Ayn Rand’s genius….

…was not in making a philosophy, but in selling it. Can you do as well?

This year’s ThinkOff debate topic is, “Do the wealthy have an obligation to help the poor?” They’re looking for a pool of 750-word essays from which to pick two champions for each side of the proposition for a live debate.

Easy-peasy, right? Here’s the real challenge: The judges ain’t lookin’ for a dry exchange of talking points comparing Objectivism to Rawlsianism. They’re looking for people with COMPELLING PERSONAL STORIES to illustrate their own arguments.

Now, it’s not hard to imagine lots of compelling personal stories from poor (or formerly poor) people about how they benefited from wealth transfers from the rich, or how they didn’t get those transfers and suffered as a result. Can you construct a countervailing compelling personal story for the opposite perspective? And having constructed it, can you think of a champion who could plausibly claim the story as his or her own? Some alternatives:

1. Find a real-life John Galt who is as succinct as Ayn Rand was verbose.

2. Draft Patri. Admittedly, I know nothing of his personal circumstances, although I suspect that everybody’s life story has SOMETHING that could be told. No, I nominate Patri because of his personal commitment to Seasteading movement – action with inherent drama. So we’d need a brief personal anecdote somehow related to the topic, and immediately transition into describing the life of the new frontiersmen. Recreating the story of the Pilgrims but without the Indians. Risking lives, fortunes, sacred honor in pursuit of the ideals of liberty. Hell, it writes itself.

3. As a fall-back position, there are various ways to criticize the “OBLIGATION to help the poor.” While I can’t think of how to mount an appealing attack on the concept of compassion in 750 words, I can drive a wedge between the idea of compassion and the idea of obligation.

A. “People with the discipline to change themselves are laudable – and rare. For most of us, change becomes possible only when we must confront the consequences of our refusal to change. X% of American adults living in poverty do so because of mental illness, chemical addiction, etc. -- circumstances that cannot be solved with money alone. For people with these issues, an entitlement to a stream of resources merely delays the day of reckoning and the possibility of reformation and growth. As the director of Alcoholics Anonymous – and a recovering alcoholic myself – I know the harm that can be done by a misguided sense of obligation….”

B. “As the principle fundraiser for Catholic Charities, the first thing I want to tell parishioners is to stop feeling guilty -- and among Catholics, that’s a hard message to sell! But I repeat, if you feel even the slightest resentment about contributing, please keep your money. That kind of contribution will not only diminish your own life and vitality, it will diminish the welfare of the poor. Today more families than ever are struggling with financial and other stresses. On top of this, they struggle with a sense of inadequacy for coming to us during their hours of need. We don’t want to compound their problems by subjecting them to a free-floating sense of resentment from the rest of society. So Just Say No to obligation. God loves the cheerful giver!”

C. “As a former Klansman, I can tell you that nothing is eroding the foundations of our society more than the widespread sense of resentment felt by people who feel that they’ve been compelled to help the poor. And because a disproportionate number of poor people are also members of ethnic minority groups, this resentment is fueling racism. If we as a society ever want to get serious about our real obligations – that is, our obligations to remedy the harms of racism – then we need to stop stoking resentment against members of minority groups. Don’t be fooled: while the Klan is currently – and blissfully -- in decline, the Tea Party Movement is now expressing this popular frustration more forcefully than ever….”

4. If the link between compassion and obligation is too great to be overcome in 750 words, then the next best position may be to whipsaw the argument: “Yes, the rich have an obligation to help the poor, just as the poor have an obligation to help the rich. We all have an obligation to use our resources for the betterment of society in general. But an obsessive concern with the resources of the rich – that is, with money -- reflects a misguided sense of envy. As the director of the Organ Donor Repository, I’m in a position to observe that people’s feelings about the duty that the rich owe the poor are not generally reciprocated. People who have signed up to donate organs, volunteer for a bone marrow transplant, or even give blood are overwhelmingly upper class. If we’re all in this together, let’s act like it. No more excuses!”

Those are a few ideas that leapt to mind. Whadda you got?

Deadline is April 1, no foolin'.

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Compelling personal stories:

Compelling personal stories: Meh.

If you can't understand rights in dry abstract terms then you can't understand them at all. You can only be temporarily swayed by emotion.

How about this: You have no right to steal another person's wealth just because you're heard no "compelling story" persuading you not to steal it.

Too dry?

I have this nagging feeling

I have this nagging feeling that jtk3 wouldn't make a very good salesman.

The truth isn't for sale, Micha.

So what are you selling?

Obligation/Rights Versus Duty

In this case, I think it would be helpful to make the distinction between obligations and duties. Every obligation has a corresponding right. Obligations are legally enforceable, but duties are not. When two people make an agreement to trade an orange for $1, one person has an obligation to provide the orange and the other person has a right to the orange. In the same way, the other person has a right to the $1, but the other person has an obligation to provide the $1. It is obligatory to make good on contracts (agreements), but not to help an old lady across the street (although this is morally praiseworthy and might be a duty).

This conception of right/obligations relies on a distinction between rights and freedoms. Rights are created by agreement (contracts) or are natural depending on your ethical theory. Freedoms are the elements that make up the set of feasible acts that do not cause harm (torts) and so place the burden of proof on those who would seek to limit your freedom.

Proof to whom?

Doesn't "the burden of proof on those who would seek to limit your freedom" imply an objective moral standard of proof? That would require natural rights.

Or does proof merely require a vote?

Not necessarily.

Not necessarily. Epistemology could take the place of ethics in this case. The person seeking to perform a feasible act would have to show why an infinite amount of consequences didn't cause harm if the burden of proof was on him (which is impossible to know in a finite amount of time). On the other hand the person seeking to show a feasible act would cause harm and so should be prevented only has to show a single harmful consequence if the burden of proof was on him. This is no different than the reasoning behind the "innocent until proven guilty" maxim.

Proving harm gets you

Proving harm gets you nothing here until you recognize some right to be free of such harm.


First, I suggest reading "The Objectivist Ethics" in The Virtue of Selfishness.

Second, for personal stories, Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead are nothing but such stories (fictional, though).

Third, it's always good to define your terms. What do you mean by "compassion"? What is the meaning of "obligation" (Ayn Rand uses it to mean: that which is required to achieve your values).

Last, the issue is moral before it is political. The other people who have written about force, law, etc. are not getting to the fundamental moral point: do you live to achieve your own goals or those of others (whether rich or poor doesn't matter). Rand says your life is an end in itself, and you have no obligation to others (except the negative obligation not to sacrifice them to yourself, since you don't want them to sacrifce you to them).

See my book, now online: The Ayn Rand Lexicon under Egoism: www.aynrandlexicon.com

Should not take 750 words

In the last 6000 years of human history, maybe 80% of the people lived in poverty, 15% were middle management, and 5% stinking rich. At least half of the Tanakh (Old Testament) were about God's complaining that the rich people were stomping on the poor people. Before WW1, half the people in the US and Canada lived in poverty.

After WW2, thanks to the G.I. Bill and the Marshall plan, the western nations developed a large middle class instead of the traditional depression that occurs when the troops come home. The WW2 effect began to fade around 30 years ago. The world is regressing to the norm of 80% living in poverty.

Thanks to increased productivity, the nature of poverty has changed. Poor people in the US die of excess calorie intake. Poverty has become psychological. In the bad old days people expected to freeze and starve to death in the winter. Now that the working class has tasted the good life, they bleed before they are cut which is probably a good thing.

Why? Because the working class still has some political power and may be able to stop the current stampede to the bottom before it is to late.