Why the UBI Is a Bad Idea

There are many reasons to oppose a universal basic income — a guaranteed stipend to be granted to every adult American citizen (or person regardless of age, or resident regardless of citizenship). I won’t enumerate all of the reasons, when one should be enough:

1. Almost every adult citizen (even including many with sever mental or physical handicaps) is capable of producing something of value for others.

2. A UBI is a disincentive to work, that is, to produce.

3. A UBI would nevertheless given its recipients a claim on the output of others.

4. Ergo: a smaller “pie” (total output), shares of which would be given to persons who had no hand in making the “pie” (or less of a hand than would otherwise be the case), and shares of which would therefore be taken from persons who actually had a hand in making the “pie”.

UBI is just another kind of government-enforced form of charity, which — like other forms — disincentivizes work (among beneficiaries and taxpayers alike) and reduces economic output. It also disincentivizes private charity.

Private charity actually incentivizes work (on the part of givers) because it is one of the ends that is served by work, along with affording the necessities and luxuries of life for oneself and one’s family. Private charity is also less likely to disincentivize work by its beneficiaries because it can be more easily aimed at those who need it in order to be capable of work (basic shelter, food, clothing, etc.), and can be tied to the actual performance of work (e.g., Goodwill Industries).

Scrooge, before his conversion to soft-headedness, was right about workhouses. Ironically, they were government-run institutions that had it right: charity in the form of gainful, productive employment. But then charity became a right, and the rest is history.

As the old saying goes, a hand up is better than a handout. Or, as another one goes, give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.

Religion on the Left

Maverick Philosopher makes an astute point:

[T]he present question is not whether God exists or not, but whether belief in Man makes any sense and can substitute for belief in God. I say it doesn’t and can’t, that it is a sorry substitute if not outright delusional. We need help that we cannot provide for ourselves, either individually or collectively. The failure to grasp this is of the essence of the delusional Left, which, refusing the tutelage of tradition and experience, and having thrown overboard every moral standard,  is ever ready to spill oceans of blood in pursuit of their utopian fantasies.

There may be no source of the help we need. Then the conclusion to draw is that we should get by as best we can until Night falls, rather than making things worse by drinking the Left’s utopian Kool-Aid.

The main ingredient of utopian Kool-Aid (its water, if you will) is a belief in the perfectibility of man and the ability of man to achieve perfection on this earth. It is that belief which enables leftists to inveigh against every inevitable imperfection of human striving as a failure that must be — and can be — corrected through state action.  The state is the left’s religion-substitute, and a most dangerous one because obeisance to the state leads to the suppression of individuals in the name of the common good — as seen from the left — and the destruction of the human spirit that enable earthly progress, imperfect as it may be.

Where one finds ostensibly religious persons on the left, one does not find a belief in voluntary acts of goodness toward others. What one finds is exemplified in A Circle of Protection, which proclaims:

As Christians, we believe the moral measure of the debate is how the most poor and vulnerable people fare. We look at every budget proposal from the bottom up—how it treats those Jesus called “the least of these” (Matthew 25:45). They do not have powerful lobbies, but they have the most compelling claim on our consciences and common resources. The Christian community has an obligation to help them be heard, to join with others to insist that programs that serve the most vulnerable in our nation and around the world are protected. We know from our experience serving hungry and homeless people that these programs meet basic human needs and protect the lives and dignity of the most vulnerable. We believe that God is calling us to pray, fast, give alms, and to speak out for justice.

As Christian leaders, we are committed to fiscal responsibility and shared sacrifice. We are also committed to resist budget cuts that undermine the lives, dignity, and rights of poor and vulnerable people. Therefore, we join with others to form a Circle of Protection around programs that meet the essential needs of hungry and poor people at home and abroad.

Hiding one’s leftism behind the robe of Jesus is a cynical act:

[T]he “Circle of Protection” … tried to browbeat conservative lawmakers into pumping taxpayer dollars at full force into welfare and wealth redistribution programs.

They claimed to be doing this for the “poor.”  The coalition’s slogan, “What would Jesus cut?”, equates federal spending levels with degree of morality….

Such political activism is its own reward—there’s unlikely to be much of a reward in Heaven for being “compassionate” with other people’s money.  Jesus noted that the Pharisees, who excelled at imposing layers of human standards to the Lord’s, practiced their “righteousness . . . [merely] in order to be seen” by other people.  The “circle” follows the same practice….

