Sunday, January 31, 2016

Clarifying Jeff Jacoby's Misrepresentation of Ayn Rand's Position on Charity

Stuart K. Hayashi

I have long admired Jeff Jacoby of the Boston Globe as a scrupulous columnist; I have often recommended his columns, particularly his standing up for open immigration against the rest of the political Right.

Unfortunately, he has come out with a column on voluntary charity and philanthropy which grossly misrepresents Ayn Rand's view on this topic.  While many of the figures on American generosity are interesting, the inaccurate impression given of Rand taints this work.
For those raised to regard charitable giving as indispensable to meaningful lives and healthy societies, it can come as a jolt to discover not just that some people give little or nothing to charity, but that there are those who actually disparage charitable giving itself. In a 1964 interview, Ayn Rand said that her views on charity were “very simple: I do not consider it a major virtue and, above all, I do not consider it a moral duty.” John Steinbeck, whose political views were as far to the left as Rand’s were to the right, also disdained philanthropy. “Giving is a selfish pleasure, and in many cases is a downright destructive and evil thing,” he railed.

Rationalizations for not donating certainly aren’t hard to find.
One would glean from those paragraphs that Rand was one to "disparage charitable giving itself."

The quotation of Rand omitted additional sentences clarifying Rand's position.  Here is a more complete version of the exchange between Ayn Rand and the author Alvin Toffler (who would later go on to write many bestsellers of his own, such as Future Shock) for Playboy magazine:

Toffler: "Do you consider wealthy businessmen like the Fords and the Rockefellers immoral because they use their wealth to support charity?" 
Rand: "No. That is their privilege, if they want to. My views on charity are very simple. I do not consider it a major virtue and, above all, I do not consider it a moral duty. There is nothing wrong in helping other people, if and when they are worthy of the help and you can afford to help them. I regard charity as a marginal issue. What I am fighting is the idea that charity is a moral duty and a primary virtue." 
Toffler: "What is the place of compassion in your philosophical system?" 
 Rand: "I regard compassion as proper only toward those who are innocent victims, but not toward those who are morally guilty. If one feels compassion for the victims of a concentration camp, one cannot feel it for the torturers. If one does feel compassion for the torturers, it is an act of moral treason toward the victims."
Free-marketers often talk about how, prior to the New Deal, voluntary charity proliferated in the United States in the form of mutual-aid societies.  The idea was that many poor people (usually immigrants) would form organizations together. If one member of the mutual aid society fell on especially hard times, other members would help out that person.  You might be interested to learn that when she lived in California in her twenties, Ayn Rand was a member of a mutual aid society:  the Hollywood Studio Club, which was started by the YWCA.

People with only a straw-man understanding of Rand's philosophy might assume that the young Rand joining a mutual aid society was hypocrisy on her part. For those who recognize that Rand had no quibble with voluntary charity -- which she regarded not as a duty, but as benevolent generosity -- there is no conflict in the young Rand's actions on this matter with respect to her later writings.