August 11th, 2008

Capitalism and Charity

photo credit: pfala

One of the most frequent and rarely contested criticisms against capitalism is the assertion that it is inherently selfish and inequitable. Greedy men hoard their wealth, critics cry, thus reinforcing and perpetuating the imbalance the capitalist system naturally creates.

Proffered solutions vary, but all share in common one fundamental element: the notion that the government must be empowered to solve the problem. Thus, the implemented ideal takes on any number of masks: socialism, democracy, communism, etc. Not only that, but the principles involved are able to infuse whatever other form of government does exist, thus slowly warping it into a markedly different system. So it is that within a republican framework legislation can be passed (illegally, though it wears some semblance of legality) that uses government to fix the problem.

Such solutions, however, fail to realize the true nature of the problem, and more importantly, what the correct solution unquestionably is. Proponents of government intervention into wealth distribution argue (whether explicitly or implicitly) that mankind is too selfish to take care of the poor and needy on their own, and therefore they must be required to do so. Further, they assert that when one’s elected representatives vote to implement some socialist policy or program, that it is perfectly fine and legal since it was done by an authorized government agent.

These and similar accusations, all of them errant and wholly misguided, stem from a mistrust of capitalism and a lack of faith in man’s innate desire to help others.

It must be noted here that when opponents claim that capitalism is by definition a selfish economic model, they have missed the mark. To conflate selfishness (as it is conventionally understood) with self-interest shows an economic ignorance that must be remedied before proceeding. Self-interest, the philosophic basis of capitalism, is rooted in the idea that by working to further one’s own interests and secure individual success, those with whom the person interacts (and on a larger scale, then, society as a whole) profit as well. For example, by working towards an education I pay tuition by which my professors profit; I buy textbooks which increase the sales of the bookstore and the book’s author; I help others in their education by working in a study group; and I help my classmates learn by offering my insights and knowledge. While small and specific, this example illustrates how in any economic pursuit, those with whom I interact profit along the way.

Similarly, as a web designer, I sometimes hire subcontractors to help me with my work, and thus help them pay their bills by creating employment for them. I also have to buy various supplies from which the stores I patronize profit. Whatever my mission, it can be easily seen that as I work to further my own self-interest (and thus secure to me a profitable future), I am helping others to do the same.

Selfishness, on the other hand, would entail a person hoarding their wealth and refusing to aid others in any way. What’s ridiculous about this conflation is that a capitalist would never create any wealth by hoarding his money. Only by using it as the resource it is would he be able to create additional wealth and increase his profit. He does so by employing others, purchasing items, and, as they say, “spending money to make money”.

Additionally, the self-interest inherent in capitalism is rooted in the law of the harvest, which states that one is to harvest what one sows. The capitalist who hires twenty workers is allowing them the opportunity, if they so choose, to work for an agreed upon amount. This, rather than the dole, is the proper way for a person in need to create wealth and work their way up the prosperity ladder.

To argue, as socialists of all flavors do, that the poor and needy are somehow entitled to one’s money or resources, is to ignore completely the law of the harvest and assert that some individual or organization (government or otherwise) has the moral authority to act as re-distributor and guarantor of economic equality. Of such an ideal, Ayn Rand wrote:

The social system based on and consonant with the altruist morality—with the code of self-sacrifice—is socialism, in all or any of its variants: fascism, Nazism, communism. All of them treat man as a sacrificial animal to be immolated for the benefit of the group, the tribe, the society, the state. Soviet Russia is the ultimate result, the final product, the full, consistent embodiment of the altruist morality in practice; it represents the only way that that morality can ever be practiced. (Ayn Rand, via Quoty)

Where Rand failed in this description is the differentiation between two types of sacrifice. The type to which she referred is the one used as a reason to justify mandatory charity. Governments legalize theft and force individuals to surrender some of their wealth—to be distributed as the government sees fit and thinks best—and then tell their constituents that theirs is a noble sacrifice and opportunity to help those in need. Individuals who comply then may feel that they are already charitable enough, for they cannot afford more than the government takes. They outsource their charity (financial and otherwise) to mostly unelected bureaucrats who are notorious for corruption, waste, and mismanagement.

While that form of sacrifice is nothing but a farce made up to pacify those who have been robbed, the form of sacrifice which Rand failed to explain is one which is closely linked to self-interest. Stephen Covey explains:

[Sacrifice is] the subordinating of one’s self or one’s ego to a higher purpose, cause or principle. Again, sacrifice really means giving up something good for something better. But in the mind of the person sacrificing, there really is no sacrifice—only to the observer is it a sacrifice. (Stephen R. Covey, via Quoty)

Brigham Young echoed this thought, illustrating that true sacrifice is nothing more than momentary self-deprivation for a more ideal reward:

Now, you Elders who understand the principles of the kingdom of God, what would you not give, do, or sacrifice, to assist in building up His kingdom upon the earth? Says one, ‘I would do anything in my power, anything that the Lord would help me to do, to build up His kingdom.’ Says another, ‘I would sacrifice all my property.’ Wonderful indeed! Do you not know that the possession of your property is like a shadow, or the dew of the morning before the noon-day sun, that you cannot have any assurance of its control for a single moment! It is the unseen hand of Providence that controls it. In short, what would you sacrifice? The Saints sacrifice everything; but, strictly speaking, there is no sacrifice about it. If you give a penny for a million of gold! A handful of earth for a planet! A temporary worn out tenement for one glorified, that will exist, abide, and continue to increase throughout a never ending eternity, what a sacrifice to be sure! (Brigham Young, via Quoty)

Thus we can see that the things we might label sacrifice (giving to a humanitarian aid organization on a monthly basis, giving a tithe to a church, giving up some time to help a friend in need, etc.) are based in self-interest. We do them because of a belief that we will receive a greater reward. Call it karma, call it blessings, or call it whatever you want: the fact that we “sacrifice” is that we aspire for something better. One does not truly sacrifice if compelled; Jesus said that such charity doesn’t really count. Instead, true sacrifice must be voluntary, individual, and free from any force or intervention.

