Altruism Vs. Objectivism

I just read this very short blurb from a blog post by UT’s Daniel Hamermesh (one of a handful of economists And social scientists that Texans should be proud to have teaching out of their major public university).

What is altruism? Warren Buffett recently proposed a surtax on the very wealthiest Americans, including himself to help reduce the federal deficit. (This is a mild version of Obama’s perfectly reasonable proposal to tax family incomes above $250,000, i.e., fewer than 2% of families.) Buffett is being altruistic—the tax will reduce his net income. I always thought altruism was desirable, yet I’ve seen Buffett lampooned in the press.
I suppose one can argue that he’s really doing this to preserve the value of Berkshire Hathaway stock. (The same argument might apply when I donate blood—perhaps I do it because it makes me feel good, not to help others.) But: it’s a pretty sorry state of the world when someone offers to reduce his circumstances in order to help his country and is mocked.

It’s sometimes hard to break out of one’s news orbit (even if it’s pretty large) but I assume he’s talking about things like this and this.

I may be missing some of the backlash Hamermesh is talking about, and to my delight, poking around I find much more defense of Buffett’s plea than dismissal even in pretty mainstream sources. But the post reminded me of something I had just watched shortly before. A post at Naked Capitalism had a link to a 1959 interview with Ayn Rand. The blog’s proprietress, Yves Smith, thought it was of interest largely to hear what Mike Wallace, the interviewer, posits as common logic at the time. He speaks repeatedly about our “mixed capitalist system,” a lot about the perception in US society that “we are our brother’s keeper,” and just rattles off lists of government “entitlement” programs (though back then he did not use this subtly pejorative term to describe such programs) incredulous that Rand thinks they are tyrannical examples of takings and of how we are all enslaved to one another by such things (?). It is an interesting watch even though I had already seen some of it on the BBC’s “All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace” series, which has an episode focussed around the outsized influence of Rand on early pioneers in the tech industry.

It’s fairly obvious to see Rand as a naturally fervent anti-communist given her background, and it is a sign of the times that Mike Wallace doesn’t question that motivation much at the height of Cold War hysteria in the US. The BBC program sheds some light on much of Rand’s bizarre world in which her affair with a married acolyte was perfectly in tune with her rational “Objectivist” principles but his later affair with a younger member of the “Collective” was a totally irrational decision which sent Rand into fits of rage. Sounds amazingly like the way everyone acts, no? Much of that strange tale is narrated by the man’s long-suffering wife, who is a remarkably good sport for coming up with the short end of the stick in the Rand gang for over a decade.

But what got me putting these together was Hamermesh mentioning that Buffett’s proposal is altruistic in nature and how lampooning that motivation was indicative of a pretty sorry state of the world. To Rand, it would have been considered great progress.

Watch the interviews for yourself and see how much this country has changed in the last 52 years? Progress?


About theunlikelyeconomist

theunlikelyeconomist is in the midst of the long slog to attain a PhD in economics.
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