Bust the Liberal Narrative of Selfishness By Being a Giver - America's Future Foundation

May 13, 2019


Bust the Liberal Narrative of Selfishness By Being a Giver

By: Peter Lipsett

The libertarian ideal has a branding problem of its own making. We’ve allowed an important, critical component of our philosophy to be taken away from us. What is it?

That we care.

I recently read Adam Grant’s Give and Take. The book examines the role that givers – those who offer their talents and resources in ways to benefit others over themselves, freely and happily – play in work and elsewhere. He contrasts givers to takers, who put their own interests above all else.

Every ideology, community, work place, and friend group has both givers and takers (as well as those loveable folks in the middle, matchers, who seek balance between giving and receiving). In the public square, though, conservatives and libertarians too often get slapped with the “taker” label.

Why wouldn’t we? All we talk about is how important the individual is!

Our Real Goal is Community

This “individualism-at-all-costs” is our great branding problem. Those of us who prize small government and personal responsibility speak as if these are ends in and of themselves.

They aren’t. The ends are what such individual freedoms make possible. A free individual can freely benefit and strengthen the community around him. We each have our own unique talents and gifts, but those gifts don’t do any good without sharing them, trading them, and building on them with others.

We talk like we’re all takers, but really, most of us strive to be givers – because we need each other just as much as we need our own freedom.

This confusion has deep roots. The American Founders prized the freedom of the individual just as we do today. Alexis de Tocqueville, in his great tome about America in the 19th century, highlights all the ways Americans speak constantly of the value we place in self-interest.

Yet he also points to a discrepancy. For all the talk of self-interest, he often saw Americans helping each other, working together for common ends, joining mutual aid societies, and showing a wiliness to “freely give part of their time and wealth for the good of the state.”

Let’s improve the narrative by being honest with ourselves. We believe in the power of the individual, and we also believe that the individual serving as a giver plays a noble role in building community.

Our Friends Who Give Too Much

Our friends on the liberal side of the ideological spectrum have the opposite problem – they want to give too much. The liberal mindset often views giving and self-sacrifice as its ultimate ends.

Adam Grant opens Give and Take with a clever deceit. He offers a look at data showing who performs worst at work, and then who performs the best. Givers perform the worst – but they also perform best. How is that?

The givers that end up on the low end of the performance spectrum give without regard to their own self-interest. You’ve seen these folks. She’s the one who will help a colleague even if it puts her behind in her own work. He’ll always volunteer for the mundane, thankless tasks while others grab the real work that gets them ahead.

In the policy world, this looks like offers of free college for all and other ideas that seem nice, but in truth do a lot of damage.

Grant highlights the research of Carnegie Mellon psychologist Vicki Helgeson, who “found that when people give continually without concern for their own well-being, they’re at risk for poor mental and physical health.”

The lesson here, in giving of our time, energy, or dollars, is to take what Grant calls an “otherish” approach. Givers, remember, also are the top performers. Those top-performing givers, though, were the ones who considered the trade-offs that came with the giving. They followed the impulse to be a giver and share their talents, knowledge, and time, but did it in ways that didn’t eat away at their broader ability to help.

Think of a lifeguard. That is, by its nature, a job that helps people, offering security and even life-saving help. But lifeguards are trained to protect themselves and to make sure the person they are saving won’t take the lifeguard down with them.

We have limited resources. We absolutely should follow our impulse to be helpful and give generously. However, when we fail to weigh the trade-offs, we allow ourselves to be pulled under. Over the long-run, that helps no one.

Closing the Circle

Givers want to give more. It’s in their nature. Giving without a plan and without considering your own needs seems noble, but really leads to our being able to give less. Giving of your resources wisely does the opposite – you can do more.

Perhaps this is why so many on the Left have a fixed-pie mentality when it comes to economics. They give and give and see diminishing returns, while those with a more balanced approach expand in all directions.

The lesson for those of us with a conservative/libertarian mindset is to be proud of the many ways we give of our talents, our dollars, and our time. The individual’s ability to wisely use these resources benefits the community. The stronger the community is, the better off each individual in it will be.

We need the community, even if we fail to talk about it enough. To prove it, look no further than the great individualist herself, Ayn Rand. Victory for Dagny Taggart and the other great innovators came not by standing atop the world alone, but instead when they came together, giving the greatest part of themselves in ways of mutual benefit.

Galt’s Gulch was greater than the sum of its parts. We can strengthen our own communities, and truly live out our ideals, by living as givers.

Are you a giver? Show it! Email me at plipsett at donorstrust.org with your address and I’ll drop a “Be a Giver. Save America” fridge magnet in the mail to you.