A good portion of this campaign season’s rhetoric would have you believe we are an either/or society. You are either a maker or a taker. A job creator or a mooch. A person of initiative who by dint of hard work and raw talent succeeds in the rough and tumble of the free market, or … an uninspired slug who can’t cut it and who is content to live off the wealth created by others.
The news media lately have been full of speakers and writers who insist that the path to an economic and moral Eden is found by running us through a Darwinian filter that will by some magical process separate the worthy from the unworthy, thereby freeing the worthy to create a better, more prosperous society for all. Many of us will become wealthy because we will have deserved wealth. Others will fall through society’s cracks, but that’s just a natural and, indeed, necessary consequence of capitalism.
This worldview may be enjoying a higher profile lately, but it is not the prevailing view—yet. We still tend to favor the philosophy of the “Sermon on the Mount” over that of “Atlas Shrugged.” Given the size and economic power of the non-profit and charitable sector in our economy, how could it be any different? The economists are wrong when they assume human beings always act only in their own self-interest. There is something called the charitable impulse that causes many of us to act in wildly inefficient and uneconomic ways, even as we participate in the dog-eat-dog marketplace to earn our livings. That impulse has been organized and now claims a significant role in the economy in the form of large and small organizations controlling literally billions of dollars of assets that we happily do not put in our own pockets. Those assets are cheerfully spent on the public good.
And, to get personal about it, there are a lot of professionals who choose careers not dedicated to the accumulation of personal wealth. Such people, including me, do so without any animus toward large personal fortunes, capitalism or job creators as a class. In fact, in my case at least, I admire, respect and rely on the wealth creators because, ultimately, they allow the non-profits and charities to exist. We need each other. We work together, and we have done so successfully in this country from the beginning.
But that is not to say both sides fully understand each other. I will always remember a conversation I had with an extremely successful board member many years ago who was intensely curious about my decision to work for a non-profit. We’d known each other for a couple of years and had worked together on a few projects. He asked me what I liked about my job, and I responded with a list of things. He looked me in the eye for several doubting seconds before asking in exasperation, “But ... don’t you want to make any MONEY?” In that instant I knew we were more different than I had thought. He has since gone on to be a significant philanthropist, but his utter bafflement at my career choice remained with me.
Now I’m baffled. The recent heated rhetoric proves we truly don’t understand each other. Why does talk about a sharp distinction between makers and takers have any traction at all? The very existence of a large charitable sector is ample evidence that our society absolutely does not view the unfortunates among us as failed economic actors who deserve their embarrassed state. Government’s role in assisting the aged, the ill, the disabled, the hungry, etc., is more evidence. There is an argument about how much to spend, but there can be no credible argument about the need or that the public has already accepted a duty to spend. So I remain baffled.
Bruce D. Collins is corporate vice president and general counsel of C-Span, based in Washington, D.C. Email him at email@example.com.