Thursday, 26 December 2013

Generosity

In Dickens' "A Christmas Carol", the miser par excellence, Ebenezer Scrooge, is frightened by the Christmas ghosts into uncharacteristic acts of generosity. But I have always wondered how long his change of heart lasted. After all, Christmas lasts less than 2 weeks....then the decorations come down, the lights go out and we all start our post-Christmas diets. The abundance of Christmas is followed by the scarcity of Lent. I fear that Scrooge's habitual miserliness would have made a swift return once the visions faded and the grim reality of a diminishing hoard started to bite. As Fagin says, "In this world nothing counts/ But in the bank, large amounts".....even if the price of your wealth is the poverty or the loss of others. Scrooge and Fagin are brothers under the skin.

Yet our economy runs on generosity. Everything we have, we have because of the generosity of others - the people who produce what we invent, buy what we produce, give us their time, their effort, their talents and - one way or another - their money. I call it generosity, though it goes by other names too - "spending", "producing", "consuming", "donating", "helping". Wealth is created by doing things for others. Doing things primarily for yourself may also benefit others - this is what my parents call "enlightened self-interest", though we also know it as "trickle-down economics". But too often doing things primarily for yourself impoverishes both you and others: you, because self-centredness cuts you off from the richness of human interaction, and wealth is no substitute for love: and others, because your greed deprives them of wealth and your selfishness deprives them of your company. Selfishness and greed don't cause poverty, they ARE poverty. 

Humans are, as a species, innately wealthy. We are intelligent, resourceful and creative. And when times are good, we are generous. But when times are hard, our concern for others is diminished due to our fear for our own future, and we withhold from others all that we have to offer. This is natural and perhaps understandable, but it is neither morally right nor economically sensible. When we withhold our natural wealth from others, we do not keep it safe - we destroy it. Ideas that never become reality are worthless. Money that is not invested productively generates no economic growth. When we fear scarcity, we create poverty.

The hoarders of wealth depend on the generosity of others to create the future prosperity upon which the value of their hoard depends. John Galt rejected the people who demanded that he share his wealth: but in rejecting them, he brought about the very thing he feared. A small enclave of like-minded people could not possibly have consumed enough of his ideas to give him the material wealth he craved. For that, he needed the purchasing power of those he rejected. Without it, he was condemned to a life of poverty without reprieve.  "Galt's Gulch" would perhaps be better named "Galt's Ghetto".

And "Atlas Shrugged" should be subtitled "the Folly of Selfishness". For folly it is. Scrooge's story shows that greedy and selfish people are eventually rejected by the people whose generosity they depend upon. "Hating on bankers" is society's rejection of people in the financial sector whose greed and selfishness caused economic disaster in 2008. "Hating on the rich" is society's rejection of people whose wealth has been maintained through extraordinary economic measures while everyone else has been feeling the pinch. What is seen as "unfair" - rightly or wrongly - ultimately is rejected, sometimes painfully. Fagin was hung...... and in the vision of the Ghost of Christmas Future, Scrooge's tombstone lies forgotten and neglected, for he died unloved.

We can have prosperity. We really can, and for everyone, not just a fortunate few. But it depends on whether we are willing to let generosity become something we practise all year round, not just at Christmas. And that can only be achieved if we vanquish the real foe - our fear of scarcity. The terrible children of the Ghost of Christmas Present, Want and Ignorance, are spawned by that fear. When we vanquish our fear, they too will vanish.

Our wish that  it could be Christmas every day could come true. It is up to us to make it happen. 

Related reading:

Does charity end after Christmas? - A dragon's best friend

37 comments:

  1. This chimes with some of the things I spotted & listed in http://adragonsbestfriend.wordpress.com/2013/12/26/does-charity-end-after-christmas/ - in particular about Christian religious leaders turning their spotlight on the causes rather than alleviating the symptoms.