The bottom line for America is how to put our public sector on fiscally sustainable ground—for the good of all Americans.  The welfare state, the disproportionate expropriation of private income and wealth transfer schemes embodied in public programs all make for unsustainable spending patterns.

Moreover, the government is robbing middle- and upper-income Peter to pay Paul—despite the fact Paul has what would amounts to middle-class or upper-income existence in most of the world.

The so-called “Circle of Protection” and the unfair, immoral policies it stands for represent one circle that should be broken.

“Charity” at the point of the state’s gun is not charity, it is theft. There is a Commandment about that, as I recall.

Leftists-cum-religionists commit at least one other sin — or most of them do, I am sure. That is the sin of hypocrisy:

Essentially its malice is identical with that of lying; in both cases there is discordance between what a man has in his mind and the simultaneous manifestation of himself…. St. Thomas Aquinas teaches that we must carefully differentiate its two elements: the want of goodness, and the pretence of having it. If a person be so minded as definitely to intend both things, it is of course obvious that he is guilty of grievous sin, for that is only another way of saying that a man lacks the indispensable righteousness which makes him pleasing in the sight of God.

The portrait of hypocrisy is drawn with appalling vividness by Christ in His denunciation of the Pharisees in Matthew 23:23-24: “Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites; because you tithe mint, and anise, and cummin, and have left the weightier things of the law; judgment, and mercy, and faith. These things you ought to have done, and not to leave those undone. Blind guides, who strain out a gnat, and swallow a camel.”

There are those Pharisees again. Their modern brethren are well-fed, well-clothed, well-housed leftists who proclaim their “compassion” for the “less fortunate” and use the state’s power to enforce that “compassion,” but do not share their homes with the less-fortunate or even give as generously to charity as the conservatives whose supposed lack of “compassion” they deride.

What does left-religionists’ penchant for coercion and hypocrisy have to do with atheism? A lot.

The invocation of religion as a justification for state action, for the sake of the “poor and vulnerable,” is a mockery of charity:

a divinely infused habit, inclining the human will to cherish God for his own sake above all things, and man for the sake of God.

I submit that one cannot be a Christian, in more than name, while favoring coercive “charity.” The person who does that is putting himself in the position of judging the relative worthiness of individuals, which is a kind of blasphemy. Further, the belief that one is doing good by counseling coercion is a manifestation of the vice of presumption.

I will go further and say that the leftists of my acquaintance who profess to be religious are no less mean-spirited than the leftists of my acquaintance who reject religion. Mean-spiritedness is not excused simply because it is aimed at the well-to-do. Yes, Jesus said this to the rich man: “If you will be perfect, go sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven: and come, follow me.” But Jesus was counseling the rich man, not directing anyone to take the rich man’s possessions and give them to the poor.

My conclusion — to which many readers will no doubt object — is that leftist-religionists are religiously shallow at best and insincerely religious at worst. Remove their veneer of religiosity and you have a utopian leftist, committed to perfection on this earth. In other words, you have an lefitist-atheist in all but name — a person who worships at the altar of the state.

Related posts:
Religion and Liberty” (at Facets of Liberty)
“Occupy Wall Street” and Religion

Taxes: Theft or Duty?

As goofy as Ron Paul is about defense and foreign policy, he is mostly right about domestic policy, namely that there should be little of it — especially at the national level. This is from his exchange with David Gregory on Meet the Press (October 23, 2011):

MR. GREGORY:  Let me, let me ask you about the role of government.  You’ve said about taxation, in a way that doesn’t minces words, the following: “Taxation is immoral,” you told the Libertarian Party News.  Would you scrap the tax code altogether?

REP. PAUL:  That would be a pretty good idea, a pretty good start.  I, I can qualify it if I’m allowed.  Taxation is theft when you take money from one group to give it to, to another, when you, when you transfer the wealth.  Now, taxation could be accomplished with user fees and, you know, highway fees and gasoline taxes and import taxes.  But the income tax is based on the assumption that the government owns you, owns all of your income and provides the conditions on which they allow you to keep a certain percentage.  That, to me, is immoral, and the founders didn’t like it.  That’s why the Constitution had to be amended in 1913.

Not eloquent, but fairly near the mark.

Government has essentially one legitimate function, which is to protect citizens from predators, foreign and domestic. That covers national defense and domestic justice (including the enforcement of contracts and prosecution of fraud). Those functions could be provided by private agencies, but — because of the danger of warlordism — they are best provided by government and funded from a true flat tax.

