Friday, March 23, 2012

On "Giving Back"

I’ve written before about how wealth is created. Regardless of how you earn your living -- whether you sell products, knowledge, opportunities, or labor -- you are engaging in a trade. The labor I'm do is worth so much per hour: I give you my work, you give me the money. The opportunities I provide through investment have value. Every individual transaction, fairly traded, is a zero-sum transaction. Something of value is traded for like value. Even in a profit-making situation every trade is value-for-value. Though I bought a product for less and sell it for more, the sale is to someone who values it more. I've added value by realizing an opportunity. I inject expertise or convenience into the equation, and that's where the added value comes from. There is a limited supply of labor and resources in the world, but a never-ending font of knowledge and creativity and effort. This is why the total value in the world far exceeds what can be calculated from all the mining and logging and manufacturing ever done. Every idea you have creates value. You add to the value of the world by having ideas. Note that I'm talking about a purely idealistic capitalistic society here, in which everyone is providing value for what they consume.

I've been amused by the phrase "giving back to the community". Lately that amusement has given way to annoyance at the way it's typically used. If you understand the above paragraph, and you work or trade for a living, then you realize that you cannot possibly give back to a community that never actually gave you anything to begin with. Every transaction is value-for-value. You can't "give back" that which you were never “given”.

But you CAN “give”. This isn't a subtle difference. Giving is a charity, giving is a virtue, giving is an expression of selflessness and concern. Giving is an expression of love.

“Giving back” is an onus, a responsibility. You have too much and you got it without providing fair value. You have to give it back. It is an expression of guilt, and a response to class envy. It's not yours, you don't deserve it. Give it back. (Keep in mind here that I'm not talking about “giving back” when used by an individual in the sense of voluntary giving. My complain is about the phrase when imposed.)

“Giving back” is one of the greatest success stories ever achieved by those who would pervert a healthy social system through ill-conceived good intentions. It's so successful that I'd be willing to bet that many of the people reading this are already offended by what I’ve written. They actually feel anger, and are thinking to themselves, “Wait! No! It's not like that at all!”
Well, YES. It is. It's EXACTLY like that.
You've been told a lie. You've been told you can achieve too much, can do too much, can be too successful. Rather than being encouraged to engage in a selfless expression of love, you've been guilt-tripped into paying extortion. You may even have believed it, and repeated it, and thought yourself socially progressive for it. The truth is that you can achieve whatever your imagination, talents, and adventurous spirit will allow, without limit. You don't owe anyone for the privilege of having worked hard, been creative, and achieved your dreams. Charity is still a virtue: it is not a ball and chain.

Nevertheless, you have willingly accepted that ball and chain by those who tell you incessantly how unworthy you are to keep that which you produced. I find it sad that people can be hoodwinked into taking such satisfaction from being so terribly destructive.

We don't live in a capitalistic ideal, and never will. There are people who are pure consumers. Some of them are by choice; others not by choice. Those people who can ONLY take can, in fact “give back”. They're the only ones who can, as they've incurred a debt to society through one-sided consumerism. We can even put exact monetary figures on that debt.

Criminals in prison literally owe a debt. A criminal, released from prison, may say, “I’ve paid my debt to society.” Well, not really. Such a phrase is a convenient legal fiction. Yes, he was stripped of his freedom for a time. And he was fed, and clothed, and housed, and taught. All of this accrues a continuing debt to society, which is only paid by his getting a job and not landing himself back in jail. For that small corrective action the debt is forgiven. Not repaid... forgiven. The debts incurred by criminals aren't just monetary, and some can never be repaid: there is no penance great enough. But they can be forgiven.

Technically, those on welfare incur a debt. We call welfare programs "entitlements", but they're really not. No one should ever be “entitled” to stop doing their best to contribute to society within the limits of their ability. No one should ever be “entitled” to live for free on someone else’s dime. Not everyone who's on welfare gives up, but some do, and they're not entitled to do so. On the other hand, anybody could find themselves in a position where they need help, and human beings have a responsibility to each other. We should provide welfare to those who can’t work not because they’re “entitled” to it, but because it’s the decent thing to do.

It's time to tell the Emperor he's naked. I don't care if the entire kingdom applauds his new clothes, he's still naked, and I'll say it. Only criminals give back, and honest success is not a crime. People who are successful should be charitable to a degree according to their success. Those who are very successful should be philanthropists. It is a privilege and a virtue and a moral responsibility[*] to give freely and unreservedly. Those who are pure consumers should respond with that measure of gratitude which common decency demands. You are not entitled. No one is. So a “thank you” and an attempt to better your own condition is in order. That’s all that should be demanded of you, and it’s not too much. It is never, never, ever demeaning to show gratitude for that which you’re given.

What bothers me most about the prevalent spin on social values is that it strips us of charity and love and gratitude, and replaces these honest virtues with theft and entitlement and greed masquerading as virtues. The difference is profound. A person who is robbed responds with resentment, and by securing his remaining assets, leading to miserly behavior. A person who is entitled responds by taking without gratitude and without incentive for improvement, leading to stagnation. On both sides, this approach results in a loss of civility.

So do not expect me to characterize charity as “giving back”. It’s with joy and love and enthusiasm that we should give, and not because it's "owed" to any person.

[*] There's a word in Hebrew: "mitzvah". This means a commandment from God, but it also means "a good deed" or "a blessing". How is a commandment a blessing? Because it is a supreme honor to be commanded by God, and the greatest, most profound privilege to perform that command. A mitzvah is never onerous. It is never a chore. It is often a very difficult thing for non-religious people to understand.