Fiscal responsibility versus altruism and selfishness

Don & Bernice Richmond, Naples

Guest commentary reprinted from Naples Daily News, July 20, 2010

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In his July 7 column, Thomas Sowell wrote that “one of the many unsolved mysteries” of life is why Republicans continue to support tax increases to pay for Democrats’ irresponsible deficit spending. To solve this mystery, one must understand the key role of altruism in the conundrum.

Altruism is the principle “that service to others is the only justification for (one’s) existence, and that self-sacrifice is (one’s) highest moral duty, virtue and value” (Ayn Rand).

For well over a century, our politicians have won elections and governed by advocating and practicing this “virtue” — with other people’s money.

Besides inflation, there are only two ways to pay for government spending. One is by collecting taxes and the other is by issuing bonds, to be redeemed with future taxes. If one believes that service to others is the highest moral duty, one cannot take a moral stand against any government spending scheme that allegedly helps somebody. To altruists, the desire to use money as one sees fit is “selfish” and, therefore, immoral. To them, forcing taxpayers to serve others promotes morality.

Since the Republican opponents of deficit spending also accept altruism, they cannot defend their position on moral grounds when they are accused of being selfish.

Thus, the problem is not political, but moral. Understanding it requires a grasp of the true natures of altruism and selfishness. Rand recognized that both terms are normally used as “package deals,” mixtures of contradictory concepts that hide their essential meanings: “The irreducible primary of altruism, the basic absolute, is self-sacrifice” and “selfishness is: concern with one’s own interests (which) does not include a moral evaluation.”

Altruism’s key error lies in the premise that any action taken for the purpose of benefiting others is necessarily good, while any action taken for your own benefit is necessarily evil or, at best, amoral. Under that premise, it is immoral to create wealth, but moral to give it to those who have not earned it. Altruists believe that serving the needs of others is a primary, even if that means that someone must be a sacrificial animal.

Do not confuse altruism with benevolence. Benevolence comes from valuing other people. To be regarded as a sacrificial animal does not make one feel benevolent toward those who believe you have the obligation to serve them regardless of your own desires. You have no moral obligation to value those who want to use you, nor any obligation to fulfill their expectations

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In pursuing self-interest one must identify what is necessary to live a life proper to a human being and then act accordingly. Acting on random whims is not in your long-term interest. In reality, to be selfish means to use one’s rational judgment to try to live a productive and fulfilling life, without being a parasite on the productivity of others. It means neither sacrificing others to oneself nor sacrificing oneself to others.

“Sacrifice” is also a “package deal.” To sacrifice is to give up a greater value for a lesser one, or a non-value. To give up a lesser value for a greater one is an investment, not a sacrifice

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By its nature, government-forced altruism is incompatible with, and ultimately destroys, individual rights. The principle of “unalienable rights” is grounded in selfishness, in the belief that people are not beasts of burden. Rights pertain to your freedoms of action without interference from others, whether individuals or governments. Rights apply equally to all people at all times. The only responsibility they impose is that you respect the rights of others.

Only when those who oppose deficit spending realize that rational self-interest is the only moral position consistent with individual rights will they succeed in curbing runaway spending. Otherwise, they concede to the spenders the principle that the people are the servants of the government, not the reverse, as the framers of the Constitution had intended

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Everybody has unmet needs. If governments try to satisfy all those needs, there will never be spending limits. This will inevitably lead to national bankruptcy. If “fiscal responsibility” is taken to mean raising taxes to try to cover the debts, the inevitable results will be to cripple the most economically productive, to ensure rising debt and inflation, and to prevent any recovery

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Those who “wanted to make a virtue of selfishness,” as President Barack Obama once said, will only be virtuous if they clearly understand and uphold the true nature of “The Virtue of Selfishness,” as explained in Rand’s book of that name.

Don Richmond has degrees in physics and operations research. A former software systems developer on Wall Street, he is now a residential real-estate appraiser. Bernice Richmond has a bachelor’s degree in art and is a graphics designer and writer. He is a founder of the Ayn Rand Society for Individual Rights of Naples, an organization formed to increase awareness of Ayn Rand’s philosophy of objectivism.

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