    The big issue for me is the ongoing face-to-face relationships that are formed or rather those that are prevented from forming by structures we put in place. I think back to my nursery school where toddlers from affluent and low income backgrounds mixed, before the former took their children out of the state sector and put them into private schools. It was surreal to meet up with some of them again many years later when we were doing A-levels at Hills Rd Sixth Form College - the one that hits the headlines as being a state sixth form college that gets lots of students into Oxbridge.

    The thing is, if people don't have day-to-day interactions with people from social backgrounds different to those that they grew up with, does it have an impact on how they empathise with others? Has the shift from permanent employment to temporary short term contracts broken the chances of any positive working relationships forming between the super-wealthy and those that work for them? If the affluent don't have a stake in the societies of the rest of us, the mindset of 'why should I pay for that?' becomes louder. Think of those who believe they should get a tax break for sending their children to private schools on the grounds their decision has reduced the burden on the state - rather than the state school closest to them being an integral part of their local community beyond being simply a factory to churn children with various levels of education out.

    But where does regular cross-class social interaction happen these days? Are our communities becoming more polarised?

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  2. @Frances:

    "When we withhold our natural wealth from others, we do not keep it safe - we destroy it."

    And when we share our natural wealth we destroy it faster.

    You must open your mind toward a 3d way, or it is you and your children that are destroyed. and everything else that lives on the planet that you and they might ever care about.

    Please stop trying to make industrialization work, It cannot be done. The end is always death.

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    1. Steve, you have to read this in conjunction with my Pieria post " The death of John Galt"" link is in the post, but here is is again: http://www.pieria.co.uk/articles/the_death_of_john_galt. In that post I defined our "natural wealth" as being our ideas. I've followed that line of thinking here with my comment about humans being "innately" wealthy because of our intelligence, resourcefulness and creativity. When I said "natural wealth" that is what I meant - not the natural resources of the Earth that we are busy depleting. We have to put our intelligence, resourcefulness and creativity to much better use.

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    2. Indeed.

      One of the Big Trades of the 21st Century will be the Transition Trade - the exchange of intellectual value for the value of carbon fuel saved.

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    3. Chris, we are not saving the value of carbon fuel we are looking to get at more of it. We are also lying about not being quite able to do so by promising we will do so tomorrow.

      Frances, when you are saying the words ""intelligence, resourcefulness and creativity" I believe this is sincerely what you really want. At the same time you keep offering means to somehow 'fix' the industrial economy. You cannot fix it, why do you want to? "Ideas" and "prosperity" ... are the conventions of the ad man, buzz-words like 'entrepreneur' and 'innovator'. What else can the ad-man promise? That a minor adjustment on some monetary margin will bring forth the needed 'final demand' that will make the machines work properly? Machines, margin, adjustments, monetary ... all of these things are ideas. There is nothing concrete to them other the waste and ruin that are left behind.

      "Who will you believe, me or your lying eyes?" -- Marx

      Here is the chapter only dimly hinted at by Marx, missing entirely in Keynes, the rock upon which the great economist founders. Keynes never examined whether industrial economies could pay their own way: he simply assumed they could. That assumption was his beginning point, it was also a fatal error: Industrialization can never retire its own debts or meet its own costs.

      That this is so is self evident. If any machine could pay for itself it would do so, and would pay more besides. As many of these machines as needed to retire the world's debts would be deployed. Beyond the debts, every man and woman would be made rich. Instead: more machines = hundreds of trillion$ in debt + greater ruin of the world; this is thermodynamics.

      The track record of, "intelligent, resourceful or creative" = no different from that of its industrial child; 400 years of accelerating and self-amplifying ruin. This disaster is the product of our creativity; we presume we can 'fix' what we do not care to understand, all those things we dismiss as unimportant besides money. You say, "Ideas are wealth" but the only ideas that matter are those that can coax money out of the ground, or how to steal- or gain by murder.

