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Happy Thanksgiving -- be grateful for American individualism


The generosity of capitalism

The US is the world's biggest giver because its ethos of individualism
encourages humanitarianism, argues Lawrence Lindsey, 
Financial Times
Published: November 21 2001 19:54 | Last Updated: November 21 2001 22:09

Approximately $1.3bn has been donated to benefit the victims of the September
11 terrorist attacks. While this is a considerable sum, it is consistent with
Americans' generosity. According to the American Association of Fundraising
Counsel, in 2000 Americans gave $203bn to charitable organisations, or 2 per
cent of gross domestic product, far surpassing the contributions of any other
nation. Further, those other countries that were runners-up in private
philanthropy were nations that share US values and traditions. 

Why are Americans such big givers? Some say this generosity is merely the
outgrowth of the spectacular success of capitalism at wealth creation. And no
one should argue with capitalism's success in generating wealth, or that
possessing wealth beyond that required to meet one's immediate needs makes
contributing to humanitarian causes easier. 

But surely there is more to the link between capitalism and humanitarianism
than wealth creation. After all, there are plenty of things one can do with
one's wealth other than contribute it to meeting the needs of others.
Humanitarianism rests not just on wealth but on an ethos. And two aspects of
the ethos of capitalism - materialism and individualism - are what make
humanitarianism possible. 

Materialism is the belief that the quality of one's life on earth is important:
that life should be more than a daily struggle to meet immediate needs. This is
important, for if one does not believe that the material conditions of life are
important, no value exists in meeting the material needs of others. 

The individuals who commandeered the aeroplanes and flew them into the World
Trade Center and the Pentagon did not think the material conditions of life
mattered. Indeed, they did not think life itself mattered. They willingly
brought death to themselves and thousands of others and suffering to tens of
thousands for a non-material purpose. 

Indeed, their acts and the rhetoric of their leaders are not just non-material,
but anti-material. They believe in tearing down. Capitalism, by contrast, is
the ideology of building up; it is the best ethos for making our dreams and
aspirations concrete that mankind has ever found. Indeed, "Man Also Rises", the
painting by Frank O'Connor, husband of novelist Ayn Rand, is a rendering of a
skyscraper under construction. The symbolism behind our enemy's choice of
targets is profound. 

So, of course, materialism is also necessary for wealth creation, which in turn
makes humanitarian acts possible. But materialism as an ethic, as well as
materialism in its substance, is a precondition for meeting the needs of

The second ethic of capitalism that is necessary for humanitarianism is a
belief in the individual. Individualism places value on the sin gle person
apart from the value of the group. It requires rebuilding an individual's
spirit. Humanitarianism is not the act of helping humanity in the collective -
indeed, such an act is difficult to imagine. It is the act of helping to meet
the needs of an individual or a number of individuals and thereby assisting

This point is lost on the US's new mortal enemy. But it was also lost on that
other mortal enemy: communism. Communists often speak of the needs of humanity.
But this does not make them humanitarians, for they never care about the needs
of a single individual. 

Indeed, it is communism's lack of caring for the individual that ultimately
stopped communism from meeting material needs. As Margaret Chapman, founding
president of the US-Russia Business Forum, wrote of the dying days of the
Soviet Union: "It is often said people are willing to die for their country but
not to work for it." Unlike communism or nationalism, humanitarianism is not
advanced by anyone's heroic death. Humanitarianism is never that easy. It
requires hard work and sacrifice to improve the life of another individual. It
requires being there day in and day out. 

Indeed, the ethic of communism or socialism works to undermine humanitarianism.
If one is told that the state will care for the needs of the individual,
individuals are absolved from the responsibility of caring for their fellows. 

The reality of this was brought home to me when I visited Romania in the early
1990s to adopt our daughter, Emily. What we think of as civic society had been
destroyed in Romania by years of brutal Communist dictatorship. 

The elderly were starving in their apartments because they could not leave to
get food and no one thought it their duty to help. A neighbour of one of the
consulates died, leaving a widow and several children. The consul offered help
in the form of food and a small amount of cash. Her Romanian employees were
furious, insisting that the condition of the neighbour's family was none of her
business. Taking care of people was viewed soley as the state's responsibility.
The basis for even elemental acts of kindness, let alone humanitarianism, had
been destroyed by an ethos that denied individualism and individual

Individualism as an ethic defines the individual not only as the ultimate
beneficiary but also as the ultimate problem-solver. While government can
perform many important functions, it is hard to think of the state as
humanitarian. Indeed, most religions recognise the individual's role in this
function. Christianity recognises charity as one of the seven holy virtues,
along with faith, hope, prudence, justice, temperance and fortitude. Islam
considers alms to the poor as one of its four pillars. Judaism has a similar
concept: tzedakah. Each of these - charity, giving alms, or tzedekah - involves
an individual act. There is no collective short cut. 

The point is that it is no accident that the US's attackers on September 11
were those who did not value the material and had no concern for the
individual. It is also no accident that Americans' response to their fellow
citizens' tragedy has been so generous. Paradoxical as it may seem, men and
women who are free to pursue individualism and material wealth turn out to be
the most compassionate of all. 

The writer is President George W. Bush's economic adviser and director of the
National Economic Council at the White House 

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