Altruism, capitalism, charity and drinking before noon.


A Dutch historian born the year before the Berlin Wall fell went viral.

Says Rutger Bregman, the hero of Davos: “No, wealth isn’t created at the top. It is merely devoured there.”

Bregman wasn’t couching his critique in terms of altruism, but rather offering a prescription to treat capitalism’s absurdly dystopian excesses.

This is about saving capitalism,” he said. “Most innovation has come about through government spending. During the golden age period [after the second world war], there were way higher taxes on wealth, property, inheritance and top incomes. That’s what we need today if we are going to tame this beast called capitalism.”

It reminded me of Ayn Rand, who spent a lifetime arguing against altruism.

There are some … who believe as Rand did: that those who rely on social systems are—to use her ugly term—“parasites,” and those who amass large amounts of private wealth are heroic supermen.

Her zealous disciples responded in kind.

Rand disciple Alan Greenspan, for example, initiated the era of “Reaganomics” in the early 1980s by engineering “an increase in the most regressive tax on the poor and middle class,” writes Gary Weiss, “the Social Security payroll tax—combined with a cut in benefits.” For Greenspan, “this was no contradiction. Social Security was a system of altruism at its worst. Its beneficiaries were looters. Raising their taxes and cutting their benefits was no loss to society.”

Then Rand got old, became ill and opted to accept “parasitic” Social Security and Medicare benefits.

Rand taught “there is no such thing as the public interest,” that programs like Social Security and Medicare steal from “creators” and illegitimately redistribute their wealth. This was a “sublimely enticing argument for wealthy businessmen who had no interest whatever in the public interest…. Yet the taxpayers of America paid Rand’s and Frank O’Connor’s medical expenses.” Randians have offered many convoluted explanations for what her critics see as sheer hypocrisy. We may or may not find them persuasive.

The preceding is intended as introduction to an interesting critique of “Effective Altruism,” in a Jacobin article by Mathew Snow titled Against Charity.

A growing social movement … brands itself Effective Altruism. Effective Altruists calculate where expendable income is best spent and encourage the relatively affluent to channel their capital accordingly. Among their most highly favored causes are the Against Malaria Foundation (which distributes insecticide-treated bed nets), the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative (which works to establish school-based deworming programs), and GiveDirectly (which gives unconditional cash transfers to people in extreme poverty).

Over 17,000 people have pledged to give at least 1 percent of their income annually to such endorsed causes, and over 1,000 have pledged to give at least 10 percent. It is particularly popular among millennials, leading some to laud it as “the new social movement of our generation.”

In short, “Rather than creating an individualized ‘culture of giving,’ we should be challenging capitalism’s institutionalized taking.”

The irony of Effective Altruism is that it implores individuals to use their money to procure necessities for those who desperately need them, but says nothing about the system that determines how those necessities are produced and distributed in the first place.

If we look at the institutions that make and allocate the resources others so desperately need, we must ask whether it is wrong to withhold those resources from others for the sake of payment and profit. Doing so not only seems morally reprehensible, it is morally reprehensible for precisely the same reason Effective Altruists argue it is wrong not to donate money to charities: it’s immoral to value some small sum of money (or what it might buy) over a human life or minimum standard of living.

In this way, Effective Altruism’s argument trades off an obvious moral truth without any mention of its direct tension with capitalist accumulation: as men and women with money and moral consciences, we can’t put a price on life, but as men and women participating in a system governed by the logic of capital, we must.

The absurd result is that Effective Altruism implores individuals to pay whatever price the market demands for basic necessities on moral grounds that cut against subjecting those necessities to capitalist market logic at all.

And the conclusion:

Rather than asking how individual consumers can guarantee the basic sustenance of millions of people, we should be questioning an economic system that only halts misery and starvation if it is profitable. Rather than solely creating an individualized “culture of giving,” we should be challenging capitalism’s institutionalized taking.

Just trying to inspire discussion over beers, y’all.