Saturday, December 22, 2012

A Christmas Altruism Message

Merry Christmas, everyone. Pull up a chair by the fireplace and listen to some stories about altruism.

Society is based on altruism. One of the most common examples is traffic regulation. Nearly everyone obeys traffic laws almost without thinking about it. Think of the billions of dollars that would be lost in our economy if, instead of traffic regulations, we just had open competition on the roadways. It would be chaos, with millions of hours of productive work time lost by people stuck in traffic worse than they already are. I would be perfectly happy to yield to pickup trucks with half-ton ram’s horns on the front, but I wouldn’t necessarily see them coming in time to stop. Also, I do not think a free-market economy would work well for traffic regulations. I would be happy to let someone driving a big pickup pay me to let them always have the right-of-way, but the infrastructure necessary to keep track of the payments would consume most of the profits. Traffic regulations are perhaps the best example of everyone reaping immense benefits from altruistically surrendering just a little bit of freedom, and we all grudgingly love those little laws.

Christmas is a time when people dabble in a little more altruism than normal. And tell and retell the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, the Dickens story about the quintessential anti-altruist. Scrooge (whom I played in a high school drama, as difficult as that may or may not be to imagine) was an evolutionary failure in all three forms of altruism: kin selection (he was mean to his nephew), direct reciprocity (he was mean to Bob Cratchit), and indirect reciprocity (he refused to donate to charity). Christmas is also a time when everyone can congratulate themselves that they are, at least, not as mean as Scrooge.

One might think that everyone would, with Dickens, rejoice in Scrooge’s Christmas Day conversion into an altruist. But one might be wrong. Leave it to a conservative commentator to criticize Scrooge for turning into a nice guy. This commentator (whose name I forgot, but who worked for a conservative think tank) said, in effect, what was Scrooge thinking? Giving Bob Cratchit and his family that big goose? First, how would that affect the employer-employee relationship? What will happen on the day after Christmas, when Cratchit shows up for work and expects to get a goose every week? And, second, this would only encourage Cratchit to sue Scrooge after he and his family ate all the grease and developed circulatory problems.

Okay, I just made that second one up. But the conservative commentator really did make the first point. I couldn’t make something like this up. Truth is stranger than fiction. I first learned this when, as a child, I was watching Dragnet on television. In one of their episodes, they investigated a case in which someone had stolen a man’s lawn. It was an expensive dichondra lawn, rather than a grass lawn. Dichondra has shallow roots, making it easy to scoop up a dichondra lawn (I think, never having tried it myself). No one could make up a story about someone stealing a lawn (Dragnet always began with, “The story you are about to see is true; the names have been changed to protect the innocent”). And only in the real world could a conservative commentator criticize the generosity of Scrooge. I only hope it was intended as a joke, although neither the guest speaker nor the radio host gave any such hint.

If you want another Christmas message, this time from Charles Darwin, check out the Merry Christmas from Darwin video on my YouTube channel.

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