Thursday, November 18, 2010

Givers and takers

Do you perceive yourself to be someone who gives more to society than you receive from it, or do you perceive yourself to take more from society than you give to it?

This is an interesting question to ask, both of yourself and of other people. Try it, both on yourself and on others around you. You'll likely find that two people similar in circumstances and demographics can and often come up with passionately conflicting answers. And of course things become even more interesting when you ask the age-old follow-up question, “Why?”

People disagree on specific issues all the time, from the all-affecting what should we be doing about taxes? to the day-to-day how much respect and courtesy am I obliged to give the grocery store cashier? However, I propose that many of our opinions on the specific issues are heavily influenced, if not outright dictated, by whether we perceive ourselves as net-givers or net-takers (or the occasional Even Steven). When two people disagree on this self-perception, what easily can happen is that they end up talking past each other on the specific issues. Each hears what the other says, but it's as if each is speaking a foreign language. I think this pretty much sums up a large part of public political discourse in the United States: a lot of talking; even a lot of listening; and exasperation with how, well, other people can think so wrongly.

There's nothing much complicated about this. Generally speaking, self-perceived net-givers see themselves as be owed by society. After all, if you're giving more than you're taking, that usually means you're entitled to something in return. Contrary to this, self-perceived net-takers generally see themselves as owing something to society. Within this simple difference in perspective can lie the differences between two complex mazes of logic rationalizing whether taxes are too high or too low as well as whether it's okay to be a little rude to the grocery store clerk who overcharged you for those apples. Either you're owed or you owe, and from this much of one's moral world view follows.

For the record, my own gut feeling is that I'm a net-taker. I base this on the idea that my level of affluence, though semi-modest by American standards, puts me within the top one-tenth of the world's population and that, simply, I consume more than my equal share of the world's resources. (World per capita purchasing power parity GDP is around the US poverty line.) Others may counter my assessment by pointing out that I account for more than my equal share of production. I can then (1) state skepticism that the free market is a fair and just metric for value or (2) claim unfair inheritance, the idea that if my productivity is higher than the world's average than that is due mainly to having been granted a superior education and other childhood services. Some possible counters to this are (1) childhood privilege is irrelevant, (2) giving and taking are not zero-sum, and (3) the American way of life is morally superior to other ways of life. And on and on it can go, each side exposing core assumptions, which is exactly the beauty of the question. It explores the very way we perceive not just ourselves but the world.

So what do you think? Do you perceive yourself as someone who gives more to society than you receive from it, or do you perceive yourself as taking more from society than you give to it?

No comments: