Altruism Unleashed

Much has been written in recent biology about the possibility of a human altruism gene.  Seems humans, among a few other species, show repeated instances of actions taken that are not solely survival ones.  It is imputed in the research that humans contain, as part of their genome, the unique capacity of self-sacrifice and actions that solely benefit others.  The theory further suggests that this impulse is not just learned, but in fact quite intrinsic to human nature.

I would make the case that at this time in our evolution, perhaps altruism has become too much of a good thing.  The altruistic impulse gains its name when it occurs in the face of possible harmful or fatal consequences upon the perpetrator.  The soldier who throws himself upon the live grenade to save his comrades is the classic example.  But let’s look at less dramatic examples and in places where it is endemic, systematic and institutionalized.  Christianity and its tenets is a broad such example. Its efforts over history have provided much succor and gain.  But it also has its share of critics and reformers.

In the secular world, socialism, governmental paternalism, communism, and the social progressive movement in America are all institutional examples of the altruistic impulse.  In principle, it is every person cared for to the level of their needs.  No one should suffer a shortage of any need whether physical or emotional.  This is a noble enterprise.

Now, in order to accomplish this, a certain amount of money is required to access and bestow this fundamental care.  Depending on the scope and size of this need and the recipients, the monies needed can vary greatly.  Simple sustenance and bandages for 2 or 3 percent of the population may not be burdensome.  But when we get beyond mere sustenance and care for 10 or 20 or 30 percent of the population, you begin to talk about real money.

This spectrum of governmental altruism exists from pure amoral capitalism on one end and communism or tyranny on the other.  Various forms of socialism populate the middle.  Modern capitalism has shed its early “take it all and leave the hindmost” process.  It now seeks to care for its needy and helpless with various entitlements and safety nets.  Communism and tyranny have fallen from within because the people tired of the promise of equality that never came.  Socialism was the broader middle with a host of  different variations each seeking to serve the entire population with basic and modestly ambitious caregiving.  Socialism varied as it sat in the spectrum either closer to communism or closer to capitalism.

As a political process, socialism takes on more of the altruistic impulse than any other social system.  It seeks to fairly distribute to all citizens the same basic and comfortable expectations of one’s daily existence.  From food and shelter, to medicine and education, to finally old age and retirement.  A noble altruistic goal.  But just as communism fell from within, socialism is beginning to see its limits and the end to its natural evolution.  Greece today is the example of a failed socialistic state.  It has been too kind for too long.  And in their altruism, the other EU socialistic states have loaned Greece the money to keep up its socialistic process.  But Greece had runaway altruism.  It gave too much.  They gave into the worst appetites in us all.  Over the decades, the “basics” grew ever larger and demanding.  The revolution of rising expectations ruled.  Unions demanded.  Politicians self-served these demands in return for power and purse strings.

I believe the European Union is desperate to save Greece because it is the canary in the coal mine.  If it fails, the others will either follow or have to repudiate much of the socialistic dream.  In financial fact, Greece has long ago failed.  It has lived on loans for years.  Communism failed as the dominoes of the various communist empire began to fail and fall.  The Soviet Union was quickly undone.  A variety of stand alones in various financial condition survived.  The EU worries that it will be the next Soviet Union to dissolve into isolated pieces.

This same altruistic impulse is being played out in America under the tutelage of Pres. Obama.  His every program is an effort to redistribute the wealth in this country in a more equitable way.  It is a feel good impulse, intrinsic to our nature, admirable in effort…but prone to the same outcome as Greece.  The frequent flaw pointed out in socialism is that eventually, sometimes sooner, sometimes later, you run out of other peoples’ money to distribute.  Greece is a country of only 11 million people.  But they couldn’t generate and sustain an economy that could feed and shelter even 11 million to a middle class standard.  There was no longer an incentive to earn large money and then pay taxes on it sufficient to support the others.  People either didn’t seek to be high earners or sought to avoid their taxes sufficiently to scuttle the ideological dream of the socialistic state.

There is another altruistic impulse at work in the modern world.  The poor and war-riven states of the world have discovered America and Europe, particularly northern Europe.  The southern border of both America and Europe are assaulted daily by those who seek a better life in these two havens.  Their numbers grow ever larger and more intent.  They tax the already over-burdened economies of Europe, and given sufficient time and numbers will do the same to America.  But the sorrow and pity evoked by the sight of refugees on flotilla in the Mediterranean, the south seas, and at the fences of the Rio Grande invoke the very altruistic pity that is the topic of this essay.  But can we actually indulge our altruistic impulses without limit?  California seeks to provide all needs to any illegal without question, from basic food shelter and medicine, to education and jobs.  For how long and for how many can they do that?

I would further state that it is altruism that drives our environmental campaigns.  We seek to save ourselves and the earth from bad air, bad soil, bad water, bad food.  We seek to purify everything.  Another noble goal. Seeking the ephemeral goal of carbonless fuel sources has proven to be a wraith.  Europe has sought these goals since the 90’s; we in the 21st century.  In both histories we are beginning to see that these pursuits are economically unsound by huge margins.  Coal, gas and oil are vastly cheaper as a means to the end.  Solar, wind, etc. are so uneconomical that they must be seen in the same light as welfare and entitlement programs.  They are altruistically driven.  They make no sense economically.  Only government subsidies (same altruistic socialistic impulses) make them competitive.

Obamacare is the same altruistic impulse.  Yes, it gives health care to those who could not previously afford it, but at significant costs (more subsidies) to the general public and its taxed based government.

The altruistic impulse is a good one.  Perhaps even an innate one.  But some wisdom, some calibration must be brought to bear on it, otherwise it is self-destructive.  To lose one person to the grenade to save ten is good value.  To lose a nation, to be unable to feed all, in the endless effort to feed the ever coming hungry and needy must be given pause.  All of the above mentioned programs come from the same impulse, but eventually at too great a cost. Too many people clamoring to board the lifeboat dooms all.  Someone has to make sane and hard choices.  Otherwise we become a barren wasteland of cemeteries filled with both buried saints and buried supplicants.

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2 thoughts on “Altruism Unleashed

  1. such valid thoughts! greece is a crazy situation. countries are like children running up credit card debt. article brought my mind back to a fave book, atlas shrugged.

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    1. Thanks for reading. Your parallel with Atlas…is an apt one. I hadn’t thought about it, but Rand does propose a theory of “rational selfishness” in her philosophy. And the conflict in her book is between a socialistic/communistic government and the best and brightest of the “capitalists”. That’s about where we are in this country.

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