All Commentary
Wednesday, January 1, 1992

Ambition and Compassion

Professor Raimi teaches in the Department of Mathematics, University of Rochester.

Brutus accused Caesar of ambition, and killed him for it. Caesar’s assassins saw in him a desire to be emperor at the expense of their own liberties and fortunes; it was a matter of him or them, no room for both. Ambition always has been suspect by those who imagine they have something to lose by it.

On the other hand, there often has been praise of ambition. In middle-class America a century ago the boy with ambition was encouraged and told he’d go far. His ambition was celebrated by Horatio Alger, Edgar Guest, and other writers whose popularity testified to the respect accorded the homely virtues by the man in the street. Thrift, honesty, responsibility, and—yes—ambition. His teachers encouraged his desire to grow up to be a banker or judge, if not President, and his parents sacrificed to send him to college. This kind of ambition wasn’t seen as a threat, after all, and the success of the boy wasn’t construed as the defeat of anyone else, as it would be in a poker game where the sum of winnings and losses is necessarily zero.

The notion of “zero-sum” is essential in analyzing the difference in these two attitudes toward ambition. If Caesar is emperor then Brutus is diminished; but the capitalist world of Horatio Alger (and William Howard Taft) was one in which there was room for an unlimited number of successful people. One man’s wealth did not result from the next man’s poverty, and didn’t result in it, either.

It took no economist, in the America of 1900, to know this. The man in the street understood it well enough. In particular, the penniless immigrant, who came with nothing, saw that with work he could do better, and that there was no limit to what his children, with more time, could accomplish. That’s why he came here. Our economy was not a zero-sum game; the more everyone produced, the more everyone had. A man’s consumption, in the long run, was the result of his own production, and not stolen from anyone else.

The rise of socialist theory denied all this; it held that “property is theft” and it sought to spread the wealth according to a new notion of justice, a compassionate idea: “To each according to his need,” rather than “To each according to his production.” It was pointed out that some people are less fortunate in endowment than others. The boy who grows up in a slum and barely learns to read should not therefore have less to eat than a banker whose position might owe much to his father’s having been a banker before him. And what about the ill and the handicapped, those who can produce very little compared with healthy workers with all their faculties in place—hall the blind be punished further by having to be poor besides?

Well, of course not; but what then? All this, it was then argued (by those whose exhibit of compassion had thus captured the high moral ground), would be cured only by socialism. There were many who came to subscribe to this view, sometimes in diluted form, as the 20th century matured. Despite detailed refutations by such philosophers as Hayek, Popper, and Schumpeter it took 70 years of the most painful experience, in the Soviet empire, China, Cuba, and Africa (and it is not over yet, alas), to convince the average man once again, in America and Europe at least, that the analysis is wrong and the cure is worse. In the workers’ paradises of Eastern Europe, it turned out, it was especially those unfortunates who ended up with less than they did in the “heartless” capitalist world, though hardly anybody else was a winner, either.

Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing

But while socialism by name has been discredited, the ceaseless propaganda of “compassion” has had its lasting effect. The mistaken lesson that remains with us might not be called socialism, but it certainly ends up saying that the highest human endeavor is the direct, visible alleviation of suffering, and the lowest human failing is the direct, visible pursuit of one’s own interest. The result, the public policy known as the welfare state, is the wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Public schools are forever having “social studies projects” in model classrooms where the students are busily studying local waste disposal and its effects on the homeless. Then when the reporter or Congressman asks what is the ambition, what is the highest aspiration, of the child brought before the camera, the answer (no coaching, please) comes out: “To help people.”

Among adults already in the business of “helping people,” on a typical interview program, the phrases of beneficence come pouring out in predictable sequence: “To work with parents,” “to work in the community,” to “work with” the poor, to work with the Indians, to work with the homeless, to administer a program. The only thing that stands in the way of human happiness is, just as predictably, “lack of funding,” sometimes pronounced “Bush administration budget cuts.”

Here are the words that must be used in all such contexts: Programs. Helping. Working with people. Federal funding.

