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The Intellectual Activist - An Objectivist Review
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From the October 1999 issue of TIA.

A recent report on foreign aid to Bosnia reveals that much of the aid money has been stolen. According to an August 17 New York Times summary, "As much as a billion dollars has disappeared from public funds or been stolen from international aid projects through fraud carried out by the Muslim, Croatian, and Serbian nationalist leaders, . . . according to an exhaustive investigation by an American-led antifraud unit."

Here is a typical case:

Tuzla, a Muslim city, is one case study of widespread corruption that infects many local governments, the report says. The investigators' report charges that $200 million was missing from this year's budget, in addition to $300 million missing over the last two years. Tuzla's schools were painted four times last year alone by the city government, although they were rebuilt and painted by international aid organizations as well. Tuzla officials paid two or three times the normal price for such work and sold many of the cans of paint on the local market, the auditors found. Many of the schools, meanwhile, still lack heat.

None of this should be a surprise-not after the recent example of Russia, nor after decades of foreign aid to Third World countries across the globe. Indeed, the Bosnian president admits that "It would be nonsense to claim that there is no corruption, or that it is irrelevant, in a country that has just come out of the war, which does not have established borders, where joint institutions are still not functioning, and which has at least two armies and two police forces."

What is interesting about these thefts, however, is a statement buried in the middle of the Times report.

The antifraud unit has exposed so much corruption that relief agencies and embassies are reluctant to publicize the thefts for fear of frightening away international donors. . . . "Our fear is that once the extent of the theft is known, international donors will get disgusted and walk away," said an official at the [UN's] Office of the High Representative, who asked not to be identified.

In other words, the "humanitarians" in Bosnia want to suppress the facts about the theft of aid money, so that Western governments can send more money to be stolen.

This incident reveals a fundamental fact about the nature of altruism. It exposes the crucial link between the idealistic humanitarians who raise the aid money and the corrupt politicians who pocket it. That link is dishonesty-a dishonesty engendered, not as a corruption of the altruist code, but as a fundamental philosophic requirement of it.
To grasp the nature of the connection between altruism and dishonesty, consider two more examples, from widely different fields.

In 1997, actor Geoffrey Rush received an Oscar for his performance in the movie "Shine," a biography of David Helfgott, an Australian pianist who suffered a nervous breakdown and stopped playing for more than a decade; the film was also nominated for Best Picture. Soon afterward, Helfgott himself embarked on a US concert tour, receiving an enthusiastic response. "Not since the heyday of Vladimir Horowitz," the Chicago Tribune's music critic notes, "has any pianist sold out a Chicago [concert] hall so quickly."

The movie had portrayed Helfgott as recovering (at least partially) from his mental illness and reclaiming his musical talent. Here, however, is how the Tribune's critic, John von Rhein, describes the real Helfgott's performance ("The Dark Side of 'The Shine Tour,'" April 6, 1997):

As he plays, he talks to himself incessantly. He moans, he grunts, he groans, he mutters, he conducts an imaginary orchestra. He grins and winks at the crowd. He scratches himself mid-performance, momentarily leaving the left hand to carry on all by its lonesome. Through it all, he babbles self-help mantras like "must concentrate" and "smile."

Von Rhein quotes the Washington Post's music critic: "[Helfgott] generally seemed to be operating on a purely measure-by-measure basis, without memory or anticipation." Von Rhein's own phrase is more eloquent; he describes Helfgott's performance as "music filtered through a fractured mind." But, he notes:

None of this seems to matter very much to Helfgott's devoted fans, who rush up the aisles to clasp his outstretched hands, delight in the childlike eccentricities he so eagerly displays and award him multiple standing ovations. The very fact that Helfgott has been able to put aside his personal demons long enough to play the piano seems to be confirmation enough to them that a miracle has taken place.

Von Rhein rejects this interpretation:

For centuries, listeners have been going to concerts in search of inspiration. Usually, however, they find that inspiration in a great artist bringing his or her personal insights to great music, not in an erratic, distracted performer of singularly modest talents working his way through a kind of public musical therapy.

In the end, however, he gives up attempting to explain Helfgott's popularity. "But the box office success of 'The Shine Tour' has much more to do with pop-cultural psychology than with music." In fact, it is not popular culture or psychology that explain "The Shine Tour"; the answer must come from philosophy.

A final example makes the philosophy involved even clearer. In 1983, a group of women in Beardstown, Illinois, formed the Beardstown Business and Professional Women's Investment Club. The group, which became known as the Beardstown Ladies, became famous for achieving high returns on its investments; the ladies' 1995 Common-Sense Investment Guide was subtitled "How We Beat the Stock Market-and How You Can Too."

In February of 1998, however, a Chicago magazine reporter doing a story on the Beardstown Ladies discovered that these returns had been inflated. The result is described in a March 22, 1998, New York Times story.

Remember that 23.4 percent annual return the ladies thought they had received on their investments from 1984 to 1993? It was heralded as trouncing the Wall Street pros. . . . Well, the return would actually have been a modest 9.1 percent but for [investment club leader Betty] Sinnock's mistaken data entries. The grandmothers from the rural Illinois town of 6,200 whom publicists called among "the great investment minds of our generation" would have been just another investment club falling unimpressively short of the 14.9 percent annual return for the Standard & Poor's 500 [stock-market index] for that decade.