      We are indeed resourceful: more means to cheat, less restraint, more ways to be dishonest with ourselves. Intelligent, resourceful or creative are futile attempts ... to retrieve long-extinguished capital. We are childish, vain, impetuous, stupid and extraordinarily violent. Everything in our world is viewed through the prism of war, self-justifying and frantic contest of the human race against all things alive and dead, This is a war we have started because we are convinced by our precious tycoons that nature herself commands that only the strongest survive.

      We need a moratorium on intelligent, resourceful or creative, it is almost too late for these things even if there was any substance to them. We need character and humility ... words never uttered by any money man- or woman, economist or politician. We hear instead 'how we can beat the system' by one trick or another how we get something for nothing, how we are entitled as 'masters of the universe' to live beyond our means. We all in our hearts know what we need to do ... to get rid of the hundreds of millions of cars and the car industry and the other 'great' industries ... the freeways and the skyscrapers and the airplanes, the TVs and the toys, our 'comforts', our luxuries and our other fetishes. We need to lose about 6.8 billions of us and as many livestock animals ... and we need to do these things very quickly. This doesn't require imagination at all ... only our ability to endure great hardships and to learn what any dog or cat already knows without lessons. All these things are going, anyway. That is what we have left ... some small fragment of control over our own destiny.


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  3. Completely wrong reading of Atlas Shrugged! Have you read the book?

    The point is not that John Galt wanted to 'hoard' his intellectual wealth, nor did he 'crave' material wealth (had he wanted the latter, he could easily have sold out to the state on countless opportunities as described in the book). He wanted to share his mind and its creativity only on the basis of free trade, not the state and others looting it from him or otherwise compelling him to 'cooperate'.

    It is not 'greedy' to refuse to work with people who persecute you, even if the result of non-cooperation makes everyone poorer.

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    1. Charles, yes I have read the book - several times, actually. Galt objected to the attempt to take from him what he considered he was entitled to - the product of his mind, and all the returns from that. Selfishness is founded on a sense of ownership that results in refusal to share. As you say, Galt could have shared. But he didn't. That the state, or its representatives, found it necessary to try to coerce him indicates that sharing his wealth (however you define it) voluntarily without expectation of reward wasn't something he was prepared to do. It is not just the famous "strike" that is selfishness in action. It is the whole situation. Try to hold on to what you have, you lose everything. Share it with others, it grows so there is plenty for all.

      By the way, I don't defend the attempt to force himself to share, either. But it is not the real problem. The real problem is the utter foolishness of believing that anything we have, including the product of our own minds, is ours alone and not to be shared.

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    2. "Force HIM to share", I mean. Predictive text fail, sorry!

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    3. "Selfishness is founded on a sense of ownership that results in refusal to share". That's completely incorrect. Selfishness is the recognition that humans must produce the things they need to survive and that one's life is the standard of value. Most Objectivists I know are very generous and don't refuse to share. The issue here is not sharing as such, but the moral requirement that one share, which is false.

      Though you say you've read the book several times, you haven't understood it. You should read Rand's non-fiction (in particular The Virtue of Selfishness) and get a better understand of her philosophy.

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    4. I have read The Virtue of Selfishness, actually. I'm surprised that you can't see that behind selfishness lies ownership. If you own nothing, by definition you cannot be selfish: you may be greedy or envious, but selfishness implies ownership. Similarly, if what you own is worthless it costs you nothing to share it. Sharing implies cost (sacrifice, as Ayn Rand calls it). Therefore refusal to share is understandable - but it cannot in any sense be considered virtuous. To declare that selfishness is a virtue is to state that you are intrinsically of more value than another human being, not because of what you can contribute but simply because of who you are. I might agree that humans are intrinsically of value because they exist, but I'm not going to agree that you are intrinsically of more value than me simply because you think you are. Intrinsically you are of no more value than any other human. Your relative value is therefore determined by your contribution, and the value of that is determined by what others will pay for it. If others regard your contribution as valueless they will not pay for it and you will starve, however wonderful you think you are. And if you refuse to contribute - to put what you have to offer at the disposal of others - then you are worth less than those who do contribute. John Galt's sense of innate superiority is in no way supported by his actions. His strike rendered him of no more value than the people he despised. In fact he behaved just like them.

