Monday, February 13, 2012

Altruistic Twaddle and the Harm It Causes

Twaddle, as the dictionary says, is “empty silly talk,” that is, “empty” in the sense that nothing is really being said, “silly” in the sense of being ridiculous or trivial or frivolous, and “talk” . . . well, in the sense that someone is saying or writing it. “Drivel” and “nonsense” might be other descriptives of the word. 

When I put “altruistic” in front of it, I am talking about the tiresome nonsense that today is praised and promoted as ethical behavior, such as cleaning bedpans in nursing homes to demonstrate one’s unselfish public service and thereby become eligible to attend an Ivy League or other highly reputed college. Or the ads encouraging us to give five dollars to the Starbucks Foundation to help create jobs. (On job creation, see this.) Or to help promote economic development and create world peace by digging ditches in a third-world country

Not that there is anything wrong, demeaning, or unethical about these behaviors. I have not cleaned bedpans, but I have donated to charity and for pay I have dug at least one ditch. It is the disconnect stemming from a screaming ignorance of economics that stands out among those who say we should work side by side old people, poor people, and people living in abject poverty on the other side of the world to achieve world peace and prosperity. 

The reasoning seems to flow like this (1, 2). If we work side by side these people, we will acquire a mutual understanding of each other, gain respect, and become friends. This, somehow, will make war obsolete because peace must necessarily follow from our friendships. Then justice, and finally—the greatest leap of all—economic prosperity (presumably, by digging ditches and building schools), will follow.

Friendship certainly does develop over weeks or months when one works beside a total stranger. It’s almost impossible not to become friendly on some level. But friendship does not guarantee peace. Blood relatives and neighbors have fought and killed each other in many a civil war (1, 2). Clearly, something more fundamental about human relationships than friendship must determine the causes of war and peace.

There is good reason why culture has been likened to an iceberg, with nine-tenths of its core values buried beneath surface appearances (and surface friendships that may develop in the Peace Corps and other missionary organizations). It is this depth of what defines a culture, or rather, the ignorance of it, that has led American presidents to naively assume boots on the ground can quickly turn a dictatorship into a free state.

The core value that made the United States great is its respect for individual rights, especially property rights. “Make trade, not war” is the slogan that should replace the familiar fluff from the 1960s. Trading goods and services with, as opposed to shooting bullets at, each other is the only way to prevent war and alleviate poverty. It means, however, keeping the government out of both our bedrooms and board rooms, something advocates of altruism almost never agree with.

Other forms of altruistic twaddle include buying expensive hybrid or electric cars or installing expensive solar panels—and I say “expensive” to emphasize that low income people are unlikely to participate in these markets.* And the newly approved benefit corporation that allows businesses to put social and environmental objectives ahead of profits. But about this last, Doug French at the Mises Institute commented: “While a business owner may make grand pronouncements that the environment or some social issue is more important than profits, what he or she is really saying is that the company believes these issues are more important than customers.” And: “The idea at the root of benefit corporations is that profit should be abolished.”

This is the ultimate consequence of altruistic twaddle. The twaddle may strike some, as it does me, as tiresome nonsense, but it is not harmless. People who perform these behaviors may do them for the warm, fuzzy feeling of being moral, or even more moral than thou, according to the altruistic ethics, but in truth their ideas and actions harm consumers, harm the poor, harm the old, and harm those living in abject poverty on the other side of the world.

Self-interest, the profit motive, and capitalism are what create. Altruism destroys.

*I never say never to entrepreneurs, because some entrepreneur, some day, somewhere may, even in today’s government-hampered markets, figure out how to make these products cost effective and profitable when sold to low income buyers. Today, of course, aside from the inefficiencies of the technologies, these markets are shot through with government meddling and favoritism, ranging from tax credits to bailouts.

Postscript. I have never been a fan of the Peace Corps but the source of the reasoning in paragraph four above is the private nonprofit organization Global Volunteers. A labor of love of its entrepreneurial founders, the organization is billed as leader in the volunteer vacation movement. As I read through the site, I found myself faintly attracted to its mission and I think it is because anyone who works or aspires to work in a helping profession naturally would like to test his or her skills at helping. I know too much about economics, however, to think that this kind of volunteer work will ever achieve world peace or alleviate poverty.

One more question remains. Who actually is helped by missionary work? The helper’s self-esteem is surely boosted, but what about the unseen nine-tenths of the helpee? When rich Americans fly half-way around the world to spend their two-week vacations helping others who supposedly cannot help themselves, might there not be a touch of resentment lurking beneath the surface, not to mention feelings of inferiority?

For a different angle on this topic, see Coerced Altruism, Involuntary Servitude, and Contempt for the Less Well Off.

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Theory of the Big Mouth. In a short 2003 essay in the Atlantic titled “Caring for Your Introvert: The Habits and Needs of a Little-Understood Group,” Jonathan Rauch quotes silent Calvin Coolidge as saying, “Don’t you know that four fifths of all our troubles in this life would disappear if we would just sit down and keep still?” A flood of responses from readers led to this interview: “Introverts of the World, Unite!” Rauch must be on to something!

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