The Psychological Pyramid Scheme of Altruism

 Posted by on 14 July 2008 at 11:02 pm  Ethics, Politics
Jul 142008

Often, when I am trying to explain to someone why it is improper to tax people for others’ benefit, no matter how desirable that benefit might be, I get the response: “But I’m willing to pay taxes for that!” This often happens in the context of health care — people tell me they don’t mind being taxed for health care, and wouldn’t mind being taxed more if it meant universal coverage. So I wonder: why do so many people find it easy to agree to be taxed to help other people, to provide welfare? In Henry Hazlitt’s Economics in One Lesson (which I recommend for its readability, although the philosophy is often incorrect), the single lesson he teaches is: people only see the immediate (single) consequence in front of them, but don’t look at the many diffuse repercussions of a decision. So one answer is: a taxpayer might agree to be taxed to provide for others’ medical care, caring only that others are taxed to provide that taxpayer with medical care and not worrying about the fact that government finance of something means government control of something — and government control of a thing properly left private means government destruction of that thing. Many, many people really want the cake now, even at the expense of destroying the ability to make cakes in the future.

But I think there’s a deeper level why people agree to it. The argument that socializing medicine will destroy it is so rational and sound that I think we need to look for a deeper psychological reason why people evade the truth of it. And I think it has to do at least in part with a particular aspect of altruism identified by Ayn Rand: namely, that it is impossible to consistently practice altruism. What is the effect of adopting a moral code impossible to practice? A catastrophic loss of self-esteem. I believe that, rather than face such a catastrophic loss of self-esteem, people will evade the facts that bring them face to face with that loss. I think this is a possible explanation of why people agree to be taxed to provide welfare to others. I explain more below — hopefully, without lapsing into “psychologizing.”

When a person directly asks another for alms — in this case, for medical care — the altruist ethics demands that whoever is asked to contribute do so to the limit. “To each according to his need.” If a patient in the hospital directly asks a strange visitor for $10, perhaps this visitor, if also an adherent to the altruist ethics, cannot help but think that he or she could afford much more. And maybe this altruist also can’t help knowing that there is more than one patient in the hospital that needs help paying medical bills — maybe this altruist should be giving $10 dollars to each financially needy patient in the hospital. Perhaps the altruist can’t avoid the knowledge that his ethics require him to give to his absolute limit. Being face to face with a request to live up to his altruist ethics starts the altruist on a train of thought that ends with divesting himself of every value he has ever worked for and, deep in his heart, he knows he has earned. Whether or not the altruist gives the $10 requested of him, he is stuck with the guilt of knowing that he is a hypocrite: the reason he gives the $10 is identical to the reason he must give away all of his money. And he knows he will not and cannot do it, because he wants to live and enjoy his life. The guilt must be crushing.

On the other hand, being taxed for something doesn’t bring an altruist face-to-face with his guilt over his failure to actually live by the altruist ethics. If the altruist agrees that everyone must be taxed, he can, in a way, feel that he is giving more than $10. If everyone gives $10, then that’s hundreds of millions of dollars. If the altruist supports EVERYONE giving ten dollars, he gets to support giving needy patients, as a group, hundreds of millions of dollars.

So he gets to feel virtuous.

That other people might, in good conscience, consider themselves free of any obligation to engage in charity, is immaterial.

People really do need to feel they are right. It might be the most basic need. Ayn Rand has identified pride as the sum of all virtues. It’s because pride has to do with making yourself a worthy subject of effort. If you aren’t worthy of effort, you aren’t worthy to live, because man’s life requires sustained effort. But to be worthy of effort, you have to be a valuable, good person. Which means: you have to be a MORALLY good person.

Forcing altruism on others is the only way for an altruist to feel morally good, because no-one can consistently practice altruism. Since you can’t actually practice it, your only hope is to counterfeit it and evade the fact of your counterfeiting. But it’s hard to evade something right in your face, such as being confronted with a beggar asking for alms. It’s easier to evade something less concrete. The person asking an altruist for money directly makes an altruist feel horrible because she is faced with a concrete instance of how painful her morality is. But what’s most concrete about taxes is: for the price of $10, you can feel like you’re contributing hundreds of millions. Instead of the road to hell being paved with good intentions, the road to heaven is.

No one can practice altruism. Anyone can intend to practice it. Anyone can claim credit for intending to practice it, especially when every other person who shares that moral concept is hoping to get away with the same self-swindle. It’s one big psychological pyramid scheme.

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