Atlas Shrugged: The Mocking

Friday, February 25, 2011

The Virtues Of Selfishness

How do they do it? How do ordinary Americans, raised on Tom Joad and Frank Capra and the Golden Rule, turn their backs on their fellow man? How do they manage to talk themselves out of compassion and loving kindness? Let's ask Megan McArdle.

Policy choices are often framed for us as a choice between compassion and something else--selfishness, moralism, rigid rule-following.

Our elite, the ones telling us "make everyone [else] hurt", know what they are supposed to be doing. No matter our religion or lack of religion, we know we are supposed to control our tendencies to selfishness, to try to be good, moral people, to follow certain long traditions of caring and sharing. Damaged people, however, know this but don't feel this.

Many people never develop empathy for others; they are too taken up with their own suffering, real and perceived. They are, legitimately, angry and resentful at the lack of love and attention they received as a child. They were never shown sympathy and their feelings were ignored or trampled on or mocked, and now they are unable to think or feel beyond their persecution, resentment, and anger, directed at anybody but the real culprits. The parents will never be blamed because the grown child still hopes that one day he will finally receive their unconditional love. He never admit that his parents were not able to love him and he will spend the rest of his life looking for this unconditional love from something or someone else.

But when you take into account systemic effects, the "obvious" compassionate choice--the one that our hearts urgently impel us towards--often isn't so obviously the best one.

Most people instinctively realize that if someone wants something very much, you can manipulate them by promising to fulfill their wishes or frightening them by telling them that they'll never get what they want. If you do not care about the damage you cause, you can easily find a way to use people's needs and fears against them. In the above quote Megan McArdle tells us to ignore their feelings of compassion, our empathy, because something bad might happen. "Systemic effects" beyond our control keep us from realizing our error of compassion, and we are helpless before them.

North Korea's public food distribution broke down in the nineties, and ever since then, the nation has careened between beggary and starvation. Other governments, meanwhile, have glumly faced two unappetizing choices: donate food which will be diverted to prop up the regime, or allow even more North Koreans to starve. [snipped quote]

The US ceased to give aid two years ago, and I can't say the government is wrong. I can't say the government is right, either--as I once heard a former emerging market government official say about his work, "the choice always seemed to be between the horrible and the disastrous, and it was never obvious which was better." There's no question that any food aid helps prop up the regime, ensuring that the semi-starvation of huge swathes of North Korea's population will continue. On the other hand, if we don't deliver it, even more people will go hungry right now.


North Korea had a bad harvest this year, but the problem isn't their bad harvest--it's a political and economic system that leaves the country forever one harvest away from utter disaster.

The obvious answer is to feed them. Ideology does not come before hungry people. But Korea is far away and it's relatively easy to ignore hungry Koreans, and if you can chip away at people's sympathy bit by bit, you eventually will be able to get them to ignore American hunger. Especially if you claim that we don't have any.

There are other types of suffering, of course, and McArdle addresses those appeals as well. James Joyner discusses the travails of being a rich NBA player, and McArdle jumps at the chance to undermine compassion again.

I think this tension [between NBA players and management] is at the heart of a lot of conservative and libertarian qualms about unions, exemplified by the difficulty with teachers' unions.

Ah, conflation of two unlike things--how I've missed you. We are not likely to have sympathy for rich athletes so McArdle compares them to teachers. Of course she is lying about the cause of conservative qualms; conservatives don't want unions to exist because unions don't support conservatives.

Union boosters tend to view the conflict between management and labor as a straightforward argument about who gets what share of the profits.

Labor gets a share of the profits, not a wage? Who would have know that working in a plant gave you part ownership? Or perhaps McArdle wants to imply that workers are greedy people who just want more money for nothing.

But there's also often a real conflict between productivity and what the workers want.

The workers are supposed to support their own rights and the owners are supposed to support theirs. McArdle thinks that is unfair; the workers should be as concerned about corporate profits as management. Any push-back on management power is a danger to profits and must not be allowed.

I can easily sympathize with fifty year old dockworkers who don't want to be turfed out of high-paying jobs that they counted on.


I can't sympathize with a union that fights to keep exactly as many jobs at exactly the same pay forever, even after the owners offer to pension off the displaced current workers at full pay.

If she is talking about a specific incident she doesn't clue us into which one. It's a common tactic for McArdle; she will try to find some outlier case of abuse and claim that it proves her entire case. If she is talking about the Wisconsin teachers' union, she is lying. Rick Ungar at Forbes:

If you are reluctant to believe that this is a coordinated attack, consider this-

This afternoon, Marty Beil, executive director of the Wisconsin Public Workers Union, sent a message to the Governor’s office agreeing to the cuts to pension & welfare benefits sought by Walker in his bill. The governor’s response was “nothing doing.” He wants the whole kit and kaboodle – the end of the collective bargaining rights of the public unions.

As noted in my earlier post, this is, indeed, the first shot in the final battle to end unionism in America.

Finally, adding insult to injury, McArdle says:

If unions had been doing this sort of thing in 1810, we'd all still be working in cotton mills and dying at 45.

Now, that just makes me laugh. Unions gave us humane working conditions, a living wage and dignity, instead of living like pigs in slums while working for the rich. But we are supposed to think that people in union members have become slothful and greedy and no longer deserve a union. McArdle ignores the fact that union members fought, killed and destroyed property before forcing the rich to concede to their demands. Now we're supposed to be horrified when someone falsely claims that unions want too much money?