A proper division of labor would place defense in the hands of the national government and justice in the hands of State and local governments. This would eliminate the ability of the national government to criminalize conduct for the sake of imposing its will on everyone. For the same reason, the provision of justice should be devolved to the lowest possible level within each State.

I see no need for State and local governments to do more than provide justice, though the government of a very small community — say, not more than 150 persons — might legitimately do more if authorized by the community, following rules explicitly and regularly adopted by consensus. Expanding the scale of government action beyond the jurisdiction of a small community courts runaway statism and precludes the provision of services (utilities, highways, etc.) by private actors, which are subject to discipline by market forces.

With that background, I turn to the October 20, 2011, issue of The New Republic and “Don’t Mess with Taxes: A moral defense.” Excerpts of the editorial (in italics) are accompanied by my comments (in brackets and boldface):

Elizabeth Warren, the Harvard law professor now running for U.S. Senate, is getting a lot of attention for the video of a speech she made recently. It wasn’t just because she was taking on Republican talking points more forcefully than most Democrats do these days. It was also because she was defending an idea almost nobody in American politics dares to champion anymore, at least explicitly: She was defending the idea of taxes. [Elizabeth Warren is all wet.]

In recent decades, Republican politicians and key allies, most notably anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist, have succeeded in demonizing taxes, as if the very concept of a tax itself were immoral. [Not quite. See above.]

But there is nothing wrong with asking [asking?] people to pay taxes. On the contrary, there is something very right about it. Nobody [nobody?] questions whether society [the state] can require people to serve on a jury or, in times of war, to enlist in the military. [So soon is Vietnam forgotten, along with its main legal legacy: all-volunteer armed forces.] So why do we question whether society [the state] can require people to pay for the government whose services, and protection, they enjoy? [Most of us do not “enjoy” government services, other than defense and justice, and even those that we do “enjoy” would be provided more efficiently by private firms.]

The moral case for taxation rests on two separate, but related, principles. The first is distributional. History teaches us that capitalism is an excellent economic system for generating wealth. But history also teaches us that capitalism will create losers as well as winners, often because of forces beyond any individual’s control. Whether it’s accident or illness, mismatched skills or misallocated resources, large numbers of people will inevitably find themselves in financial difficulty—without a job, without savings, and without enough money to pay for the basic necessities of life. It can be crippling for them and crippling for their children, so that poverty, like affluence, becomes its own sort of inheritance. [And that’s another thing better left to the private sector: charity. Charity-by-government is an inefficient way of taking from the few to give to the many — but it yields votes, as in “tax and tax, and spend and spend, and elect and elect.”]

A civilized society recognizes this problem and vows to mitigate it. [A state, driven by power-lust, is not a society, and cannot claim to be civilized.] If capitalism does not offer everybody at least some realistic hope of upward mobility, it cannot survive.  [But it does offer that hope, and it will survive unless the minions of the state have their way.] Here in the United States, a part of our solution has been to enact government programs that offer the needy minimal allotments of sustenance (food stamps) and shelter (housing choice vouchers), that provide the less affluent with cash (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) and college tuition (Pell Grants), and that guarantee all citizens pensions (Social Security) and health insurance (Medicare, Medicaid, and the Affordable Care Act). These programs cost money. And the money has to come from somewhere. [These programs are self-defeating because they (1) create dependency, (2) reduce the incentive to better oneself, (3) reduce the incentive to save for one’s future needs, and (4) drain resources from growth-producing investments that create jobs and higher incomes, and allow people to save for future needs.]

The second reason we need taxes isn’t about the least fortunate; it’s about public goods. You’ll frequently hear conservatives argue that taking money from people, particularly successful people, is unfair because they, not the government, earned that money. But that’s not quite right, for reasons Warren explained very well in her monologue. Behind every successful individual is a set of public investments that past generations made. Could Bill Gates have made his fortune without government-financed education and technology? Could Sam Walton’s stores have spread across the country without government-sponsored roads on which goods and customers travel? “You built a factory and it turned into something terrific, or a great idea?” Warren said. “God bless. Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.” [“Public goods” are a crock. Elizabeth Warren is all wet.]

[O]n the morality of asking [asking?] people to pay taxes, there should be no debate at all. Taxes are an act of citizenship [coercion]. We should all be proud to pay them. [Speak for yourself, kemosabe.]

Other than that, I found the punctuation and spelling to be impeccable.

As for the question posed in the title of this post: theft, all theft, because even essential protective services are not funded equitably.

