The Daddy State

When those who rant against The Nanny State are pressed about what they’d like to see instead, they often point to philanthropy as their preferred model of social progress and uplift. Proven, effective, and – most of all – voluntary, they’d offer. The billionaire Giving Pledge, in which ultra-wealthy individuals promise to give more than half their loot to ‘good causes’ after they die, hit the headlines earlier this month to the usual cooing from those fulminating against progressive taxation. See? The rich can redistribute their wealth without the state doing it for them. The rich aren’t just rich – they’re generous too!

Which is why it was so nice to see The Economist, of all places, write about a recent UC Berkeley study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology on how being rich makes you systematically less generous. Actually, the authors of the study note that

lower class individuals proved to be more generous, charitable, trusting, and helpful compared with their upper class counterparts. Mediator and moderator data showed that lower class individuals acted in a more prosocial fashion because of a greater commitment to egalitarian values and feelings of compassion.

On the bright side, the study showed it was possible to foster traits of generosity and compassion among the rich through things like imaginative writing exercises. Perhaps when Bill Gates called his friends asking them to change their last wills and testaments, he opened with “imagine you’re broke and hungry”. Of course, noblesse oblige is hardly a solution to social problems – much less noblesse à volonté – as The Guardian and Peter Wilby have noted. But what, exactly, should you call it when billionaires get to set the terms on which they acquire wealth and give it away, of what counts as a good cause and what an unworthy one? Don’t call it the Nanny State, because this isn’t about governments hectoring anyone to do the right thing. It’s about a few men deciding what’s good not just for the country, but the world. Call it patriarchy. Call it the Daddy State.