Monday, 21 October 2013

Thanks Society - I Owe You One!



I’ve just seen this quote from Warren Buffett….

"I personally think that society is responsible for a very significant percentage of what I've earned. When you're treated enormously well by this market system, society has a big claim on that."

My impression of Warren Buffett is that there is much to like about him. But his argument here, while containing a commendable ethos, isn't compelling. His argument amounts to this; "Without the existence of people in society I wouldn't be wealthy, therefore society has a big claim on my wealth". What he's perhaps overlooking (or underestimating) is that people in society have already gained from his wealth - so such a debt on those grounds is misjudged. When I buy my shopping at the supermarket, the store gains profit from the money I spend, but I gain the goods to consume. I get plenty for my money - in fact, if the gains were of lower value to me than the value of the money, I wouldn't have bought the goods. So it would be absurd if the Supermarket wrote to me the next day saying they owed me something because I'd helped contribute to their profits. Why don't I owe them something for their contributing to my consumption?

Generally speaking one doesn't automatically owe people something just because one benefits from an activity, even if the benefits wouldn't occur without the existence of the thing. I drive a Subaru - but one wouldn't say "Without the existence of Subaru I wouldn't drive a Subaru car therefore Subaru has a claim on my driving experience". If a neighbour plays an album loud that I happen to enjoy listening to, or cooks a BBQ that brings a pleasant smell wafting over the fence, I don't owe him anything. So generally speaking, I don't think a culture in which people are always talking about what they are owed is a healthy culture - it breeds not magnanimity, generosity and kindness, but awkwardness and resentful compulsion, which is never as good. I think a better way of saying what Warren Buffet said would be to say:

"I personally think that society is responsible for a very significant percentage of what I've earned. When you're treated enormously well by this market system, it is good to give something back by way of generosity, magnanimity and kindness"

This transfers the emphasis away from thoughts of 'having' to pay back, into thoughts of 'wanting' to pay back. You can feel you have to pay something back without locating the benefits of wanting to pay something back, but you can't so easily feel you want to pay something back without that want being attached to the intrinsic benefits of good intentions. It's a positive circularity; to want to do good is to have noble intentions, and to have noble intentions is to want to do good.

* Photo courtesy of wiki.nus.edu.sg

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