Earlier this week I ran across an article published on The Atlantic titled, “Is It Unethical for People to Pass Their Wealth On to Their Children?” If we’re being honest, that title might as well be, “Should you have a right to decide what you do with your own belongings? Probably not. Trust me instead.” The subtitle on this could be numerous, but the Atlantic reads, “A conversation about inheritance, philanthropy, and aging with the philosopher Martha Nussbaum and the law professor Saul Levmore.”
Helaine Olen, the author of this article, states she interviewed Levmore and Nussbaum. Fortunately there is disagreement between the two, however, Nussbaum’s positions is particularly selfish, tyrannical, and disgusting and I’ll show you how:
The interview starts off:
Helaine Olen: Why do people give money away both before they die and in their final wills? Are there different motivations in each case?
Saul Levmore: Well, that’s a really good question. Some people give money away, I think, as a way to live forever.
Martha Nussbaum: I think it’s a surrogate immortality, in a lot of cases. People realize that their life is ending, but they want some imprint on the world that is identified with them. Of course, that can take many forms, not just giving money away. It can take the form of building a building, or whatever. But I think the reason that givers to institutions so often want to name a building is they really want their imprint to be on the world in some kind of durable, etched-in-stone way. They don’t want to be forgotten.
So they agree on the basic premise here; they think people only give their money away in order to feel a facade of immortality. That’s a really shallow reason and I’m sure there are plenty of people who only donate for the purpose of seeing their names carry on in history, but I’m also certain it’s not the major reason people donate. People of every economic class donate goods, time, and abilities to causes or people they stand with. I think the rise of crowdsourcing is one of the biggest indicators of this. Without people willing to donate to causes they believe in, websites like Kickstarter, GoFundMe, and Paetron wouldn’t even be possible. These websites can fund anything from generous causes to medical bills, recovery funds to businesses and startups and millions of people are willing to donate to these causes.
The Killroy free speech conference just reached full funding via donation (albeit as of writing this, it’s falling apart into a dumpster fire of drama). People were able to donate with or without their names; with or without prizes for donating, and with or without any further participation at all. This sort of thing happens all the time and I think Levmore and Nussbaum are ignoring that–or at least not acknowledging that people donate to causes they want to see continued. If someone donates to a free speech advocacy group, that’s not their legacy and their name isn’t going to be stamped on it. They do it for the meaning of the event, the traditions uphold, and the culture surrounding it.
Donations are a personal thing and done for personal reasons. They’ll get into this a little later on, but people like to donate to places, things, or causes that mean something to them. I’ll come back to this later.
Olen: And what are the attractions of giving money away while alive?
Levmore: It’s unsurprising when you see the Bill Gateses of the world give away a lot of money while they’re still alive, because you can watch what people do with it—you can see who’s doing and a good job and a bad job, and then give more to some places than to others, and so forth.
I think most people would prefer to give it away while they are alive and to see the progress that’s made. It’s just that they’re unsure about their longevity and about their future economic needs. But I think it’s natural to earmark money and have it go for some new building when you die if you really felt like you have lots and lots of wealth.
Nussbaum: It’s also that people want to give it away before they die in order to avoid the estate tax—which may disappear, shortly. Therefore universities hate the idea that the estate tax would go away. But this is also influenced by social norms. I find that in Europe, it’s much harder to get rich people to give money away, because their peer community of rich people doesn’t honor that, as much.
I think to some extent Levmore may have some validity, but again I think he’s being too general and too cynical. People don’t just prefer to give when they’re alive to see how things progress. There are plenty of causes people trust in and give continuously to while they’re alive. Some causes are specifically for conservation, which means there won’t be ‘further progress.’ I’d think, in most cases, people prefer to give money when they’re alive because that means they’re in control. I dunno about other people, but I’ve had a hard past of people not really following through so trust is a hard thing for me. I can only imagine having resources you’d like to go to a specific cause and having to entrust someone else to follow through.
On Nussbaum’s point–I don’t blame anyone for wanting to avoid the estate tax. All that money was taxed on reception–and at a very high rate. With the current estate tax of 40%, we’re looking at the working wages of that person being taxed up to 70% by the time the money leaves the person who owned it. To say, “Well who cares if someone pays an estate tax? They’re rich and a 2%” is not only stupid, but it’s selfish. “It doesn’t affect me negatively, so why should I care?” Because it’s government-mandated theft. If you look at someone with more than you and say, “How can I take it from them and put it in my own pocket?” You’re selfish.
Oh, and on Nussbaum’s point that people are less likely to give to charity in Europe where the taxes are higher–no duh. It’s not about social recognition, it’s about having less money to give. This has happened in the United States too. Charities used to be more community funded and play a bigger part in cities, however, as taxes rose, citizens have less money to give and so they give less. When taxes are lower, people spend and give more. I have no idea how she overlooks or just ‘forgets’ that…
Olen: Saul, one of things you talked specifically about in the book is how we discount the pleasure we get from giving money away while we’re alive.
Levmore: There are many systems of discounting. First of all, I think it’s thought to be impolite to say how you’ve improved the world by giving money away. So, people are shy to say that. And then, also, I’ve been a donor, but I’ve also been a fundraiser when I was president of the law school for a while, and I think that there’s a sense in which you don’t want to know if people flopped with your money. You give money away, and it goes to some college—maybe your college was better when you were there, but maybe it’s worse than when you were there. You would like to imagine that you’re making the world a better place, and in a funny way, it’s easier to do that when you’re dead. I think, for example, one reason people don’t give more money to their children while they’re both still alive is it would be a shame to give a lot of money to your kid and then watch your kid not go to work every day, or watch your kid misuse the money.