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    5. Values imply a valuer. You are using the term "value" as if it exists independently of the valuer. I am of more value to _me_ than you are to me. This must be so.

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    6. True. But as your survival depends on the value I place on your production, then what you think you are worth is if no consequence - it is what I think that matters. That is as true of inventors as it is of workers. If I am not willing to pay for your ideas, you will starve, however valuable you consider your ideas to be. And if I don't value your ideas, I only care about your survival to the extent that I value you as a human being - which is no more than any other human being and probably less than people who aren't so insufferably certain of their own superiority. There is such a thing as negative value, you know!

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    7. "your survival depends on the value I place on your production". That's false. My survival depends on my ability to use my mind to produce the things I need to survive. In the basic case, I could live by subsisting. In modern society, we trade value for value. i.e. someone trades me something I value in exchange for something he values.

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    8. Er no, you have the economic theory of value the wrong way round. The value you place on your production is of no consequence. "Someone" will only buy your production if it is of value TO HIM. If no one wants to buy your production, your mind alone cannot ensure your survival. Whether you like it or not, unless you wish to scavenge on common land, your survival depends fundamentally on your ability to produce something that others value enough to want to pay the price you need to achieve for it. It is a total fallacy to imagine that if you produce something, others will necessarily want to buy it at your price, or indeed at any price.

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    9. "It is a total fallacy to imagine that if you produce something, others will necessarily want to buy it at your price, or indeed at any price." I didn't say that. In any event, you don't understand Rand. Nice talking to you :)

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    10. No, you didn't put it like that, but it is implied in what you said. You can't eat ideas. Somehow, you have to find someone who values your ideas - the product of your mind - enough to want to trade with you. They might need to like you, too. Otherwise, in a completely free market you WILL starve, however many ideas you come up with. Ayn Rand implicitly assumes that there is always a market for the ideas of a brilliant mind. That is a very big assumption.

      I would add that telling me I don't understand is usually what people do when they've lost the argument.

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    11. "My survival depends on my ability to use my mind to produce the things I need to survive"

      Good luck with that homebrew brain tumour surgery, old chap.

      Unless you consider yourself to be God (always an possibility in a Randian's weltanschaung, I admit) your finite lifespan and the ever expanding realm of human understanding means it is impossible to learn fast enough to be prepared for every threat to your survival. Therefore (quite apart from the Adam Smith insight that it's better for people to specialise than try and do everything), at some point you are going to be reliant on someone else's labours *or education* for your survival, at which point all the time spent on the internet ordering people to read books they've read matters not if they won't share with you.

      From that, obviously, societies that cooperate and share to reduce risks to their survival are going to beat societies organised on Randian lines ten times out of ten, along with societies that provide institutional frameworks that permit their inhabitants to evolve, innovate, adapt, enforce property rights, assure trust and so on, or, as we usually call them, western liberal democracies. It is precisely the recognition of the imperfectability of humankind that lead to that sort of society - we'd seen the alternative.

      Since in that model of society there's generally a high value attached to markets and competition as a way of allocating value, the only way your superman would be able to assure that his ideas prevailed would be through authoritarian suppression of competition, which is fine if you assume he knows 100% what he's doing, but that fails in the real world because he's human. Which brings us back to Frances's original point: by what mechanism, absent free market competition and consumer choice, do we know Galt's ideas are genuinely impossible to better? The cemetery's full of indispensable cobblers.

      I'd go further and point out that there are plenty of alternative ideologies that assume that one entity's actions are impossible to better, and they're called fundamentalist religions. Why not just go follow one of those instead of wasting your time advocating very bad economics?

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  4. One intriguing intellectual exercise is to try to work out the economics of the deep past. For example, just how did hunter gatherer groups survive and function by joint effort and exchange? My guess is that had to be forms of reciprocal giving and information. In short, generosity was built into their economic model. Then some rotter came along with nice looking cowrie shells.