Capitalism, then, is the only economic model under which true charity may be performed. Any other method of government that compels its citizens to give up a portion of their money is practicing a false altruism that, as Rand explained, puts us on a slippery slope to absolute communism. Force should be shunned at all times, but especially when used as a method of supposedly helping those in need.

Lastly, it must be emphasized that the fundamental argument behind such government-enforced charity is the belief that 1) There is severe economic imbalance in the world, and 2) were they not compelled, individuals would do nothing about it. As always, Frederic Bastiat aptly articulated the fallacy behind such a stance:

Liberty! Today, apparently, we are no longer interested. In this land of ours, this France, where fashion reigns as queen, liberty seems to have gone out of style. Yet, for myself, I say: Whoever rejects liberty has no faith in mankind. Recently, it is alleged, the distressing discovery has been made that liberty leads inevitably to monopoly.**3 No, this monstrous linking, this unnatural joining together of freedom and monopoly is nonexistent; it is a figment of the imagination that the clear light of political economy quickly dissipates. Liberty begets monopoly! Oppression is born of freedom! But, make no mistake about it, to affirm this is to affirm that man’s tendencies are inherently evil, evil in their nature, evil in their essence; it is to affirm that his natural bent is toward his deterioration and that his mind is attracted irresistibly toward error. What good, then, are our schools, our study, our research, our discussions, except to add momentum to our descent down the fatal slope; since, for man, to learn to choose is to learn to commit suicide? And if man’s tendencies are perverse, where will the social planners seek to place their fulcrum? According to their premises, it will have to be outside of humanity. Will they seek it within themselves, in their own intelligence, in their own hearts? But they are not yet gods: they too are men and hence, along with all humanity, careening down toward the fatal abyss. Will they call upon the state to intervene? But the state is composed of men; and we should have to prove that the men who form the state constitute a class apart, to whom the general laws of society are not applicable, since they are called upon to make the laws. Unless this be proved, the facing of the dilemma is not even postponed. (Frederic Bastiat, Economic Harmonies)

Those who lack such a faith in mankind fail to ignore some striking examples of voluntary charity:

  • In 2005, Americans gave $260.28 billion to scores of religious, environmental, and health organizations—$15 billion more than in 2004.
  • In 2006, Americans gave nearly $300 billion to charitable causes, setting a record and besting the 2005 total that had been boosted by a surge in aid to victims of hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma and the Asian tsunami.
  • Warren Buffet pledged to donate $37 billion to charity.
  • About 65 percent of households with incomes lower than $100,000 give to charity.
  • The U.S. government gave about $20 billion in foreign aid in 2004, while Americans privately gave $24.2 billion.
  • Americans per capita individually give about three and a half times more money per year, than the French per capita. They also give seven times more than the Germans and 14 times more than the Italians.

Examples abound, all indicating that individuals are generous. To be sure, were government-mandated “charity” abolished, there would be more needs than there currently are. Some might rise to the occasion, others may look the other way with indifference. Such are the consequences of freedom. Perceived problems, however, cannot be used as a legitimate excuse for force and compulsory giving, for in doing so, you create a victim out of one person and a thief out of another. That is hardly the right way to go about doing good.

One need only look at comparisons between the United States—where vestiges of capitalism still exist—and other countries far more socialist to note the severe discrepancy in voluntary charity. Whenever capitalism has been instituted and preserved, individuals prosper in their freedoms and in their self-interest help others around them prosper as well. Whether through charitable gift-giving, employment, or trade, such individuals become far more willing and eager to share their bounty with others who have not seen such economic success.

True charity has only ever existed in capitalist enterprise. Though socialist government may rob a man of his wages, he is yet free to give even further of his own accord. In doing so, he—not the thieves in his government—is practicing true charity, and act for which he will one day be rewarded.

50 Responses to “Capitalism and Charity”

  1. brandon
    August 12, 2008 at 12:06 am #

    Connor, where does the right to own property come from? I have been thinking about this lately. I understand and agree with the basic philosophy of capitalism. However, I have always been bothered by the huge variation between the richest rich and the poorest poor. Why is it that our culture values liberty at all costs while other cultures value equality above the individual? Admitedly, I am a big fan of liberty. I just wonder if liberty has negative consequences of which I am unaware or ignoring.

  2. Mom
    August 12, 2008 at 7:37 am #

    Brandon – read the Declaration of Independence. God-given rights.
    Connor – what bothers me most about the compulsory, government-driven model of “charity” is first, the notion that Man cannot take care of himself and therefore government must take care of him (ridiculous) and second, that government is the most efficient method for extending such care. The inefficiency of government in doing so consumes so much capital in the process that those who are being “helped” are receiving far, far less than they would have without the government middle-man. Pull government out, lower the tax burden, and then you have the individual with far more capacity to donate. And I am convinced that they do and will.

  3. Jeff T
    August 12, 2008 at 10:07 am #


    I agree wholeheartedly with the conclusions of this post. The market fails when the government gets involved. Forced charity is not charity. Wealth redistribution is robbery.

    However, I disagree wholeheartedly with some of the reasoning used. See my recent post for the reason why:

  4. Brandon
    August 12, 2008 at 10:10 am #

    Connor’s Mom-
    What if there is no god? I have to consider the possibility that he doesn’t exist. If so, then where do those rights come from? I love and respect the constitution, but do not accept something as fact just because it is in the constitution.

  5. Brandon
    August 12, 2008 at 10:31 am #

    I love and respect the constitution, but do not accept something as fact just because it is in the constitution.

    Sorry, I meant Declaration of Independence, although I feel the same way about the constitution.

  6. Connor
    August 12, 2008 at 10:32 am #


    …where does the right to own property come from?

    For an excellent treatise on this question, I highly recommend the book The Moral Basis of a Free Society by H. Verlan Andersen. You can download it as a pdf here. To specifically answer your question, skip ahead to section 2.7.

    However, I have always been bothered by the huge variation between the richest rich and the poorest poor.

    If there’s one thing that my trip to Africa last year taught me, it’s that we American think too much about money. We see poor people and think that they are far worse off than we, and (sometimes) feel guilty about the disparity. It’s something I myself have struggled with many times.

