Santa's Gifts

Gift-giving can be a kind of revenge, or of affront: an expression, in either case, of the will to power. It is definitely not a univocally benevolent act. Charitable acts are often expressions of the starkest egoisms.

I noticed this as a child, amidst the mad scramble of wintertime celebrations: of Christmas wishes and expectations dashed and fulfilled and then undermined; of the sad parade of gift misfires and recipient regrets.

But perhaps sentimentality shields us from learning the lessons under the mistletoe. There are many other occasions for such reflection. Indeed, one need look no further than the native Americans in the area where I live. They engaged in a rivalry of benefaction. The point of the Potlatch was to demonstrate tremendous wealth. The recipients were honor-bound to, in turn, honor the benefactor. Indeed, it was almost a trade: goods for praise.

The white folk who came to the area, and not a few anthropologists, saw the Potlatch culture as amazingly, brazenly egoistic. It seemed indecent, all about puffing up the efficacious leader as chief, and praising the productive chiefdom over the under-productive.

But later anthropologists noticed that this egoism led, as if by an invisible hand, to serve as a redistributionist system for the whole region. If a salmon run was insufficient one year, another group in a more blessed region would help out, bestowing bounty. For the honor of it.

But the invisible hand has not been so kind in our age.

By adding a force of law and regularity to the redistributionist* emprise, denizens of modernity have aimed to supplant emergent order with over-arching planned order. And, when this happens, the “law of unintended consequences” plays not so much an invisible ordering role, but a disordering one.

Whether or not this slapback/blowback effect is overwhelmingly negative, I will leave for other occasions. But there is something we can conclude from the start, regardless of a weighing of outcomes: support for tax-funded state “charitable” aid is never wholly charitable in origin. Indeed, we should expect to witness a whole heckuva lot of Pharasaic posturing and moral preening by those who favor extensive “aid” to this group or that.

And we do.

As I see it, there are many advocates of “cheap charity” in today’s ideological combat. Proponents of increased levels of aid can take immediate satisfaction of “at least I care.” Even if, in nearly all cases, the proposals are far from certain to be enacted (and thus quite inexpensive to make), and the financial burden of the aid likely to descend mostly on some richer others (and thus being almost of zero cost to advance), the advantages in “honor” and social status are quite certain and immediate.

It seems obvious to me, when I look at the world of policy advocacy: state aid proponents’ lack of real beneficent interest is clear as ice on a winter pond . . . or cold heart. How better to explain their alarm at the very thought of means-testing “welfare”? Or considering any negative effect of state aid? If they really cared, being careful with limited resources would be foremost in their minds.

I usually suspect advocates of dirigiste statism to be little more than sub rosa power lusters and tribal bigots. I rarely find examples that prove otherwise.

Indeed, one of the things noticed by many among the new wave of African-American (and other “people of color”) libertarians and limited-government conservatives is the condescension of the rich white “liberals” and their assumption of incompetence, stupidity, folly and general witlessness among darker-hued populations in America. This reaches an apogee of ridiculousness in the cause of voter registration, which progressives have (naturally!) racialized:

It is hard not to conjure up from the chthonian collective unconscious a terrifying charge: that the welfare state has succeeded in turning large swaths of middle-class and rich white people into slave-owners by proxy — folks quite proud of their support “of support” . . . for dependent populations . . . dependent populations who seem to be valued as less-than-human. You know, like slaves in antebellum days.

Perhaps some day soon a once-obvious truth will once again gain some credence. Too much help is too much. Yes. There can be too much of a good thing. Aid is one of those good things that the “too much of” can prove disastrous.

Alternatively, with natural checks built into redistribution — the limits of charitable imagination and empathy, the hint of indeterminacy that ego-driven generosity provides — an invisible hand process can indeed yield wide social benefits even in situations not based on explicit trade.

But the sad truth seems to be that combining those all-too-human ego-driven pseudo-benevolences with legal plunder (taxation) and sanctioned tribal warfare (political and ideological contest) means, yes, we should expect long-cycle negative social instabilities and and rising anti-sociality.

The Invisible Hand slaps back.


* By “redistribution” I mean distribution after the fact of initial appropriation, and outside the scope of explicit voluntary trade. Contrary to recent libertarian theorists who object to the term redistribution on the grounds that, under laissez faire “there is no distribution, just trade,” I counter with this: all allocation of goods is distribution, which is an act, either of giving or lending, or abandoning; or giving in exchange for return gift (trade), lending in return for remuneration (rent and usury), or re-appropriating once-abandoned property. All these are forms of distribution. And by norming initial acquisition and trade, I see giving without exchange, and taking without exchange, as redistributive.