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    1. I read something recently that suggested that the desire to hoard and control wealth arose as a consequence of the move from hunter gatherer society (where sharing is necessary for survival) to agrarian (where control of resources ensures survival). If I find the link I'll post it in Related Reading.

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  5. Nice article, Frances.

    It also strikes me that Galtists have a strangely Creationist view of development, whereas most development is, of course, incremental. Not surprising, therefore, that it is more popular on the US.

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    1. I hadn't thought of it like that. Good point.

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  6. Interesting, thank you Frances. Did you know that John Costas' (one-time UBS CEO) favourite book was 'Atlas Shrugged'? And btw I think Lionel Bart's lyric from Fagin was the better-scanning "In this life, one thing counts, In the bank, large amounts".

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  8. Dr Coppola -
    I suggest both Galt and his Establishment are equally wrong; there are no inalienable rights in a symbiosis, only co-operation (as you imply).
    Ironically, while economics claims to be value-free, you introduce a moral note, which I discount as not central. True "enlightened self-interest" is a better candidate.
    The fit youth of the tribe has ever supported the old and infirm; only the means have changed. Security for the latter rests in gainful employment of the former. In this case, charity begins in the workplace.
    Institutional charity has been characterised as the "milk of human blindness". Personal charity is often partial. If philanthropy can't be left to current organisations or amateurs, can you formulate an economically efficient one?
    It might be the greatest Christmas present in your gift;)

    Peter Shaw

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  9. One thing that springs to mind regarding our ancestors is the fact that they lived very short lives. In that time it was necessary to pass on information in less time and with no methods of recording the information reliably. Also, in such a harsh environment, it was also obvious, even to early humans, that ones immediate kin might not survive. Wider family, tribe?, were presumably considered as important as immediate family. Maybe some of the followers of Galt have been reading too much into the popular books on Darwinism. If the argument is to protect one's immediate family, who's to say they will be as intelligent and creative. Also who is to say that there are not others who would eventually think of the things they deign to keep to themselves. The whole book rings to me like a contrived worst case scenario for all concerned designed to prop up a world view that is distinctly narcissistic and bordering on the psychopathic, let alone sociopathic. Most inventive and creative people I know have found ways to find a middle ground: to balance their lives. Most people I talk to worry more about the lack of progress on important issues like future energy, housing etc and wish more money could be spent on giving those with a brain the chance to use it: to educate themselves to the point where they can try to add something useful. This, off course, even in the age of the internet, relies on those who currently at the top of their game realizing that with the complexity of such things as nuclear fusion, reaching achievable targets is more than the working lifetime of a person. Therefore they need to spend enough time teaching and explaining as they do being creative, and the ones I know do...

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  10. What a wonderful article especially at this time of year. I'm afraid I despise the Rand crowd and have never managed to read the damned car crash of a book all the way through it. The neo liberals are busy rewriting history in denial of the fact that man is a co-operative and social animal. Even when waging wars armies co-operate with each other and look after the wounded, this is the true natural way. I hope as civilisation progresses wars will become a thing of the past, though I doubt it.

    The people with the power control the message which is why we get propaganda thrust down our throats daily and a slew of adverts that there is no escape from. Look at the medium we are communicating on now it was gifted to us by someone else's brilliant mind. Tim Berners Lee should be the richest man in the world and he quite probably thinks he is, just not in money terms.

    Greed and selfishness have no place in the world and economics is about people, it therefore must have a moral dimension.

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    1. Tim Berners Lee is indeed the only answer you need for Galtists.

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    2. Rubbish. Tim Berners Lee created the internet and gave it away for free, voluntarily. The key being voluntarily. No-one stuck a gun in his back and said 'Right Tim old chap, we want X% of what you've just created by the power of your own hand and mind, or else' which is effectively what taxation is.