    I think what Paul was getting at in these verses was that equality is about more than wealth. Yes, we’re worlds ahead of the poor in terms of financial accumulation and overall economic prosperity, but we are naïve if we think that they are not better off than us in other ways. We each have ways to help the other, and perhaps that is why such a disparity exists. Jesus said that we’d always have the poor with us; perhaps this was an intentional setup.

    Why is it that our culture values liberty at all costs while other cultures value equality above the individual?

    Valuing equality above the individual is one of the reasons that certain countries have not prospered. Only in an environment where property rights are respected do people have the opportunity to succeed. Thus, putting equality ahead of liberty leads to equal poverty and instituted tyranny.

    I just wonder if liberty has negative consequences of which I am unaware or ignoring.

    It most certainly does! Freedom has consequences of all varieties, many of them bad. So it is with the plan of salvation—God gave us the ability to choose what we’ll do, and many, many people have chosen the wrong way. Yet He does not force us to do good, for as I argued in the post, forced good (charity) is not good at all.

    It’s as Alexis de Tocquevile said:

    Americans are so enamored of equality that they would rather be equal in slavery than unequal in freedom. (Alexis de Tocquevile, via Quoty)

    What a sad state of affairs…

  7. Connor
    August 12, 2008 at 10:42 am #

    What if there is no god? I have to consider the possibility that he doesn’t exist. If so, then where do those rights come from?

    John Adams:

    The general principles on which the fathers achieved independence were. . . the general principles of Christianity. . . . I will avow that I then believed, and now believe, that those general principles of Christianity are as eternal and immutable as the existence and attributes of God; and that those principles of liberty are as unalterable as human nature.

    Updegraph v. The Commonwealth, 1824:

    No free government now exists in teh world unless where Christianity is acknowledged and is the religion of the country. . . . Its foundations are broad and strong and deep. . . it is the purest system of morality, the firmest auxiliary, and only stable support of all human laws.

    I could go on extensively, but won’t since this question does not directly apply to this thread. Suffice it to say that when Christ said that he made us free, he meant it. Unless our rights come from some divine source (though they can be likewise argued to be natural and inherent), it is left to governments to claim that they are the authors of rights, which subsequently can be revoked or controlled as they see fit.

    We are free and sovereign individuals because God made us so. Those who framed this nation recognized that fact and incorporated biblical and common law into a legal framework that would perpetuate the same liberties, regardless of what each individual believed to be their source.

  8. Stephen Palmer
    August 12, 2008 at 11:18 am #

    I am with you all the way until you say, “Thus we can see that the things we might label sacrifice (giving to a humanitarian aid organization on a monthly basis, giving a tithe to a church, giving up some time to help a friend in need, etc.) are based in self-interest.”

    Connor, forgive me for being so direct, but this is Ayn Rand talking — not Jesus Christ nor his servants. This is directly opposed to my understanding of the doctrines of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and it’s a major issue for me. I’ve had intimate involvement with organizations where I saw this subtly deceitful and poisonous “philosophy of men mingled with scripture.” It led to their downfall as it crept into the minds and hearts of the people and emerged as pride and materialism.

    We are asked to fully, completely, and wholly submit our will to God — to consecrate everything we are and everything we have to Him and His work. If we do so — if we put our self-interest on the altar of sacrifice — what then are we pursuing? It’s certainly not self-interest because we’ve given that to God. When we submit our will to God we no longer have self-interest to pursue.

    This is not to say that obeying God is not in our self-interest — it certainly is, but it ceases to be the motivating factor and becomes merely a fact. After we submit to God, our motivating factor is simply to obey Him, to do what’s right, to do what He requires of us.

    While I am definitely not a good example of this, I have studied it enough to be very sensitive to the idea that obeying God and sacrificing is an act of self-interest. Christ didn’t suffer, bleed and die for our sins because he was self-interested; He did so because He was loving and obedient.

    Here are just a few quotes from Church leaders that I’ve gathered on this topic in my studies:

    “A selfless person is one who is more concerned about the happiness and well-being of another than about his or her own convenience or comfort, one who is willing to serve another when it is neither sought for nor appreciated, or one who is willing to serve even those whom he or she dislikes. A selfless person displays a willingness to sacrifice, a willingness to purge from his or her mind and heart personal wants, and needs, and feelings. Instead of reaching for and requiring praise and recognition for himself, or gratification of his or her own wants, the selfless person will meet these very human needs for others. Remember the words of the Savior as he taught his disciples on an occasion when personal recognition was being sought: “But Jesus called them to him, and saith unto them, … whosoever will be great among you, shall be your minister: And whosoever of you will be the chiefest, shall be servant of all. For even the son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many.” -H. Burke Peterson in “Selflessness: A Pattern For Living”

    “Public virtue, which expects men to rise above self-interest and to act in the public interest with wisdom and courage, was so evident in leaders like George Washington, who, we used to declare, could never tell a lie, and Abraham Lincoln, known as ‘Honest Abe.’ In the past few years we have seen “official after official—both on the national and the local political scene—put self-interest…above the larger public interest…” -Elder David B. Haight, Quorum of the 12 Apostles

