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Compassion in Houston: Altruism or Selfishness?

04 Sep 2017

On a Fox News group show this morning (Saturday, Sept 2 on “Bulls and Bears”) I heard one person say that businesses in Houston had opened their buildings for individuals and even were giving merchandise away to those in need.  The pundit then added that the owners of these businesses probably acted as they did for self-interested reasons, believing that it would be good for sales in the future.  I’m sure he wasn’t trying to be cynical, but his comment played into the hands of many who see capitalism as just that–an institution that incentivizes selfishness and greed, and that most merchants never or almost never do anything out of charity or altruism.  

On the other hand, this view implies and sometimes is stated baldly, that government (politicians, bureaucrats) always or mostly act out of genuine compassion.

Both of these views are seriously flawed, even though of course one will find examples of each in any institutional environment.  First, Adam Smith, the so-called “founder” of modern free market economics (a misnomer, but he was undoubtedly a major force in changing ideas), wrote in both The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) and in The Wealth of Nations (1776), especially in the former, that human beings are motivated by more than simple, raw self-interest or selfishness.  He distinguished between self-interest and selfishness–the former was something we all legitimately possess, when for example, we provide for our life, our nourishment, our clothing and our families, the latter which is more or less ethical egoism.  But we also have a kind of second nature, which is the moral sense, and it moves people to benevolence, sometimes for one’s own self-interest but also sometimes out of pure altruism. There is no reason to think businessmen must always be selfish.  Some may be, and others not.  Even those who are at least are doing a compassionate deed.  We can at least thank them for the work they did, even if the motivation may not always be good.

But more than this, the Fox News speaker failed to acknowledge the importance of Christianity as a driving force among many in our society, despite the increasing secularizing trends, or perhaps just a “changing of the gods.”  Christians, to be sure, though not perfect, are often, if they take their faith seriously, willing to go to great lengths to help others in need, even those they don’t know and those who could never reciprocate.  Christians don’t expect to be reciprocated.  They do what they do out of a love for God and (the second great command) a love for their neighbor.

Even non-Christians sometimes act out of genuine compassion simply due to the common grace of God operating in them.  We should not discount this possibility, especially in times of need.

On the other hand, we ought to have disabused ourselves long ago of the attitude that government officials somehow possess better natures then the rest of us.  Why would we expect human beings in any environment to become different than they were in another setting?  The problem with such a viewpoint is not that all public officials must always be selfish.  That would be just as wrong as the view that all private individuals are selfish.  The problem is that it leads many to argue that only government is able to respond to problems.  Government then can grow very large, squeezing out civil society and squashing market activity.  People begin to think government is the only institutional arrangement that is able to be compassionate.

It is surprising that this insight into the essential uniformity of human nature was so quickly forgotten as the Progressive/Modern Liberal era began in the late 1800s.  But then perhaps it isn’t surprising;  That era corresponded almost precisely with the rise of a derision of the orthodox doctrine of sin and, along with it, the growth of an extreme optimism about the capabilities of humans and their eventual perfection.  It was only in the 1960s, in scholars like Vincent and Elinor Ostrom, James Buchanan, and the Public Choice school, that political though returned to the idea that even “public spirited” officials might be motivated by their own self-interest and that private individuals might be motivated by altruism.  I should add that these resurrected ideas are more subtle than I am able to articulate here.  Christians of course have always known this.  The Bible has always shown man for what he is as well as what he can be in Christ.  And that is why we could use a healthy dose of “Christian Realism” about government.

On a related note from the same show, the CEO of Home Depot argued that now is not the time for talk of tax cuts, that is, in this emergency in Texas.  I ask, why not?  Yes, the federal aid to Houston will cost a few billion dollars.  But is that a reason to postpone or sideline tax reform–reform which help even people in Houston.  And it is not likely that Congress would hesitate to spend money anyway, or for that matter, for any item they really want, no matter the budget impact.  It is time that those who actually pay taxes not be continually forced to pay for more and more government largesse.  If need be (and the extent of “need be” is something worth a debate), help Texas.  But don’t avoid tax reform by using Texas as an excuse.