Related posts:
The Social Welfare Function
Risk and Regulation
A Short Course in Economics
The Interest-Group Paradox
Addendum to a Short Course in Economics
Monopoly: Private Is Better than Public
Utilitarianism vs. Liberty
Utilitarianism, “Liberalism,” and Omniscience
Accountants of the Soul
The Real Burden of Government
Zones of Liberty
Toward a Risk-Free Economy
Rawls Meets Bentham
The Rahn Curve at Work
A True Flat Tax
The Case of the Purblind Economist
The Illusion of Prosperity and Stability
Estimating the Rahn Curve: Or, How Government Inhibits Economic Growth
Asymmetrical (Ideological) Warfare
Giving Back, Again
Taxing the Rich
More about Taxing the Rich
Luck-Egalitarianism and Moral Luck
The Destruction of Society in the Name of “Society”
What Free-Rider Problem?
Utilitarianism and Psychopathy
Elizabeth Warren Is All Wet

Peter Presumes to Preach

Thanks (?) to one of the Bleeding Heart Libertarians (Jason Brennan, in “Class Experiment on Helping the Poor“), I was introduced to an essay by Peter Singer, “Famine, Affluence, and Morality.” Singer was writing in 1972, when there were thought to be nine million destitute refugees in Bangladesh as a result of the Bhola cyclone of 1970 and atrocities committed by the Pakistani Army during the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971.

I hope that Brennan, who teaches philosophy at Brown University, is using Singer’s essay to illustrate fallacious reasoning about moral obligations. For that is the lesson to be drawn from Singer’s presumptuous sermon on moral duty and its fulfillment.

I begin the lesson by arranging pertinent excerpts of Singer’s essay to give the main points of his argument:

[1.] I begin with the assumption that suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and medical care are bad….

[2.] My next point is this: if it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it….

[3.] The uncontroversial appearance of the principle just stated is deceptive. If it were acted upon, even in its qualified form, our lives, our society, and our world would be fundamentally changed. For the principle takes, firstly, no account of proximity or distance. It makes no moral difference whether the person I can help is a neighbor’s child ten yards from me or a Bengali whose name I shall never know, ten thousand miles away. Secondly, the principle makes no distinction between cases in which I am the only person who could possibly do anything and cases in which I am just one among millions in the same position….

[a.] The fact that a person is physically near to us, so that we have personal contact with him, may make it more likely that we shall assist him, but this does not show that we ought to help him rather than another who happens to be further away. If we accept any principle of impartiality, universalizability, equality, or whatever, we cannot discriminate against someone merely because he is far away from us (or we are far away from him)….

[b.] There may be a greater need to defend the second implication of my principle – that the fact that there are millions of other people in the same position, in respect to the [persons in need], as I am, does not make the situation significantly different from a situation in which I am the only person who can prevent something very bad from occurring. Again, of course, I admit that there is a psychological difference between the cases; one feels less guilty about doing nothing if one can point to others, similarly placed, who have also done nothing. Yet this can make no real difference to our moral obligations….

[4.] The outcome of this argument is that our traditional moral categories are upset. The traditional distinction between duty and charity cannot be drawn, or at least, not in the place we normally draw it….

[5.] It follows from some forms of utilitarian theory that we all ought, morally, to be working full time to increase the balance of happiness over misery…. Given the present conditions in many parts of the world, … it does follow from my argument that we ought, morally, to be working full time to relieve great suffering of the sort that occurs as a result of famine or other disasters…. [W]e ought to be preventing as much suffering as we can without sacrificing something else of comparable moral importance.

Singer continues:

I now want to consider a number of points, more practical than philosophical, which are relevant to the application of the moral conclusion we have reached….

This argument [against private giving] seems to assume that the more people there are who give to privately organized famine relief funds, the less likely it is that the government will take over full responsibility for such aid. This assumption is unsupported, and does not strike me as at all plausible. The opposite view – that if no one gives voluntarily, a government will assume that its citizens are uninterested in famine relief and would not wish to be forced into giving aid – seems more plausible….

I do not … dispute the contention that governments of affluent nations should be giving many times the amount of genuine, no-strings-attached aid that they are giving now….