    “Every gospel teacher who seeks to follow the Master will focus all of his efforts on others and never on himself. Satan said, ‘Send me,…I will redeem all mankind,…and surely I will do it; wherefore give me thine honor.’ Contrast that proposal with the example of the Savior, who said, ‘Father, thy will be done, and the glory be thine forever’ (Moses 4:1–2). A gospel teacher will focus his teaching on the needs of the sheep and the glory of the Master. He will avoid the limelight. He will teach the flock that they should always look to the Master. He will never obscure their view of the Master by standing in the way or by casting a shadow of self-promotion or self-interest.” -Elder Dallin H. Oaks, Quorum of the 12 Apostles, from an address given March 31st, 1998
    “So a precious little youngster was tucked into bed without the reassurance and comfort that could have come from a father or a mother who did not give in to their own self-interest.” -From an Editorial on Selfishness in Ensign magazine, Feb. 1971
    “When others give you advice, have you ever said, ‘I just don’t believe the way you do. Those are your standards and your principles. I have my own’? Please understand that no one can change truth. Rationalization, overpowering self-interest, all of the arguments of men, anger, or self-will cannot change truth. Satan knows that, so he tries to create an atmosphere where one unwittingly begins to feel that he can not only choose what to do, but can determine what is right to do. Satan strives to persuade us to live outside truth by rationalizing our actions as the right of choice.” -Elder Richard G. Scott, Quorum of the 12 Apostles, from an address entitled Healing Your Damaged Life
    “Honest evaluation of advice against these standards will help you decide whether it is motivated for your benefit or another’s self-interest. A true friend is not one that always encourages you to do what you want to do, but one who helps you do what you know you ought to do.” –Richard G. Scott, Healing Your Damaged Life
    “…the problem is if we become so blinded by self-interest that we ignore or intentionally undervalue or discount the efforts and contributions of others.” -Maj-Lén Anderson, Valuing Our Neighbor’s Labor, Ensign, Sept. 1996
    “This principle—that our service should be for the love of God and the love of fellowmen rather than for personal advantage or any other lesser motive—is admittedly a high standard. The Savior must have seen it so, since he joined his commandment for selfless and complete love directly with the ideal of perfection. The very next verse of the Sermon on the Mount contains this great commandment: “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” -Elder Dallin H. Oaks, Quorum of the 12 Apostles in an address entitled Why Do We Serve
    “There are those who maintain that any compromise is evil or shameful because it may involve some surrender of ‘principle’ or freedom. Unfortunately, my years in the Senate have taught me that those who talk of ‘principle’ in this context really mean ‘interest’—their self-interest. Nor is compromise a true diminution of one’s freedom or free agency, because the scriptures are full of admonitions to use our freedom in the service of others and not for our selfish ends. Christ said, ‘Agree with thine adversary quickly.’” (Matt. 5:25.) -Wallace F. Bennett
    “Rebellion is a common cause of war. Heavenly Father gave all His children opportunity to choose the path of obedience that leads to eternal happiness. But some, it seems, chose the path of self-interest, with no regard for the agency of others.” -Elder Emmanuel A. Kissi
    “My experience over 25 years of counseling couples has shown that those who are willing to put loving and caring for a spouse above stubborn self-interest can resolve whatever challenges they face in marriage.” -Karl R. White, To Love and Care for Each Other, Ensign, Jan. 2002
    “Three years later, when work commenced on building the Norwich chapel, I also withdrew from the Saturday league team so that I could make my contribution to the building project. The mist of self-interest that had previously restricted my vision was beginning to disperse, and a new panoramic view was emerging, bringing with it a deeper appreciation for and an increasing love of life.” -Kenneth Johnson, The Proof Is in the Doing, New Era, Mar. 2005
    “What a loss to the individual and to humanity if the vine does not grow, the tree does not bear fruit, the soul does not expand through service! One must live, not only exist; he must do, not merely be; he must grow, not just vegetate. We must use our talents in behalf of our fellowmen, rather than burying them in the tomb of a self-centered life. Personal purity and veracity and stability in leadership are essential if we are to give sanctified service to others. We must expend our energies and use our skills for purposes larger than our own self-interest if we desire true happiness.” -President Spencer W. Kimball, President Kimball Speaks Out on Service to Others, New Era, Mar. 1981
    “Significantly, in both of these cases, the individuals involved did not act out of self-interest—their main motivation was serving the Lord. They were willing to sacrifice to help those in need.” -Larry E. Morris, Fast Offerings: A Place for the Second Mile
    “Are we putting our families first—before our own self-interest?” -Richard C. Edgley, A Disciple, a Friend, Ensign, May 1998
    “Thus, encumbered by self-interest, he was unavailable to act with justice and compassion.” -Stephen L. Tanner, Candle in the Window, Ensign, Feb. 1981
    “In contrast, the new civil religion I speak of finds its source of rights by invoking the power of the state. It seems to have little purpose, few common values for morality except self-interest.” -James E. Faust, A New Civil Religion, Ensign, Oct. 1992
    “Do we really comprehend, do we understand the tremendous significance of that which we have? This is the summation of the generations of man, the concluding chapter in the entire panorama of the human experience. But this does not put us in a position of superiority. Rather, it should humble us. It places upon us an unforgiving responsibility to reach out with concern for all others in the Spirit of the Master, who taught, ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself’ (Matt. 19:19). We must cast out self-righteousness and rise above petty self-interest.” -President Gordon B. Hinckley, The Dawning of a Brighter Day, Ensign, May 2004
    “If worldly concerns, personal self-interests, or anything else is more important than turning to Christ, he will not be able to purify us. True repentance involves having a change of heart: turning away from sin and turning to the Lord.” Aaronic Priesthood Manual
    “In all His mortal ministry Christ seems never to have had a single moment of vanity or self-interest. When one young man tried to call Him ‘good,’ He deflected the compliment, saying only one was deserving of such praise, His Father. In the early days of His ministry He said humbly, ‘I can of mine own self do nothing: … I seek not mine own will, but the will of the Father which hath sent me.’” -Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, Quorum of the 12 Apostles, The Hands of the Fathers, Ensign, May 1999
    “You must be willing to forgo personal pleasure and self-interest for family-centered activity, and not turn over to church, school, or society the principal role of fostering a child’s well-rounded development. It takes time, great effort, and significant personal sacrifice to “train up a child in the way he should go.” But where can you find greater rewards for a job well done?” -Elder Richard G. Scott, Quorum of the 12 Apostles, The Power of Correct Principles, Ensign, May 1993
    “This means we will have to teach our children a life-style of our own and provide moral anchors in the sea of self-indulgence, self-interest, and self-service in which they float.” -Elder James E. Faust, First Presidency, Will I Be Happy?, Ensign, May 1987
    “Secularism is expanding in much of the world today. Secularism is defined as “indifference to or rejection or exclusion of religion and religious considerations.” Secularism does not accept many things as absolutes. Its principal objectives are pleasure and self-interest. Often those who embrace secularism have a different look about them. As Isaiah observed, ‘The show of their countenance doth witness against them.’ -Elder James E. Faust, The Light in Their Eyes, Ensign, Nov. 2005
    “How perfectly our Lord and Savior set the example. He truly sought first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness; he lived in the spirit, he lived for the spirit; he did not seek to perpetuate his physical life but he sought to develop the spirit, living for others with God as the center…If we could get that thought over to our young people…it would be sufficient to preserve them from temptation. Instead of thinking of themselves in the hour of temptation, if they would just forget self and think of mother and of father, of the good name of the family, and just lose themselves for a moment for somebody else, they would have the power to resist temptation.” -President David O. McKay