In other words, rather than "trouncing the pros," the Beardstown Ladies fell miserably short of the market. But, incredibly, this had no immediate effect on their popularity.

Indeed, people love the ladies, who now number 14 and average more than 70 years of age, for their folksy manner and their message that average people can make money by researching stocks and investing steadily, and learn about the world and enjoy their friends at the same time. "A lot of our investors are saying that how well the ladies did is not the point," O'Hara said. "The point is that the ladies invested all those years and have done well for themselves."

Except that they haven't done well, at least not compared to how they would have done had they invested with a good professional money manager or put their money into a mutual fund tied to a standard stock-market index.

A more telling statement appears in a defense of the ladies published in the March 19 business section of the Chicago Tribune.

Hundreds of investment clubs throughout America got their inspiration from the story of the Beardstown Ladies and their straightforward lessons for individual investing. Hearing investment basics from small-town women such as Elsie Scheer, Betty Sinnock, Hazel Lindahl and the 13 other members of the club listed in The Beardstown Ladies Common-Sense Investment Guide made the mysteries of Wall Street no more intimidating than the Wizard of Oz stripped of his curtain. As Wall Street shifts its quest for profits from gathering brokerage commissions to collecting asset management fees, anyone who looks behind the curtain is a threat.

In other words, the Beardstown Ladies myth was good because it promoted the idea that professional money managers are no better than anyone else.

What is the common element of these three stories? In the first example, UN officials attempt to suppress the facts about Bosnian corruption, in order to justify the continued sacrifice of American wealth. In the second example, fans of an incompetent pianist ignore criticism of his performance, in order to justify the elevation of a lunatic to the same level as an artistic genius. In the final example, the Beardstown Ladies, abetted by business columnists, cover up their lackluster investment results, in order to justify an egalitarian contempt for Wall Street.

The common philosophic cause is that altruism requires the suppression of the manifest facts about the lack of worth of its intended beneficiaries.

The philosophy of altruism erects need and suffering as its standard of value; altruism's corollary, egalitarianism, therefore demands that benefits be given regardless of merit. But merit is a fact. Suppose, for example, that an employer is presented with two workers. One has worked hard and originated good ideas; the other is slothful and careless. The first has instituted in reality the causes that would lead to greater productivity and greater confidence in his judgment; the other hasn't. The difference between the two men is an unavoidable fact. Yet altruism demands that both men share equally in any benefits given by the employer-indeed, it demands that the second man be given a greater share if his needs are greater. There is no way, in logic, to justify equal treatment for men who are unequal-so the differences between them must be ignored, evaded, covered up.

Moreover, to act consistently on the morality of altruism means to reward and pursue destruction. To give raises and promotions to useless employees, to give adulation to talentless performers, to admit a mediocre student to a top college, to give aid to Eastern European mafias-all of these things clearly result in the annihilation of values. Even worse, they require the taking away of benefits from those who are capable of producing values. The movie "Shine" and the concert tour it spawned could have been used to praise and reward the heroic struggle of a brilliant but unknown artist; the money given to Bosnian thugs could have helped finance a tax cut for American businessmen; the money and time spent reading books by the Beardstown Ladies could have been spent seeking better advice from a legitimate investment expert with a proven track record. In short, altruism requires the systematic sacrifice of the good and valuable for the vicious and the worthless.

But it is impossible to sell people on total, unadulterated sacrifice. It is too glaring a contradiction to tell them to find value in the destruction of values-so it is necessary to pretend that it is not really destruction. The facts must be distorted, hidden, or declared to be irrelevant. Whatever the method, altruism requires and sanctions a war on reality.

Philosophically, this war is manifested in the attempts to base morality on any bizarre fantasy philosophers can dream up. Thus, for example, there is Kant's noumenal world, an unknowable realm from which the commandments of "pure reason" emanate; or there is the pre-birth state posited by John Rawls in his contemporary defense of egalitarianism, a state in which individuals do not yet exist and possess no specific characteristics but by reference to which they are supposed to make moral decisions; and there is the dogma of the religionists, who declare that the only basis for morality is a god who is unlimited by natural laws and an afterlife in which we are freed from the actual needs of human existence.

Culturally, this war on reality takes the form of a massive campaign of dishonesty and fabrication. From Bosnia, Helfgott, and the Beardstown Ladies, to Margaret Meade's debunked depiction of the superiority of Somoan tribalists, Rigoberta Menchu's fraudulent Nobel-prize-winning autobiography about "oppression" in Guatemala, the Afrocentrist claims that Western civilization was stolen from Africa, and so on. And in each of these cases there have been people who leap forward after the revelations of fraud to declare that the perpetrator deserves to be let off the hook because his intentions were noble. What they mean is that the intention was to justify altruism-and that altruism requires and excuses this type of fraud.

Fortunately, this dependence of altruism on dishonesty demonstrates its weakness and vulnerability as a moral code. UN officials are right, for example, to believe that if the public knew the full truth about Bosnia, they would turn their backs on the region in disgust. Thus, the supporters of aid for Bosnia must regard every man of integrity as a threat, even if he explicitly endorses their altruistic goals.

To destroy altruism will, of course, take more than just the citing of facts or the debunking of yet another specious claim. It requires the philosophical thinking necessary to understand and explain those facts. But in that struggle, we have an invaluable ally: the knowledge that every fact is our ally-and that reality is altruism's enemy.

 

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