[Another] point raised by the conclusion reached earlier relates to the question of just how much we all ought to be giving away…. [E]arlier I put forward both a strong and a moderate version of the principle of preventing bad occurrences. The strong version, which required us to prevent bad things from happening unless in doing so we would be sacrificing something of comparable moral significance, does seem to require reducing ourselves to the level of marginal utility [the level at which, by giving more, I would cause as much suffering to myself or my dependents as I would relieve by my gift]. I should also say that the strong version seems to me to be the correct one. I proposed the more moderate version – that we should prevent bad occurrences unless, to do so, we had to sacrifice something morally significant – only in order to show that, even on this surely undeniable principle, a great change in our way of life is required. On the more moderate principle, it may not follow that we ought to reduce ourselves to the level of marginal utility, for one might hold that to reduce oneself and one’s family to this level is to cause something significantly bad to happen…. Even if we accepted the principle only in its moderate form, however, it should be clear that we would have to give away enough to ensure that the consumer society, dependent as it is on people spending on trivia rather than giving to famine relief, would slow down and perhaps disappear entirely. There are several reasons why this would be desirable in itself. The value and necessity of economic growth are now being questioned not only by conservationists, but by economists as well. There is no doubt, too, that the consumer society has had a distorting effect on the goals and purposes of its members. Yet looking at the matter purely from the point of view of overseas aid, there must be a limit to the extent to which we should deliberately slow down our economy; for it might be the case that if we gave away, say, 40 percent of our Gross National Product, we would slow down the economy so much that in absolute terms we would be giving less than if we gave 25 percent of the much larger GNP that we would have if we limited our contribution to this smaller percentage.

Singer’s dicta make it evident that Singer not only is a strong utilitarian but also considers himself the keeper of the collective conscience of mankind. He knows how to measure the pain and pleasure of individuals, how to sum those quantities, and how to redistribute the world’s goods so as to arrive at a sustainable level of net pleasure.

The sustainable level, in Singer’s benighted view, is not the maximum that human beings could produce through their ingenuity, which is never a limited resource. No, the maximum, in Singer’s view, is much less than that because he is also a puritan who “knows” that there is entirely too much “consumerism,” and that its devotees ought to be made to scale it back to the “right” level — as defined by Singer.

In sum, nothing counts unless Singer says it counts. That rules out many values which compete or interfere with Singer’s view of what the world should be like. Those values include liberty, bonds of love and affection, the striving to better oneself and to leave something behind for one’s descendants, the cooperative spirit without which material progress and mutual acts of kinds and charity cannot flourish, and much more.

Singer’s world is a world in which governments apply a formula whereby persons having an “excess” of worldly goods — above some arbitrarily determined minimum — are required to forfeit that “excess” to those who have less than the minimum.

With this understanding of Singer’s mindset, the “logic” of his argument becomes apparent. I restate it more plainly below. Each restatement is accompanied by a libertarian alternative, in bold, italicized type.

1. I begin by appealing to the image of 9 million suffering human beings, as a way of lulling the unwary reader into believing that I am a caring human being, when in fact I have an authoritarian penchant for imposing my views on others.

Every bad thing that happens to an individual is a bad thing for that individual. Whether it is a thing that calls for action by another individual is for that other individual (or a group of them acting in concert) to decide on the basis of love, empathy, conscience, specific obligation, or rational calculation about the potential consequences of the bad thing and of helping or not helping the person to whom it has happened.

2. If it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought to do it. However, it is morally wrong for anyone to have more in the way of material possessions than anyone else. The limit of sacrifice is therefore defined by whatever one has to give up in order to reduce himself and his dependents and descendants to the standard of living that would result through massive income redistribution.

There is no universal social-welfare function. Therefore, it is up to the potential alms-giver to give or not, based on his knowledge and preferences. No third party is in a moral position to make that choice or to prescribe the criteria for making it. Governments have the power to force a choice other than the one that the potential alms-giver would make, but power is not morality.

3a. It is wrong to favor persons nearer to oneself over persons who are farther away. I am able to say that because I believe that such things as family, religion, ethnicity, club, church, community, and nation have no moral relevance. It matters not that individuals may form bonds of mutual respect and affection that lead them to commit acts of kindness and charity toward one another, and to treat each other with restraint. Such things are beyond the ken of the cold rationalist that I am.

It is foolish to say that persons with whom one shares no connection are as important as persons to whom one is connected. It is equally foolish to ignore the positive value of social connections. The personal choice about helping others (or not) may properly take into account the effects of that choice on those connections, without which there would be for more anti-social acts and state interventions.

3b. One’s moral obligation to give aid is unaffected by failure of others to do so.