    “There is a very general desire manifested by this people to get rich, and to labor for self rather than for the kingdom of God. But what will it profit you or me to give up praying and to go to and get rich? What will it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his own soul? Not much.” -Wilford Woodruff, Prophet

    “There should not be a selfish feeling on the part of any portion of a family—‘I do not care what becomes of this, that or the other if I can only get what I want myself.’ This is selfishness, it produces disunion and is inconsistent with the profession of a saint of God. We should labor, each and every one of us, to put such feelings from our hearts, and then we, in our family organizations, should strive to promote the general interest of the members thereof.” -Wilford Woodruff

  9. Connor
    August 12, 2008 at 11:25 am #

    Connor, forgive me for being so direct, but this is Ayn Rand talking — not Jesus Christ nor his servants. This is directly opposed to my understanding of the doctrines of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and it’s a major issue for me. I’ve had intimate involvement with organizations where I saw this subtly deceitful and poisonous “philosophy of men mingled with scripture.” It led to their downfall as it crept into the minds and hearts of the people and emerged as pride and materialism.

    Stephen, I think that this may largely be a semantical misunderstanding. At least, in my experience with others who have shared this confusion, this is where I see the problem.

    Yes, God has commanded us to submit to His will, and required a sacrifice (broken heart, contrite spirit, etc.). But if we do do those things, we are doing it out of a self-interest to live according to His will, obey what He has asked, receive the blessings for doing so, and not be punished for failing to comply. In other words, we do sacrifice what God asks because it is in our interest to do so.

    I think that Christ’s atonement was similarly done in self-interest. Christ atoned for all of our sins because it was in his personal interest to do so. He knew the consequences if he did not, and because He loves us he wanted to fulfill the Father’s request. Realistically, we cannot pinpoint exactly what another person’s self-interest or motivation is behind what they do (Mises talked about this quite a bit), but it is the driving force behind all action, including sacrifice.

  10. Stephen Palmer
    August 12, 2008 at 11:52 am #

    I’m sorry, but it’s not semantical. I’ve had this discussion countless times with many individuals and this is a common response.

    I’m not claiming that what I say is right or true — I merely present it as my understanding after debating, discussing, arguing, studying, pondering, and praying quite extensively on the matter.

    Furthermore, I’ve seen firsthand, in very real, personal, and clear terms what the teaching of self-interest does, and it doesn’t lead people closer to God in the long run.

    I find no evidence that Christ was motivated out of self-interest. On the other hand, I find overwhelming evidence that He sacrificed out of love, obedience, and submission to His Father, but nothing to suggest that underneath all of the struggle and the pain for us was the pursuit of self-interest. (See 2 Nephi 26:24)

    We can pinpoint His motivation from the scriptures, and we’re commanded to be like Him.

    I understand that our initial motivation for wanting to obey God comes from self-interest. Yet once we do choose to obey Him in submitting our will, our motivations change.

    I’ll be the first to admit that I’m way off on this if anyone can show me evidence. Not from Ayn Rand, von Mises, or from reason, but evidence from God and his prophets. I haven’t seen it so far, but I’m open.

  11. Matthew Piccolo
    August 12, 2008 at 11:52 am #

    Very, very good post, Connor. I’ve been wanting to write something just like it. I wish more people were aware of your points. I just read and commented on an opinion piece in the Daily Herald on this topic. The writer advocates food stamps and says that private charity is not the solution to hunger. Even in Provo people don’t have faith in private charity. I put a link to your post there. Keep up the great work.

  12. Connor
    August 12, 2008 at 11:56 am #

    Yet once we do choose to obey Him in submitting our will, our motivations change.

    I’m not so sure that this is the case. In choosing to obey God, we aim to harmonize our will with His. In uttering the words “thy will be done”, we submit to doing what He wants. But we don’t do this because we’re being forced—we do it because we feel (for whatever reason) that it’s in our best interest to do so. Otherwise, we would go about “kicking against the pricks”, as it were, rebelling against God and thinking that we know better.

    What do you think about the quote from Brigham Young above? I think that he articulated quite well what I’m getting at: that any action we might personally label as sacrifice is really done out of self-interest: the belief that we will be rewarded with something greater. Whether the incentive is monetary, emotional, or simply because we feel good when we help others, our actions are performed because we personally feel that the consequence will be to our liking.

  13. Connor
    August 12, 2008 at 12:00 pm #

    Another idea behind the self-interest of sacrifice:

    When God commands us to do something (thus requiring some sort of sacrifice), there is always, always, a promised blessing. We have incentives enticing us one way or the other in all things that we do. So for any action where we sacrifice to fulfill God’s will, we have been offered a reward for our actions. Be it eternal life, health, our some individualized blessing that we need, we obey God’s will because we believe the consequences of our actions will yield those desired results. Thus, it is in our best interest to sacrifice and do whatever God requires.

  14. Jeff T
    August 12, 2008 at 12:15 pm #

    “In other words, we do sacrifice what God asks because it is in our interest to do so.

    I think that Christ’s atonement was similarly done in self-interest.”

    Connor, I think you are dead wrong on this issue. This is the invasion of hedonistic/egoistic philosophy into the Gospel. See my post for more details. This is talk of philosophers, not the Savior.

  15. Jeff T
    August 12, 2008 at 12:17 pm #

    It is, indeed, in our best interest to follow God, but that is not the ultimate reason why we should do so. Self-interest is NOT a heavenly philosophy, but a worldly one.

  16. Jeff T
    August 12, 2008 at 12:20 pm #

    As I said, I agree with the conclusions of this post. However, it may be to your benefit to find a find to justify your conclusions without appealing to an egoistic philosophy that has been demonstrated inadequate and problematic by many Latter-day Saint scholars. It would make your point stronger and more defensible.

