Thursday, 23 September 2010

“Give back”? To whom? Why? [update 2]

gates-buffet Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are asking American billionaires to “give back” the majority their billions .  To “give back” more than half. “ Those of us who have been very fortunate have a duty to give back,” says Buffett associate Charles Munger.  A duty.

This is clearly a moral cause, wouldn’t you say? A “duty,” indeed! A duty that makes no sense.

And give back? From whom was their vast wealth supposedly taken? The concept makes no sense at all.

So far 40 of the wealthiest Americans have signed the Giving Pledge, as it's known. As people who have an enormous respect for those who create enormous wealth, Yaron Brook and Don Watkins urge them in an Open Letter in the latest Forbes magazine to think again

_Quote The premise underlying the Giving Pledge is that so long as you were pursuing your own goals and well-being, what you were doing wasn't moral. Only by making the good of others your primary aim and sacrificing your wealth to meet their needs do your actions acquire ethical significance.
    Virtually everyone today shares that view--but what if it's wrong? What if your greatest moral achievement consists, not in giving away your wealth, but in having produced it? What if morality is really about guiding you in making the most of your own life--not commanding you to serve the needs of others? What if the most virtuous thing you can do in life is to pursue your own happiness?

It’s a point that’s made too rarely, but one that can’t be made too often: There is more virtue in producing wealth than there is in giving it away—not least because without production is a central requirement of human life, and without it neither happiness nor philanthropy (nor even human survival) are even possible; more virtue in pursuing your own happiness than placing yourself in the service of others—“but, according to the Giving Pledge, what makes you happy shouldn't be your primary concern.”

Is it better to give than to receive? It’s better to produce.

Buffett & Gates seem to think their wealth is something to be ashamed of. That them having wealth is a reason to apologise to those who haven’t. That giving their wealth away will make people think better of them, and them of themselves, but keeping it and producing more won’t.

_QuoteIt is no accident that the Giving Pledge is not a call for charity but a public pledge to give [say Brook & Watkins] … 
    The Pledge treats your wealth, not as a justly earned reward, but as a gift from society--one that came with plenty of strings attached…  
    But your wealth was not an undeserved gift. Every dollar in your bank account came from some individual who voluntarily gave it to you--who gave it to you in exchange for a product he judged to be more valuable than his dollar. You have no moral obligation to "give back," because you didn't take anything in the first place.

Businessmen like Warren Buffett & Bill Gates have nothing for which to apologise, and much of which to be very proud indeed.  Not because of their philanthropy, but because of their enormous productive ability—and the products they’ve made and invested in that make each of us happier and more productive.  That’s the biggest service these two walking engines of production could provide, and already are. About that, they should feel nothing but pride.

They are naturally entitled to do what they wish with the wealth they themselves have created, but to consider their enormous wealth as undeserved and its possession as some sort of sin that must be atoned for—and to encourage others to view it their own wealth that way too—is not something about which they  should feel pride. About that, they should be ashamed.

UPDATE: Like many other people, says philosopher and business-ethics lecturer Stephen Hicks, I am troubled when I hear the phrase “giving back.”

_QuoteThe usual scenario: A successful person makes a donation to a worthy cause but downplays any praise by saying “I’m only giving back.”
    The usual gentle rejoinder is to point out that the phrase assumes that the giver has taken something from others in the first place — he’s borrowed or stolen something and in “giving back” is merely restoring it to its rightful owners. That zero-sum assumption is usually untrue: most donors have earned what they have. So the phrase “giving back” contains within it an injustice: a false accusation.
    Yet there is more to it: the phrase also denies the benevolence of the giver. If you are only giving back what is rightfully someone else’s, then you do not deserve any special praise for your action. Your benevolence need not be acknowledged or honored.
    So the phrase really is a double injustice: it implies that you do not deserve what you have and it denies you any credit you deserve for your benevolent act. (Or to put it abstractly: It is the imputation of an undeserved negative and the denial of a deserved positive.)
    So far so bad.
    But it gets worse…

For which read on, where you will not only discover why this popular use of “giving back” is injustice compounded, where there might be legitimate uses of “giving back,” and also for some  insightful comments on the link between “giving back” and the fundamentally flawed ethics of so-called “social justice and of “stakeholder” theory.

Second, I am not saying (read my lips, I am not saying) that people should not give their money away to causes which they deem worthy, and which they consider advance their own self-interested goals.

True enough, a billionaire may legitimately value a new yacht above the many uses many deserving charities might do with that money—and might legitimately value burning thousand dollar notes before giving it to an undeserving alleged charity like Sea Shepherd or Sue Bradford’s Kotare School.  But the reason many billionaires for many years have donated generously to build libraries, endow university chairs and fund teaching hospitals (and a myriad of other valuable charity works) is that, in George Reisman’s words, they are not “unthinking brutes incapable of understanding or appreciating the wider benefits resulting from such things as education and thus unwilling to support such activities voluntarily.”

In so doing, they do not give donations as alms—not because of some non-existent duty to “give back”—but because “they serve their own selfish values.” In donating to promote competent educational charities, for example, “they would provide to some significant extent both for the value they attach to living in a civilized society and to passing on such a society to their children…”


  1. "giving back" just add it to the list of popular socialist catch phrases.

    Is it just me or are we seeing the term "Our" appear so much more often in headlines these days.

    "Our water"
    "Our heritage buildings"
    "Our farms"

    This "Giving pledge" disturbs me on many levels.

  2. Charlie Munger also said this.

    “I believe Costco does more for civilization than the Rockefeller Foundation,” Munger, 86, told students in a discussion at the University of Michigan on Sept. 14, according to a video posted on the Internet. “I think it’s a better place. You get a bunch of very intelligent people sitting around trying to do good, I immediately get kind of suspicious and squirm in my seat.”

  3. @Dinther: No, it's not just you. We are. And it is.

    @Jeff: Yes, I noticed that. One wonders whether he's really as confused as the two statements taken together would make it appear, or which one of the two he actually believes--ands who he's seeking to appease.

  4. This Judeo-Christian ethic thing is why Eris Watson and Mark Hotchin are vilified and Alan Hubbard is not (other libertarian regulation arguments aside).

    If you are seen to enjoy your wealth you are some sort of pariah - whereas if you are a multi-millionaire and drive around in a smelly old VW you are akin to Christ.

  5. "Our fleet"
    It would seem that your car is part of Nanny States' fleet.

  6. Pro-Capitalist23 Sep 2010, 17:20:00

    I agree with what Ruth said above.

  7. I'm willing to take on the burden of accepting other people's 'excess money'

    Hell of a job, but somebody has to do it- and the money will go to a loving home!

  8. It's an interesting point that secular religion has taken hold of these men. No sign of claims that they share their wealth because Jesus (or Buddha) wants them to, which was often an argument used in former times, but merely an appeal to some irreligious moral good. Where does it come from?

    I can honestly say I've never thought about the phrase 'giving back' in that way before. And what you say is true, PC, that it's a problemmatic concept. However, many millionaires, as we know, have not achieved their wealth through individual effort but through government- assisted monopolies. So, for those who have not received each dollar voluntarily, but have gained it through making the market less free (and costing consumers more), then hell yes, I as a taxpayer want some of it back!

  9. Whatever happened to 'It's my money and I am free to do whatever I damn well like with it'?



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