Enforced charity

One of the more frightening features of the 2008 U.S. Presidential race is its relentless focus on “public service” and the notion that freedom is about sacrificing your… uh, well, freedom of action for your country.  It first came to my attention when Rudolph Giuliani declared that “Freedom is about authority“:

Freedom is about authority. Freedom is about the willingness of every single human being to cede to lawful authority a great deal of discretion about what you do.

[ Interruption by someone in the audience. ]

You have free speech so I can be heard.

Our friend Herr Giuliani is somewhere between ludicrous and creepy… but we all knew that to begin with.  More recently, both Obama and McCain have harped on the notion of national service — nothing quite so crude as conscription, mind you, but rather the idea that the federal government should create some sort of National Service Corps to encourage (with varying levels of coercion) the civic-minded to Do Something For Their Country.

Stephen Littau wonders why the civic-minded would need any help:

Let’s be honest. If you really want to “serve your country/community/world,” again I ask you: What’s stopping you? Your level of service has not one thing to do with who occupies the White House at any given time.

It’s not as though there’s any shortage of opportunities for motivated people to actually step up and help their communities.  Concerned about affordable housing?  Build someone a house.  Angry about domestic violence?  Volunteer at a battered women’s shelter.  Worried about rising food prices?  Help out at a food bank.  Loved one suffering from a chronic disease?  Guilt some friends into sponsoring you for an MS walk.

It doesn’t have to be difficult.  You don’t have to martyr yourself to a cause.  For example: my supermarket has little coupon booklets at each checkout; each coupon represents a two-dollar donation to the local food bank.  It’s trivial (and painless) to tear off a coupon every time you go through the line, and if you buy groceries twice a week (as I do, because I like fresh food and dislike carrying huge loads of groceries home on the bus) it adds up to over $500 a year.

You know how this turns out: people don’t. I can’t be the only one tearing off these coupons — they’d not maintain the programme if I was — but I’ve never seen anyone else do so.  You’d think that some of these Volvo-driving Birkenstock-wearing hippies would be able to cough up half a Caramel Macchiato to help someone who needs it… but you’d be wrong.

Or maybe you wouldn’t.  It’s perhaps unfair to suggest that Vancouverites — or Canadians, or Westerners, or H. sapiens sapiens — are generally selfish, mean, and unwilling to help each other out.  After all, the notion of — and pride in — having a social safety net figures prominently in the Canadian self-image.  We put up with higher taxes than those damn Americans because we’re willing to sacrifice more of our wealth to provide for the less fortunate.  (It doesn’t have anything to do with a national sense of sanctimonious self-righteousness.  No sir.  Not at all.)

Why even bother distinguishing between private charity and government-funded social programmes?  Two reasons: First, when you give to a private charity, you can be reasonably sure that your money will go to the cause for which you intend it, rather than — say — buying more Tasers for the RCMP.  Second, when you give to a private charity, that charity gets all of your money.  When you pay taxes, some of it necessarily goes to support the elephantine bureaucracy required to collect, record, verify, and eventually distribute tax revenue — not to mention every bureaucracy that gets a piece of your taxes.  Call me an idealist, but I’d rather my money went to finding (say) a cure for cancer rather than buying cigarettes for some stressed-out government-employed suit-wearing fuck.

It may seem as though I’ve sidetracked myself into another rant on the subject of “why taxes suck”, but I haven’t.  One could be forgiven for thinking that most people won’t help others voluntarily, but are proud to be coerced into doing so.  Why the disconnect?

It’s the Principle of Equality of Misery again.  If I sacrifice to help others, and you don’t, then you’re just a little bit better off than I am (in immediate and material terms).  If both of us are forced to sacrifice to help others, then neither one of us is relatively better (or worse) off.  It seems petty, shallow, and vindictive under rational consideration in a mostly-free world economy, but this impulse probably evolved a goddamn long time ago, when H. sapiens lived in small bands of hunter-gatherers.  Those bands were mostly egalitarian — there was no way to save wealth, no specialization of labour, so everyone got to eat when someone was good (or fortunate) enough to kill a deer.  These really were pizza economies: if I get more of the pie, you get less.  If you sacrifice unilaterally and I don’t, you’re less likely to mate and pass on your genes than I am.

In other words, socialists are asshats because they’ve evolved that way.

Things have changed drastically since then, however — so drastically and so quickly that our instincts are not only obsolete but actively harmful (see also “Marxism, failure of”).  We’ve evolved in a world where hoarding a chunk of antelope is not only uselessly wasteful (no fridges back then), but actively harmful (everyone’s a few days away from starvation and meat — with all of its energy density and brain-fueling creatine — is scarce), but thanks to a few hundred years of exponential progress we can support not only vacuous douchebags like Paris Hilton but a whole industry full of people who do nothing but talk about vacuous douchebags like Paris Hilton.  We — mammals — have gone from a wolf-pack society where only the alpha couple are allowed to breed because it takes the whole pack’s energy to support a single family to one where having lots of kids (all of whom are expected to survive childhood) has become characteristic of poor people, not rich ones.

Nonetheless, we still have an instinctive urge to make sure that other people sacrifice at least as much as we do, and most of us don’t bother to question (let alone inhibit) that instinct.  Unfortunately, that means we waste our resources on ridiculous social scaffolds designed to ensure that everyone “pays their fair share” when we could instead spend that time, money, and effort on something useful.

Actually helping people, say.


2 Responses to “Enforced charity”

  1. August 9, 2008 at 22:30

    I found your site on technorati and read a few of your other posts. Keep up the good work. I just added your RSS feed to my Google News Reader. Looking forward to reading more from you down the road!

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