Here are the words that must not be used: Charity. Pity. Generosity.

Here are the ideas that are never invoked, as ways of improving the lot of mankind, including the unfortunate: Production of goods. Efficient management of resources. Political stability. Mathematical competence. Freedom of choice. Capitalism. The ability to read, and to speak clearly. Value. Obeying the law. Superiority. Reliability. Ambition.

Ambition: The ambition to be something worthwhile, an engineer, a senator, a vice president for marketing, a baker, a cellist. Reliability in one’s work: Getting there on time, preparing hamburgers that are properly done, driving a truck safely, designing a bridge—r a theatrical stage set—that stands up. Superiority of accomplishment: Doing something better than your neighbor can, or will.

On Minding One’s Own Business

The list of human activities is enormous, and only a very few have been named here, but they are typical of activities that do good to others, it is hard to imagine anyone who does mankind more good, for example, than the producer of food—for is not food the first requisite of life? If nobody produced food, what good would it do to house the homeless or clean up the rivers? We would all be dead in a week or two. Going about one’s daily business in a productive way is every bit as good for the public interest as the more explicitly “compassionate” professions.

How can we know when we have done mankind some good? Most of the more ordinary economic activities of mankind can be recognized as doing good to others by the spectacle of those others freely paying for them. It is exactly here that the legacy of failed socialistic theory remains with us in disguise. The idea that payment by the beneficiary to the benefactor is a measure of virtuous activity is one that we shall have to recover into our subconscious, after a century of propaganda against it.

Yes, the paraplegic is usually unable to pay his way, for good cause, likewise the retarded child, and the victims of so many other misfortunes who have a claim on our charity; and we answer that claim both privately and publicly. But if we concentrate on this aspect of the public weal to the disparagement of the 99 percent of it that is not charity, not “working with unwed mothers,” we are building a state of mind where the only virtue lies in spending a third person’s money on a second person’s need, whereas selling a service directly to the beneficiary is seen only as evidence of greed.

The fact that doing one’s neighbor good by selling him bread and radishes is construed as only doing oneself good (by collecting payment), and is not put in the same class of magnanimity as the work of the social worker, teacher, or “environmental activist,” whose pay is invariably described as lamentably low, testifies to a fundamental error being urged upon our moral thinking by the practitioners of these social services and their allies in the press, and surely in the schools.

Unless we induce in our children a respect for the ordinary productive processes, including the artistic (for man does not live by bread alone), there will be no value in all the compassion we see on the six o’clock news. Alas, as things now are, we are fostering the notion that the wealth of the nation is merely out there (no mention of how it got there), and that the job of the virtuous is to see to it that great gobs of it, via “funding,” get to the unfortunate, through the fingers of the person who “works with” them.

A careful reading of history fosters a more even-handed picture of what it is to do mankind good. When in 1661 Isaac Newton went down from Cambridge into the country to escape the plague for a year, what did he do? Did he tend victims of the plague? He did not. He was more ambitious than that, and did what he was best at doing; he worked at mathematics and invented the binomial theorem for fractional exponents, and with it the beginnings of what is now known as the infinitesimal calculus. Had he tended the sick he might have comforted a handful of people. What he did instead can be calculated to have saved the life, the health, and the happiness of millions; for science as a whole, and the technology of modern productivity, have rested on the work he did in total indifference to the needs of the sick and the poor.

Newton is an extreme example, of course, and not every scientist is anything like as valuable as Newton. Yet it must be understood by children in school that the people to be emulated—even for those of us who aspire to the highest in morality, in virtue, in generosity, in working for our fellows—are not necessarily those who are touted as “caring” on the most superficial level. Rather, we should honor the ambitious, those who understand that their highest moral duty is to pull their weight and more, in producing what they produce best, whether of wheat, music, science, or service; and to do it assiduously and competently.

If then we get paid for what we do, that is no proof that what we are doing is being done for ourselves alone. To the contrary, if we get paid for what we do, by those for whom we do it, there is the surest proof that what we have done was wanted. To do what was wanted: compassion can have no finer goal than this, and ambition no sweeter reward.