Friday, August 26, 2011

Do Conservatives Hate Altruism?

On August 16, billionaire Warren Buffett announced his belief that rich people, such as himself, should pay higher taxes than they currently do. This was a direct statement of altruism. He was almost immediately attacked by Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann who said in a loud sarcastic manner, “I have a suggestion. Mr. Buffett, write a big check today. There’s nothing you have to wait for. As a matter of fact the president has redefined millionaires and billionaires as any company that makes over $200,000 a year. That’s his definition of a millionaire and billionaire. So perhaps Mr. Buffett would like to give away his entire fortune above $200,000. That’s what you want to do? Have at it. Give it to the federal government.”

Not surprisingly, Bachmann was wildly inaccurate. The president does not want people to earn only $200,000; he just wants slightly higher tax rates on people earning more than $200,000.

What Bachmann did not say, but clearly implied, was “Sucker.” Any rich like Buffett who would actually want to pay more taxes to help his fellow citizens must clearly be a sucker.

In encounters between animals of the same species, there are cooperators and there are defectors. Whenever a cooperator encounters a defector, the cooperator loses (becomes a sucker) and the defector wins. It would seem inevitable, in a world that consisted only of simple and direct interactions, the defectors always win, even though they cause themselves to become extinct. The world, however, is not that simple. Intelligent animals such as humans can recognize and remember one another as individuals, and they can remember the bad reputations of defectors and the good reputations of cooperators. In a world of complex interactions, cooperators can work together and drive the defectors into obscurity. In ways such as this, altruism (animals being nice to each other even if they incur a cost) can evolve.

Republicans clearly hate altruism. Some hate it more than others. Mitt Romney and Rick Perry do not make statements as extreme as those of Bachmann. It seems inconceivable to extremists like Bachmann that citizens should ever want to help each other. The Tea Party tirade of anger is not so much against “big government” as it is against a societal expectation that we, as fellow citizens, should be expected to help one another out, and that government should be a mechanism to facilitate altruism.

This conclusion is obvious not just from Bachmann’s statement, but from statements by the founding mind of modern extremist conservatism, Ayn Rand. She wrote, “If any civilization is to survive, it is the morality of altruism that men have to reject.” She was as wrong as anyone could be about anything, and so are her modern disciples. Humans are the most altruistic species, and the most successful, in evolutionary terms. Our survival cannot be assured if the Republicans succeed in destroying altruism.

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