  17. Matthew Piccolo
    August 12, 2008 at 12:25 pm #

    I agree with C.S. Lewis’s thought (sorry, no time to find quote) that everything good we do should be because of our love for God, and, in turn love for our brothers and sisters, not because we want a reward from anyone on earth or in heaven. We receive blessings for doing what’s right, but they should not be our motivation. Everything we do is a reflection of how we feel about God; we should love and serve our neighbor because we love our Father, not because He is going to bless us, though those blessings are nice to have. Similarly, Christ atoned for our sins not out of self-interest but because He loves the Father and us. Love should be our motivation.

  18. Connor
    August 12, 2008 at 12:25 pm #

    It is, indeed, in our best interest to follow God, but that is not the ultimate reason why we should do so. Self-interest is NOT a heavenly philosophy, but a worldly one.

    Hmm.. so when God says this:

    Yea, verily I say unto you, if ye will come unto me ye shall have eternal life. Behold, mine arm of mercy is extended towards you, and whosoever will come, him will I receive; and blessed are those who come unto me. (3 Nephi 9:14)

    …is God not promising a reward for our actions? Our (earthly) goal is to obtain the eternal life promised us. Thus, it is in my interest to do whatever is necessary to proceed down that path. I want to be saved, and I want to live with God, and thus I am interested in following the steps He has outlined and do what I’m commanded to.

    The sacrifice commanded by God is rarely the “do it because I said so” variety. There are blessings offered for our so-called sacrifice, and thus we have incentives given to us to choose that path. And even when we are told to do something without any specific incentive mentioned, it is generally and always in our interest to do whatever God asks, knowing that He is always right and we will always be rewarded for our obedience.

  19. Matthew Piccolo
    August 12, 2008 at 12:31 pm #

    “…is God not promising a reward for our actions?”

    I personally believe that when God promises us rewards for our actions He’s appealing to our mortal minds. He knows that we’ll respond well to rewards, but like I said before, ultimately, love, or lack thereof, should motivate all our actions rather than rewards.

    Very interesting discussion.

  20. Jeff T
    August 12, 2008 at 12:31 pm #

    I did not say there are no promised blessings. I’m just saying that self-interest isn’t the highest motive, or the only motive. It kind of disturbs me that you would reduce the Savior’s purely selfless sacrifice on our behalf to a kind of calculated self-interest. Sorry, that isn’t the Gospel, but the distortion of worldly philosophies.

    Christ sacrificed himself for purely altruistic motives. Also, God isn’t a vending machine for blessings. We serve God and are obedient to him because we love him, because we have a moral obligation to him as his children. God promises us blessings because he loves us, and responds to our obedience generously. Economics is a worldly invention, and we do disservice to the gospel to treat an economic metaphor as if it were a gospel reality.

  21. Connor
    August 12, 2008 at 12:32 pm #

    Good point Matthew, and I agree. The ideal of obedience to God is not an enumerated rewards-based system where we get X number of blessings for each act of obedience. Rather, we are to condition ourselves to act in obedience out of love of God and man.

    But it can still be argued, I think, that is in our interest to love God and man. Were it not, nobody would do it. Mises said (sorry Stephen) that human action is purposeful behavior: we act because we have a personal incentive (whatever that may be) to do so. If that incentive or motivation is love of God, then great. But it’s still in our interest to do whatever it is we’re doing, and for whatever reason.

    Tom-ay-to, tom-ah-to. I think we all agree on the fundamentals. 🙂

  22. Connor
    August 12, 2008 at 12:33 pm #

    Also, God isn’t a vending machine for blessings.

    Ha, good one! Made me laugh.

  23. Jeff T
    August 12, 2008 at 12:40 pm #

    Here is another related post on the subject:

    Connor, did you read the first link I sent? If so, awesome. 🙂

    I believe it is genuinely possible for something to have an other-oriented incentive–to genuinely be acting for another’s sake. The philosophy of instrumental egoism denies this possibility, and instead maintains that all human motives must be reducible to a form of self-interest. In instrumental egoism, we help others only because they help us in return. They become a means to an end. The philosophy of instrumental egoism has a sketchy history, and I believe the Gospel of Jesus Christ supplies an alternative to it–the possibility that human action can act genuinely out of altruistic concern for another person, regardless of ensuing benefits.

  24. Stephen Palmer
    August 12, 2008 at 12:50 pm #

    A couple of years ago I probably would have agreed with you that “we all agree on the fundamentals.” After what I’ve experienced, however, I don’t think this is the case at all. There are significant and fundamental differences between the points being discussed, at least from my perspective.

    This is much more than philosophical — it becomes material and very real after people hear self-interest enough. Their mindsets, actions, and habits change. They begin to rationalize away critical aspects of the gospel. It leads, in essence, to the Book of Mormon pride cycle.

  25. Connor
    August 12, 2008 at 12:51 pm #

    In instrumental egoism, we help others only because they help us in return.

    The self-interest I’m describing is ignorant of the source of one’s reward. It may be from the person directly (a neighbor who you helped bringing you some cookies), or from God (a related blessing in response to your charitable action). Heck, self-interest may allow a person to be nice to others thinking that by doing so he will someday find a pink unicorn.

    In essence, self-interest implies that there is a purposeful reason behind our actions. It may very well be that the self-interest (reason) behind an action may very well not see any personal, beneficial result. It may be in your best interest to give away all your money to somebody in need. You feel that you want to do that, and it’s in your interest (for whatever reason) to do so. Others may label it a sacrifice, but you’ve chosen to pursue that action for whatever your interest is (personal reward or simply to help others).

    In other words, self-interest does not always equal a personal incentive or reward.

  26. Connor
    August 12, 2008 at 12:55 pm #

    They begin to rationalize away critical aspects of the gospel. It leads, in essence, to the Book of Mormon pride cycle.

    I think this entirely depends upon what your value system is.

    It’s in my interest to obey God. It’s in my friend’s interest to “eat, drink, and be merry”. We may argue that it’s in everybody’s interest to obey God and believe, but one’s interest is based upon one’s value system. If a person does not believe in God or does not care about helping others, then his interest is in instant gratification and personal pleasure.