When the workers are rich, we can talk about this tension without one side or another throwing epithets.

In other words, never.

But when the workers are middle class, the tempers rise. Unfortunately, that's where it actually matters.

Because the middle class is nothing but a bunch greedy pigs who are always trying to take money from the poor, helpless, obscenely wealthy.

Don't you feel much better about management, now that you know how selfish and greedy all those middle class teachers are? You think of them as one of you, middle class, middle-aged and educated, like the nice lady who lives next door and works in her garden on the weekends, but really they are rich and greedy, like basketball players, not deserving, like a dockworker. You might think you feel sympathy towards them but you should not, because you'll just be supporting a dangerous regime. Teachers unions are just like totalitarianism, an insupportable system that is trying to destroy the American Way of Life. In other words:

John Holbo challenged me in a former post to say what I would think about the various proposals, or a putative single payer [health care] system, if it worked just the way progressives think it will. I thought I had, but I'll do it again. The answer is that I would be against it because I don't believe in taking money from the rich to subsidize the middle class--I don't think that people whose basic needs are taken care of have any distributional claim on people with more money, even though it is perfectly fair to ask the wealthy to pay more for goods that are broadly publicly enjoyed.

The middle class is not the rich, and McArdle is only interested in the rights of the rich. That is the world that McArdle grew up in and that is the group that claims all her sympathy and allegiance. But McArdle's claim on the elite is very tenuous; she has enough education and money to live on its fringes but not enough to feel secure in its acceptance. So like a high school girl that picks on slightly less popular girls to be part of the in-group, McArdle carefully chips away at the image and ego of the middle class, to separate herself as far as possible from that lower station and establish herself more firmly as one of the elite.


Mr. Wonderful said...

So like a high school girl that picks on slightly less popular girls to be part of the in-group, McArdle carefully chips away at the image and ego of the middle class, to separate herself as far as possible from that lower station and establish herself more firmly as one of the elite.

Period. Bull's eye. Buh-dump-BUMP. Nuff said. This. (Etc.)

Susan of Texas said...

As Buckaroo Banzai said, no matter where you go, there you are.

Mr. Wonderful said...


mistah charley, ph.d. said...

Your analysis seems impeccable.

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

The rich have been busy destroying the middle class, and everyone else, for 30 years.

Now they're doubling down.

blivet said...

Off topic, but if you are interested in boycotting the Koch brothers' consumer products, according to Anonyomous, here, any paper product with the Georgia Pacific logo is one of theirs.

Kathy said...

I've been trying to think of something pertinent to say about ArgleBargle's lastest column, a Swamp Fever of lies, half-truths, lameO rationalizations, but its just too depressing. That she and Jonah Goldberg, Brooks and Krauthammer are considered intellectuals by the Main Stream Press (truly Lame Stream- I agree with Palin there!) can lead to dispair.

Of course the LameStream Media is getting less important every day. No matter how they ratchet up the noise in their product, or how much hype they use to sell it, more and more people are realiszing it is poisonous Junk Food Information.

UK unkut now has an American Version:

Brian said...

Is there a difference between management that is representative of the interests of a private company, versus management that is representative of the public? In reading this, I feel as if there is a difference between labor fighting for rights as against private enterprise and public sector labor. I am 100% on the side of the public unions in Wisconsin, but I have a sense that slipping between public sector and private sector unions without distinguishing the two MAY, and I stress may, be missing something. Maybe not. McMegan is lame, regardless.

Susan of Texas said...

Working for the government shouldn't mean giving up all rights. The majority of the public would happily starve teachers and cops if they could get away with it; they seem to enjoy making others hurt.

freq flag said...

So like a high school girl that picks on slightly less popular girls to be part of the in-group, McArdle carefully chips away at the image and ego of the middle class, to separate herself as far as possible from that lower station and establish herself more firmly as one of the elite.

Well, yeah, it's a JaneGalt thang.
(added bonus: it annoys liberals!)

brad said...

The fact that people take it as gospel truth that pro athletes are overpaid drives me nuts. If the athletes don't get the money, the far, far wealthier owners will. Ticket prices are determined by what a team feels the market will bear, not payroll. College sports don't have that pesky requirement to pay their players, and their tickets can be even more expensive.
My point is even Megan's easy targets are total bullshit.

fish said...

The fact that people take it as gospel truth that pro athletes are overpaid drives me nuts.

Here here! In fact, the football and basketball unions allowed top end restrictions on their income (salary caps, contract limitations) for overall better blanket protection for all players (minimum salaries, injury insurance, etc). The battles between owners and unions usually involve owners wanting to take a larger slice of the revenue share off the top before splitting it with the players (see NFL). Yet you never hear the owners talk about wanting to go back to a pure free agent system...

Kathy said...

I suppose thinking or claiming that all pro athletes make superstar money is similar to people thinking all Actors get a million dollars per picture or show.

Anonymous said...

Please, it's not like Megan understands sports. (or anything)

I've followed the Yankees all my life, and her casual fandom makes me want to puke.

Anonymous said...

re Ms. McArdle: Easy to be hard, when you've had it soft yourself...