone were as altruistic as poor people – everyone would be poor. Altruism is the giving up of values for the unearned benefit of others. Selfishness is the pursuit, achievement, and keeping of values by one’s own efforts. The able poor should be more selfishly focussed on making the most of their own lives, rather than perpetually “depend[ing] on others for survival”. (Most low-income people, in fact, do just that – work their way out of poverty.) The rich are not selfish because they are rich, they are rich because they are selfish. And the [able] poor are not altruistic because they are poor, they are poor because they are altruistic.

The obsession with giving, especially the moral perversity of “giving back” as an act of atonement for material success, is intended to obscure the real source of human well-being and even generosity – production and trade. What is the source of production? The human intellect. The real measure of a person’s value to “society” is his money making, not money giving. Money making, as opposed to money getting at any cost, is the process of producing by work a value that can be traded for values produced by others. Generally speaking, the amount of money a person makes in this fashion is commensurate to the value he provides to others (assuming a relatively free market). Every time you buy something, you are receiving wealth produced by someone in exchange for your money. The greater a person’s monetary riches, the greater the wealth he has spread to others, and thus the greater good he has done for others – regardless of whether he ever gave away a dime.

The rich – the people the Star-Ledger’s editors and their ilk long to exploit - are so because they selfishly pursued their own chosen field of production and trade for their own benefit. In being so successful, though, what have they given? Plenty, in several ways. To the extent that their productive intellectual energy exceeds their personal physical capacity to realize their goals, they must hire people to help produce whatever value they seek to sell – they create jobs. Together with those they hire, guided by their intellectual energy, the products we all need and desire are spread throughout society in exchange for the money most of us earned in the jobs they created. The rich, which means the successful, also spread wealth more indirectly, by creating opportunities for suppliers, and other businesses that thrive from the sales they get from the holders of the jobs created. Every individual participating in this complex chain of production and trade are acting selfishly. No one in this chain gave or received anything for nothing. Everyone is enriched to some extend, without a dime of “giving back”. And the guy whose intellectual energy and ambition started it all and got rich in the process, earned every dollar of it just as did everyone else theirs . Selfishness, properly understood, is the life-giving force that keeps us all alive – especially including those who depend on the charity of others. It is the moral force that leads people up from poverty.

Yes, there are those who get rich by graft and political pull. Yes, there are the idle rich of inheritance. But remember that the income tax is aimed at the productive rich described above, not the idle fortunes of past production (which, in any event, serve as capital for growing enterprises). A Buffet should be lauded for the selfish pursuit and achievement of his fortune, the making of which in fact enriched others to a far greater extent than his giving could ever accomplish, or the size of his own fortune – rather than his small-minded call to tax the already over-taxed super-productive still more.

Why do I, a middle class tradesman soon to be retired, oppose higher taxes on the rich (or anyone else, for that matter)? It is in my own selfish interest to see a growing, productive economy to give my hard-earned dollars the growing value made possible only through the productive work of others, especially the fortune builders. And because if the property of the rich is at the pleasure of phonies who don’t believe they can be “trusted to tithe” enough of it away, then no one’s property is safe. And because it is downright immoral to glorify the unearned as a moral absolute, and to condemn the rightful owners of wealth – the earners – as “selfishly” uncaring. And because I consider selfish money-making, not altruistic giving, as the moral ideal.

Ayn Rand labeled altruism an “inverted morality”. That inversion is on display in the debate over taxing the rich. The Rich who earned the money are painted as predators who refuse to “give back” some of all that they have “been given”. But notice who the real predators are – the altruists. Who is it that is seen as the moral ones? The poor who will receive the tax money, those who will enact the taxes, and those who advocate the transfer – i.e., anyone who did not earn it.

“Why is it immoral to produce a value and keep it, but moral to give it away? And if it is not moral for you to keep a value, why is it moral for others to accept it? If you are selfless and virtuous when you give it, are they not selfish and vicious when they take it? Does virtue consist of serving vice? Is the moral purpose of those who are good, self-immolation for the sake of those who are evil?

“The answer you evade, the monstrous answer is: No, the takers are not evil, provided they did not earn the value you gave them. It is not immoral for them to accept it, provided they are unable to produce it, unable to deserve it, unable to give you any value in return. It is not immoral for them to enjoy it, provided they do not obtain it by right.”
- Atlas Shrugged


Steve D said...

Give 'back'?

Where did the word 'back' come from? It seems someone smuggled in an extra word to further their altruistic agenda!

Mike Zemack said...


Strictly speaking, the term “give back” means, literally, to repay. For example, it might mean returning property one has stolen. In another sense, it might mean returning a favor. For example, as a violinist, my daughter was a member of the New Jersey Youth Symphony, a privately run group of high school-age musicians. It depended partly on donations, both private and (regrettably) public. These donations helped keep tuition below cost. Now that my daughter is grown and on her own, my wife and I make regular donations to the group, primarily because we value what they do, but also because we feel a moral obligation to repay the institution in the only way we can – by helping keep tuition lower for today’s promising young musicians. Both types of “giving back” are morally justified and rational.

This is not the way the term is meant today. As you point out, another purpose has been smuggled in, creating an intellectual package deal. The implication according to today’s usage is that wealth production and economic success is not earned, but obtained at the expense of others’ deprivations or exploitation – that wealth is a zero sum game, and that one person’s success ipso facto means another’s, or “society’s”, loss. To the extent that one has wealth, it is a “gift”, or worse. Therefor, each of us must atone for our wealth, to the extent that we have acquired it, by “giving back” to those from whom it came. But, since all money is made – i.e., all wealth is produced -, who gains and who loses in such a game? The losers are any productive person, in direct proportion to his productiveness. And the winners are parasites and powerlusters – those who collect the givebacks and those who distribute them.

There is only one doctrine that can at once justify this sinister game and at the same time blind the victims to the fact that they are the actual exploited – altruism.