    I see what you’re getting at, but I don’t think that the idea of self-interest is to blame. I think that the fundamental values we cherish dictate what our actions will be (and for what reasons we will do them).

    I may be off here, but I personally don’t see any discrepancy with saying that it’s my self-interest to obey and love God and do all that He requires of me.

  27. Jeff T
    August 12, 2008 at 12:56 pm #

    Reasons for action do not always have to be self-interest. Where in the world do you get the idea that the only reasons for action must be self-interested? I gave someone a ride last night. Why? Because he needed it. THAT can be a reason for my action. That isn’t self-interest… it is other-interest. SURE, it was in my best interest, but that doesn’t have to be the reason for the act.

    It is a very strange philosophy to conflate self-interest with motive as if they were identical. There IS such thing as an altruistic motive.

  28. Jeff T
    August 12, 2008 at 12:59 pm #

    And you are right, it IS in your best interest to serve God. But it is contrary to the Gospel to say that the pursuit of self-interest is the ONLY possible motivation for action, or the highest motivation for action.

    Get it now? I am NOT saying that it isn’t in your best interest. Only that self-interest isn’t the ultimate REASON why we do it.

    Can I be more clear?

  29. Stephen Palmer
    August 12, 2008 at 1:51 pm #

    One of the main points I continually make in this discussion is to question why people seem so stuck on using the term “self-interest.” Everywhere I research I find the prophets preaching against self-interest.

    I understand that you’re differentiating between self-interest as a term and self-interest as a concept. You’re using the term self-interest to describe a concept that you’re driving at.

    My question is why use the term in the first place? Is there a better term to describe what you’re driving at, especially considering that it’s a term that’s very rarely used in positive light by the prophets?

    Although I don’t fully agree with what you mean conceptually by the term, I’m more concerned with the usage of the term. The danger isn’t so much what you say as it is how it’s interpreted and applied. And since the term comes from sources such as Ayn Rand, whose teachings are blatantly, deliberately, and unapologetically anti-Christian, it’s usually applied based on how such proponents use it, not on what is actually meant by a Christian in good faith.

    To be clear, Connor, I don’t question or judge your integrity and intentions as a Christian. As I mentioned before, this is simply a sore point for me after what I’ve seen in the lives of many friends and associates on an intimate basis.

    Also, in reference to your comment, “I think this entirely depends upon what your value system is”: My point is to say that what I’ve observed is that teaching self-interest has a clear tendency to skew people’s value systems. My experience is that it negatively influences people to start listening more to the philosophies of men, rather than to God and his revealed Word.

    I’ve had this discussion with dozens of people, and I have yet to meet one of them who ever sat down and did an in-depth study on what the prophets have to say about the issue. They reason and argue, they quote philosophy, but they simply don’t know the prophet’s words.

    Of course, the interpretation of those words is a different thing entirely, and I don’t claim to have the perfect interpretation. It would be nice, however, if people were to argue the self-interest perspective after having done the research. And that is not directed at you — I have no idea what research you’ve done and am not presuming anything — it’s just been my experience with others.

  30. Connor
    August 12, 2008 at 1:55 pm #

    My experience is that it negatively influences people to start listening more to the philosophies of men, rather than to God and his revealed Word.

    How would you relate these concepts, then, to people (let’s say Latter-day Saints) who take God’s mandate to help the poor and the needy and transfuse it into government policy? What concepts or terms might best be used to explain to such people that socialism is not in harmony with God’s commandments, nor morally justifiable as a method of aiding others?

  31. Stephen Palmer
    August 12, 2008 at 2:08 pm #

    I would say that it’s Lucifer’s plan: to force us to be “good.”

    I’m 100% with you in your thesis that charity must be voluntary for it to be charity at all.

  32. Jeff T
    August 12, 2008 at 2:12 pm #

    In contrast with Stephen’s reply, Connor, since I don’t believe Satan ever wants to force anyone to be “good,” I believe an rhetoric of the source of government authority may help instead, as I present in my series on government.

  33. Jeff T
    August 12, 2008 at 2:18 pm #

    Also, I may have figured out where our misunderstanding/disagreement may have come from.

    The prefix “self” in self-interest is traditionally understood as the object of interest, as in “interested in the self.” Some of the ways you use the term imply that you treat “self” as the subject, as in “the one that is interested.” In the second sense, “interest in others” would be a self-interest, as in “the self is interested in others.” However, you are the first person I have hear to use the word that way, so if do use it in that sense, don’t be surprised if you are misunderstood.

  34. Carissa
    August 12, 2008 at 5:03 pm #

    I can just imagine the internal struggle after reading through this discussion:

    “I should really go do my visiting/home teaching, but I’ve had such a busy week and I’m so tired…

    I need to do it anyway, I want to do better at serving God and other people, I want to be a better more unselfish person who puts the needs of others above myself, I want to do the right thing even when it’s hard, I want to become more Christlike…

    Oh, listen to me, all I can think about is what I want. I am being so self-centered! What is wrong with me? I’m just hopeless! I’d better not do it unless I’m doing it for the right reason”

  35. Reach Upward
    August 12, 2008 at 7:32 pm #

    Interesting theological discussion. But going back to the posts that posit where property rights come from and what that means for those that lack faith in God, I urge you to watch the 8-minute video at this link: . I think it nicely sums up where property rights come from.

  36. brandon
    August 12, 2008 at 11:05 pm #

    Thanks Reach Upward, that was a good video. My own understanding of liberty and its importance fall in line with the definition given in the video. One interesting question that I still have concerns property. I understand that my time, efforts, energy, etc produce “fruit” or results which are my property. But what about my use of natural resources? What gives me claim to them over others? I can work just as hard as anyone else, but if I don’t have access to the same resources as them (capital, land, raw materials, infrastructure) then my results will be far different than their’s. Why do we allow some (richest of the rich) to have claim upon a disproportionate share of the resources and expect so many others to make do with very limited resources (or none at all)? How can the land, earth or nature belong to any one individual, especially since so much of it was taken by force?

