Saviors need victims to save
The wealthier a society, the better. The only people who believe otherwise are misanthropes and those who are utterly ignorant of history. Yet growing wealth does produce some challenging tensions.
One such tension springs from the better angels within us. As we grow more prosperous, we become more willing and able to extend our caring beyond ourselves and our immediate families. A mother whose baby is starving has neither the resources nor the interest to help strangers. But a mother whose children are well-fed, well-clothed, well-schooled and otherwise prosperous likely can spare some resources as well as emotional energy to care for less-fortunate people. Such caring is virtuous, and its virtue isn't diminished by the fact that it is made possible by material prosperity.
Such caring also gives to those who extend it a sense of gratification. Growing prosperity not only makes individuals better able and more willing to help strangers; it also creates in many people a positive demand to help strangers. The sense of satisfaction from helping others acts in some people as a powerful narcotic.
When “selflessness” reaches this point, it often becomes greed — greed for the emotional charge that the “selfless” person personally enjoys from extending “help” to others.
As our prosperity increases, the number of people made greedy for this sort of emotional charge also increases. A problem is created because growing prosperity also reduces the number of people who truly need charitable help from strangers.
With fewer people needing help — but more people demanding to give it — the people who demand to give it are led to see problems where none exists. The noble and beneficial willingness to help needy strangers transmogrifies into an officious and dangerous insistence on ordering other people about “for their own good.”
Consider, for example, the minimum wage. I have no doubt that many minimum-wage proponents believe that they selflessly serve low-skilled workers by lobbying on their behalf for higher minimum wages. But that's all this sensation is: a feeling. Economics plainly shows that minimum wages harm many of its intended beneficiaries by pricing them out of jobs from which they would earn incomes today and get better work skills for tomorrow.
This reality doesn't matter to the professors and pundits and “activists” who intrude themselves into the contractual arrangements of low-skilled workers and employers. The real object isn't actually to help low-skilled workers; it's to give minimum-wage proponents the emotional boost they crave by fancying themselves as helping others.
Making matters worse, these busybodies manage to blind most of their victims to the damages wrought by minimum wages. The high that the busybodies get from “helping” workers is thus better protected from being disturbed by dissenting voices rising from the crowd of those who the busybodies “help.”
It's noble to help others. But it's cruel to do so as frivolously and as selfishly as it is done by minimum-wage proponents.
Donald J. Boudreaux is a professor of economics and Getchell Chair at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. His column appears twice monthly.