Moral obligations arise from individual circumstances and mutual understandings, not from philosophical abstractions. But if one is inclined to help others in need, it is reasonable to ask whether a certain amount of money will materially aid those others. If not, withholding the amount may be the wisest course because it will be available for use in a case where it can have a material affect. Giving for the sake of giving can be irrational if one is truly committed to helping others.

4. Charity is duty; therefore, it is not charity.

Charity is a voluntary act that one commits without a sense of obligation; one helps one’s family, friends, neighbors, etc., out of love, affection, empathy, or other social bond. The fact that charity may strengthen a social bond and heighten the benefits flowing from it is an incidental fact, not a consideration. Duty, on the other hand, arises from specific obligations, formal or informal. These include the obligations of parent to child, teacher to pupil, business partner to business partner, and the like. Charity can be mistaken for duty only in the mind of a philosopher for whom love, affection, and individuality are alien concepts.

5. There is a universal social welfare function, and everyone ought to be striving, at all times, to maximize it. Moreover, only I know how to maximize universal social welfare. Anyone who contravenes my edicts is acting anti-socially and ought to be brought into line by the state (as long as it acts according to my dictates, of course).

If there is a universal social welfare function, then reducing the level of consumption in an affluent society just for the sake of reducing it (as Singer would) makes no sense; the outcome would be a reduction of social welfare. Of course, it may be that Singer would be so gratified by the reduction of others’ welfare that his own would rise by enough to offset that reduction. The preceding (facetious) observation points to the emptiness of the concept of a social welfare function, which implies that A’s unhappiness at having money stolen by B (or taxed away for B’s benefit) is canceled by B’s happiness at acquiring the money that he has acquired from A (by theft or taxation).

Finally, at the risk of seeming cold-hearted, I must ask the following question: Given the scarcity of resources (at a given time), is it not better to put those resources to work where they will do the most good? I disagree with Singer’s arguments for abortion and euthanasia (including “death panels“) because, among other things, such practices put us on a slippery-slope toward eugenics. But I can do disagree with Singer and still say that, given a choice, I will (and do) give to those who have a chance of a better life (especially if I love them) before giving to those whose lives seem hopeless.

My first duty (as Singer would say) is to those whom I love. And by helping to secure a future for them, I am also increasing the possibility that one or more of them will invent, develop, or apply technologies that help to prevent the kinds of suffering for which Singer merely prescribes palliatives.

Other posts about Peter Singer:
Peter Singer’s Fallacy
Peter Singer’s Agenda
Singer Said It
Rationing and Health Care

Other related posts:
Greed, Cosmic Justice, and Social Welfare
Positive Rights and Cosmic Justice
Utilitarianism, “Liberalism,” and Omniscience
Utilitarianism vs. Liberty
The Mind of a Paternalist
Accountants of the Soul
Rawls Meets Bentham
Enough of “Social Welfare”
The Left
Social Justice
The Left’s Agenda

Giving Back, Again

This question appears on the website of an alumni organization to which I belong:

If the __________ were to ask all current members to give back to their community as part of their [membership] requirements, how would you like to see that play out? For example, what kind of service or citizenship activities and programs would have been useful or enriching for you, as an __________ member?

I will play the devil’s advocate by asking why a person should “give back” to his or her community. To “give back” suggests, to me, that the “giver” hasn’t been giving all along. For example, a person who earns $1 million a year (unless it’s obtained through theft, fraud, or the use of state power) hasn’t stolen anything from anyone else. Rather, that person has given $1 million worth of value to others, for which those others have paid voluntarily.

I don’t mean to disparage acts of voluntarism and charity; such acts are laudable. But they are laudable because they are voluntary, not because they signify a debt that must be repaid by “giving back.” And they are laudable only if they are undertaken in a way that doesn’t draw attention to the “giver.”

But “giving back” — in this instance, as in most others — smacks of bragging and condescension. A mind reader would find something like this among the “giver’s” thoughts:

Oh, how fortunate I am or you/we are to be blessed with brains/looks/money. It is therefore incumbent on me to make a point of my superiority by doing something gracious for less fortunate persons in whose company I otherwise wouldn’t be caught dead.

I would like not to read about a rich alumnus who has given his alma mater millions of dollars, with the understanding or in the expectation that an endowment fund or campus building will bear his name in perpetuity. I would like not to read about a movie star who has scoured third world for orphans worthy of adoption. I would like not to see TV coverage of star athletes who prance about on a field with children of many hues for the few minutes that it takes to film said coverage.

Were I not to read and see such things, I would know that voluntarism and charity don’t warrant special attention because they are unexceptional acts.

Related post: Giving Back