Rebirth of Reason


Making a Contribution
by Merlin Jetton

One often finds person X morally judging person Y based on whether or not Y has "made a contribution to society."  This is usually an expression of the morality of self-sacrifice—one's moral worth is based on what one gives to others, while asking nothing in return. Indeed, according to such a principle, the more one contributes, especially materially, and the less one gets in return, the higher one's moral worth.

Rational self-interest and the trader principle provide a different perspective. A much better standard befitting the trader principle is whether or not one is self-supporting. "Self-supporting" here need not mean only oneself, but includes family members or others one chooses to support.

If one's production exceeds what one receives in return in the form of material goods and services and even non-material recognition from others, then one does "make a contribution to society" in a sense. Producing is what merits the return. Isaac Newton, for example, was such a person. However, Newton's motive was self-interest and to achieve, not to "make a contribution to society." His achievement was a better understanding of physical reality and the invention of a new branch of mathematics to describe it. "Making a contribution" was a by-product. He could not have even envisioned all the people, many born long after he died, whom he benefited, nor to what extent.

On the job workers may be recognized for their contributions to a project in ways other than money. But they also get monetary returns. Their contributing befits the trader principle, not one of self-sacrifice.

There are many who make a contribution to society largely in order to make a living. They do not have the interest in their work on a level with Isaac Newton or a hero in an Ayn Rand novel. But that's okay; they still satisfy the trader principle. Only a few can be great achievers.

Then there are those who "make significant contributions to society," by taking credit for contributions that were really provided by others. Examples include Mother Teresa, and most politicians. Mother Teresa relied on donations from others, giving them nothing in return, beyond maybe a word of thanks. Most politicians' "charitable contributions," by way of transfer payments, rely on theft via the tax code, and give the victims nothing or much less in return. And how often do you hear the politicians giving the victims even a word of thanks in return?

By the self-sacrifice, ask-nothing-in-return standard, wealthy producers in business such as Bill Gates only get credit for "making a contribution to society" when they contribute to charity or do something comparable like endowing a university. There is no credit under this standard for providing employment to others or providing customers with useful products. These are only the pursuit of self-interest, which is morally neutral at best.

Why do advocates of making a contribution to society make such a big deal of this anyway? When the wealthy producers die, they "can't take it with them," so they must "make a contribution to society" by default. Estate and inheritance taxes help to assure that. I can guess their answer to this question, but believe the question is worth repeating after the initial response. Moreover, why are they so willing to use or approve coercion in order to pursue their moral ideal?
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