      Of course humans are naturally co-operative and social, its how we've existed for millennia. But crucially without anyone forcing us to be co-operative and social. Once you try to enforce morality at the barrel of a gun, the actions you demand lose any moral righteousness they previously had.

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    3. Amazing. Do you know, I've been paying taxes for over thirty years and no-one has ever stuck a gun in my back.

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    4. @Frances
      Of course, when you do pay, there is no need to show any gun :)
      When you don't...

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    5. Rubbish Jim. People don't 'force' people to be co-operative and social, nothing does other than the simple fact that people who are co-operative and social tend to survive longer in harsh environments. Morality and righteousness are figments of your imagination. Empathy is important because it serves a purpose. Character traits of strong leaders border on the psychopathic because they need the traits of risk-taking, quick decision making and self-reinforcement. But the good ones overcome the inherent lack of empathy because it conflicts with the logic stated above. If you believe the answer is to eject from society the majority of people who do not contribute 'enough' then you are missing the point of society entirely.

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    6. Jim,

      The enforcers of tax laws are not entitled to break other laws. I live in a country where even possession of a gun without a licence is illegal, and using one against another human being is ALWAYS illegal even if you have a licence. So even if I don't pay, no-one is going to shove a gun in my back. They will use the legal system to obtain payment from me. That is of course the same legal system that I use to protect my property from people who want to take it from me illegally. Taxation may in your view be immoral, but it is not illegal.

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    7. Try NOT paying your taxes and see how long it takes for someone for someone to physically arrive at your residence and violently remove you. It WILL happen. And if you use violence to resist their violence armed police WILL be involved, yes even in the UK (where I live too by the way). Just because there isn't a gun on show when your tax return arrives doesn't mean there isn't effectively one under the table.

      Of course its all 'legal'. The State wants your taxes and its made demanding them under the threat of imprisonment legal. If I did the same thing to you (demanded money and then kidnapped you and imprisoned you if you refused) I'd be arrested for any one of many of crimes.

      Legality has nothing to do with it.

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    8. On the contrary, legality has everything to do with it.

      Tax evasion is a crime. You seem to want to have the right to decide which laws should apply to you and which should not. I doubt very much if you object to armed police being used to apprehend a thief who has stolen your property, do you? In fact I suspect you think YOU have the right to use force to defend your property - which in the UK is questionable. But you want to have the right to break the laws that say you must pay the taxes as determined by the government, and you object to the use of armed police to apprehend you if you use violence to resist paying those taxes.

      To have the right to live in a country, you have to agree to abide by its laws - all of them. You may think those laws do not apply to you, in which case your legal recourse is to prove, through the same legal system, that they do not. If they do apply to you, but you think they are immoral, your only legitimate recourse is to get the law changed - and under ANY system of government (not just democracy), that involves persuading other people to agree that the law is wrong and should be changed. You may of course alternatively choose to leave the country. But at no point do you have the right arbitrarily to decide that a law does not apply to you.

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    9. Matt Bruenig has already nailed this argument: http://mattbruenig.com/2013/10/03/non-aggression-never-does-any-argumentative-work-at-any-time/

      gastro george

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  11. We should not forget that a fair number of people are just not very good at "making" prosperity and they will never be prosperous (relatively) in a system where they need something to exchange to take part. The only way they can get some is charity.

    Pretending otherwise can be toxic, because it allows the people who are good at it to think they can exempt themselves from sharing and still be good people: if you think the poor are poor because macro policy X or Y is wrong, you can become good by just proclaiming support for policies "not X" and "not Y", which is cheap compared to just giving some of your booty to the indigent, who are just too thick/disabled/unlucky to ever get a good deal under any combination of macro policies.

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  12. For those who complain that Frances does not understand Rand, I think she understands her only too well, and sees her limitations. This article http://michaelprescott.net/romancing-the-stone-cold.html about her infatuation with a brutal murderer, shows the psychological flaws that underly both her personality and work.

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