Here Levmore basically gets at how donating is personal and there’s not much to say on that. People choose places to give because they mean something; it’s out of gratitude, they care about the cause, they whatever. He also continues with the idea of ‘wanting to see how it turns out’ when he talks about not giving money to children while alive.
Then Nussbaum comes in with the jealousy:
Nussbaum: Suppose you endow a charity or university. You could put your name on it, but you could also endow it in honor of some teacher you had. People differ. There are people who prefer to be anonymous in their giving or to put somebody else’s name on it. It also poisons your relationship with other people.
Olen: What do you mean by “poisons your relationships with other people”?
Nussbaum: Well, it’s if you seem to be posing as a big shot and you want to be just one among equals—you don’t want your name to be trumpeted.
So donating money poisons relationships because if you donate, you put yourself on a pedestal. This makes me think of a brief conversation we had in my office as the IT team prepared to switch buildings. The lead IT guy has huge monitors. Before the move, he was in a small, private booth, but after the move, he’d be in an open room with other members of IT. He was afraid of moving the big monitors (and talked about just not) because he said other people might get jealous of them–even though he bought them with his own money and brought them in. The discussion basically came down to, “Why would I care what you have? Those are your resources that you worked for. Good for you.”
Nussbaum’s enter argument comes down to, “I can’t believe the things you’re doing with the things you have that I don’t. Just you having those things is bragging.” Nussbaum is taking her lack of having as an insult in the same way a neurotic woman takes it as an insult if someone else is served a compliment and she’s not.
Olen: In the book, you discuss the distinction between altruism and philanthropy. Can you elaborate on that?
Nussbaum: Oh, sure, because altruism is the desire to benefit others, for their own sake, and not for yours. Now, some philanthropy is very self-interested. I know one opera donor who insists that the money would be used only for works from prior to the 20th century because she doesn’t like 20th-century music. So, you want to hear what you like—that’s pretty selfish, actually. Philanthropy can have a very strong selfish component.
The other side of it is that disinterested altruism takes many forms. It could just take the form of raising children and grandchildren, or of teaching students—there are all kinds of things you can do to benefit others that really are not giving your money.
Nussbaum’s stance on philanthropy vs. altruism is pretty funny to me. To her the difference is giving for yourself versus giving without recognition, but even in altruism, the goal is to be recognized as a selfless saint. You want to look good. You want to feel good–and you want to feel good so badly you’re willing to sacrifice yourself. As if that’s not selfish. Destroy yourself for the sake of recognition by others. If she didn’t care about recognition, then she wouldn’t be gloating about how altruism is better.
I also like this acclimation that giving the things you worked for is selfish because you have recognition for it. Look, giving to any capacity is selfless to some extent. There can be selfish acts intertwined in the action, but giving isn’t selfish unless the whole reason you’re giving is to get something in return. If you give presents to loved ones, not because you love them, but because you want something back, you’re selfish. If you give solely for the purpose of recognition, that’s selfish, but you know, I’ll take that. Sometimes the cause needs to be looked at too. If someone donates money to their own foundation, it’s pretty suspect for laundering… Especially if they’re grabbing tax cuts for their donations to themselves.
People should have a right to do what they want with the money they’ve earned. The majority of taxes are garbage and misused funds. You know if you have someone else’s credit card, you’re a lot less likely to be careful with spending rather than when you’re working with your own budget? Taxation works the same way. The government doesn’t worry about spending inappropriately or misallocating funds (when they aren’t stealing them), because it’s not their money to begin with.
And to say that people who worked hard all their lives shouldn’t have the right to give their legacy and hard work to their kids — because that’s what money is. Money is a symbol of effort — it’s a quantifiable output of your life, blood, and time — and to say someone shouldn’t have the right to choose what happens with their money when they die, as mentioned above, it should just be taken from them for the government to decide?
Nussbaum says at some point in the interview that she donates to causes she agrees with. Whenever you’ve got someone donating, they always pick what they deem worthy. She judges those who donate to causes she doesn’t think are good enough and wants to steal other peoples’ money in order to give more to what she cares about–stripping individuals of their chosen political and social matters. What she wants to do is rob people of their ability to choose what they support and instead, use someone else’s money to fund the things she supports, regardless of whether those things contradict the beliefs of the person she stole the money from.
I don’t understand how anyone can argue they believe in freedom of choice and the individual and American ideals while also arguing they think the government should steal as much as they want from people and oh, you shouldn’t be allowed to decide what happens to the fruits of your labor. Nussbaum argues that the children who inherit their parents’ wealth don’t deserve it–but what makes her social experiments of donation more worthy of deserving it? They aren’t. The government isn’t worthy. The only person who can decide who gets their belongings is the owner of those belongings.
It’s truly disgusting to me that anyone can and will make a moral argument for stealing from people to further their own causes. It’s not honest, it has nothing to do with fairness, and it’s unAmerican.
Maybe I’ll listen to these people make their arguments when they are at least intellectually consistent and they tell people like Will Smith, Beyonce, and Jay Z — or anyone who worked their way out of the ‘hood’ and into middle or upper class that they can’t keep anything they worked for or pass it on to their kids. News flash: most parents work hard to give their kids a better life than they had.
This is just further proof that communism/socialism isn’t about fairness, equality, or raising standards, but bringing everyone down to the pit of despair and failure of the lowest common denominators of society.