  37. Curtis
    August 13, 2008 at 12:08 am #

    One must also take caution to remember that God’s law does not allow for a man to seek after riches. In fact the Lord commands that we do not seek after riches. He says in D&C 11:

    7 Seek not for riches but for wisdom; and, behold, the mysteries of God shall be unfolded unto you, and then shall you be made rich. Behold, he that hath eternal life is rich.

    Life is all about the accumulation of saving knowledge. All of this economic stuff is Satan’s distraction.

  38. Reach Upward
    August 13, 2008 at 11:17 am #

    The issue with natural resources only becomes a problem when there is no defined ownership of such. Where we have rights to use natural resources (either we own them or have an agreement with the owner to use them), they are private property acquired through our past exercise of liberty. (Of course, as a religionist, I believe they belong to God and that we are simply temporarily exercising a stewardship over them.)

    The problem arises when natural resources have questionable or common ownership. Then we have what is called the tragedy of the commons. When either everyone or no one owns a resource, there is insufficient incentive for individuals to properly care for that resource. The answer is private ownership.

    Brandon questions why “the rich” have a disproportionate claim or usage of natural resources. This is not a problem when the claim is based in private property rights. The rich do not generate or maintain wealth simply by owning something, but by doing useful things with their holdings. That entails engaging in mutually beneficial voluntary arrangements with others, including many that are not rich, thus, allowing them to enrich and care for themselves.

    This is not a perfect principle. I don’t know, for example, how you’d ever properly allot air as private property. But when natural resources belong to everyone or no one, there is a continual struggle and appeal to authority — use of force — for various players to have their way with the resource. Those with power naturally win these battles without regard for the willingness of others to engage in the exchange.

    While the Lord has said that His plan is for the rich to be (willingly) humbled and the poor to be exalted (D&C 104:16), he has also made it clear that the poor have no rightful claim upon the property of others (D&C 56:17). The key is voluntary exchanges involving private property.

  39. brandon
    August 13, 2008 at 11:43 pm #

    This is not a perfect principle.

    I agree, and that is why I am trying to explore it from different angles. Since it is not perfect, and is definetly unfair, I am trying to understand why equity and fairness should not be more emphasized or valued.

    when natural resources belong to everyone or no one, there is a continual struggle and appeal to authority — use of force — for various players to have their way with the resource.

    That seems to be a very strong downside to communal ownership. I have always wondered if there isn’t a way (a system) that would preserve liberty while still maintaining a more level playing field. Maybe I’ll have to invent it.

  40. Stephen Palmer
    August 14, 2008 at 5:53 am #

    I have always wondered if there isn’t a way (a system) that would preserve liberty while still maintaining a more level playing field. Maybe I’ll have to invent it.

    Brandon, you don’t have to invent it; it was “invented” with the foundation of the world. It’s called Christianity–the system where everyone voluntarily seeks the interest of their neighbor above themselves, leading to a just, equitable, and sustainable society where there “are no poor among them.”

  41. Clumpy
    August 14, 2008 at 6:23 pm #

    Hey! That’s discrimination!

    Joke. What Stephen said is exactly what nearly all of us (including some of the most vocal “Christians”) miss. Much of the right wing has taken a legitimate stance (taxation as a means of income distribution is wrong) and turn it into a self-righteous justification of selfish superiority over the lower classes. Not very Christian.

  42. Reach Upward
    August 15, 2008 at 8:39 am #

    It has already been pointed out that conservatives privately donate far more than liberals. So, I’m not sure how you derive the selfish accusation.

  43. Curtis
    August 16, 2008 at 7:42 pm #

    True charity has only ever existed in capitalist enterprise.

    Are you talking about the pure love of Christ here?

  44. Clumpy
    August 17, 2008 at 10:01 pm #

    @Reach Upward: In my overly-general statement, I was referring to an ideology rather than a behavior, and more specifically to the talking heads of the right wing media. I’ve heard the more vitriolic ones take that tactic a number of times.

  45. Dave
    August 25, 2008 at 10:29 pm #

    I thought I’d add a few thoughts-

    In regards to self-interest: You are correct in stating self-interest as a correct principle but the emphasis is wrong. I’m surprised the Joseph Smith quote has not surfaced in the discussion, speaking of self-aggrandizement he said, “It is a correct principle and may be indulged upon only one rule or plan—and that is to elevate, benefit and bless others first. If you will elevate others, the very work itself will exalt you. Upon no other plan can a man justly and permanently aggrandize himself.”

    The emphasis and the ultimate message we should be promoting is not self-interest for the sake of self-interest but in turning our self-interest towards brotherhood and love and sacrifice of our selves for others, that is the message more sorely needed in the world.

    In regards to self-interest and rewards: the problem has always been and will remain Job.

  46. Rick
    August 29, 2008 at 7:53 pm #

    We talk about how much better off we are in the United States as compared to some other countries. But sadly much of our prosperity has been gained through government borrowing. For years we have enjoyed government services that have been funded through borrowing. I wonder how wealthy we really are? For example, two years ago I became debt-free but it appears I still have to repay my part of the collective US debt sometime in the future.

    As for rich and poor I believe it will always be this way. I do not mind someone being rich, in most cases they took the risks and worked hard. I do not mind helping the poor but I like to do it in my own way and in my own time.

  47. Neal Harmon
    December 6, 2010 at 8:58 am #

    You’ll love this article on Why Giving Matters if you haven’t already read it. It follows the economics and psychology of government sponsored “charity” versus individually sponsored charity.

  48. Ron
    December 10, 2010 at 7:23 am #

    Thanks Neal. I’d never thought of it that way.


  1. What Do You Expect? » Pursuit of Liberty - August 12, 2008

    […] mix religion and politics at The Life I am Choosing. Later I ran across Connor’s post about the truth concerning charity in a capitalist system. That related post had a comment that seemed to capture the difference in the expectations between […]

  2. Taxes = Satan? at Mormon Matters - August 24, 2008

    […] “Capitalism… is the only economic model under which true charity may be performed. Any other method of government that compels its citizens to give up a portion of their money is practicing a false altruism that puts us on a slippery slope to absolute communism. Force should be shunned at all times, but especially when used as a method of supposedly helping those in need.” (Connor Boyack) […]

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