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Robert Bidinotto -- Many People Embrace Altruism Because They See Relationships as Win-Lose in a Zero-Sum World

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I, Charles Anderson, have long argued that the private sector — a broader concept than the free market — allows everyone to pursue relationships offering mutual benefits, while the government sector is “dog eat dog” under the rule of brutal force. I have not railed much against altruism as a chosen philosophy, though Ayn Rand and many other Objectivists have. Instead, I have simply tried to convince people that our relationships should be worked to our mutual benefit and government should be limited by the principle that it should not be hurting anyone, not even with a rationale that it was acting for the “Greater Good.”  

Yet before reading Robert Bidinotto’s comments below, I did not quite recognize that many people were so repulsed by being an oppressor in a world they saw as a zero-sum game that they chose instead to be a victim.  In dealing with zero-sum win/lose governments, I have made this choice myself.  This repulsion for being the bully/oppressor serves as the reason that many people act as though they are altruists, the philosophy of self-sacrifice.  Fortunately, the free private sector is very accommodating to win/win relationships and we can develop a society in which self-sacrifice is not a necessary choice to avoid becoming a monster oppressor.

In a Facebook discussion, Robert Bidinotto, the author of the Hunter thriller novels, made what I believe to be unusually perceptive and brilliant observations that made this much clearer to me. As he says, this explanation for the popularity of altruism needs to be understood and promulgated with vigor.  With his permission, I am reproducing his comments here:

Robert Bidinotto:
Politics is force, and the initiation of force necessarily creates zero-sum situations of victims and victimizers, which fuels resentments, hatred, and social “polarization.” Politics invariably results in “win/lose” relationships — exactly the opposite of voluntary relationships in a free society, which are to mutual benefit and are thus “win/win.” You’d think people who truly wanted a peaceful, benevolent, harmonious society would realize this, embrace the free market, and reject government coercion. But no.
I think that’s because a huge percentage of people harbor a fundamental zero-sum, winner-loser view of economic relationships. Few people ever become leftists because they read Marx and Engels about “class warfare.” They become leftists because they see social and economic relationships in terms of either gaining power over others, or submitting to the power of others. They see human interests as being fundamentally in conflict, so that the “self-interest” of some necessitates the “exploitation” of others.
This worldview or Narrative is rooted deep within humanity’s tribal past, where human relationships WERE all about dominance or submission. We have to remember that capitalism, historically, is very new — and from the outset it was misinterpreted through the conventional lens of that zero-sum, win-lose worldview. Capitalists were “robber barons,” not society’s benefactors. Marx, and generations he influenced, interpreted capitalism and all human relationships in terms of class warfare. Today, “identity politics” rests on the same view of inherent conflicts of interest among demographic groups.
If I’m right about this, then many people’s idealization of the ethics of “self-sacrifice” makes a kind of sense. It is not so much the *result* of philosophical/ideological persuasion, as it is the result of a deep-seated core belief in inherent conflicts of interest — and their subsequent conclusion that the only way for people to live in social harmony is to forgo their self-interest.
This puts a different interpretive spin on the popularity of altruism. On its face, self-sacrifice makes no sense. It’s bizarre, and why people should want to accept it as moral guidance is bizarre. So Rand/Objectivism — viewing human action as powered by philosophical ideas — has tried to explain its prevalence by imagining that philosophers and thinkers have pushed it upon the gullible as a self-contained “ism,” and embedded it into various philosophies. You read endless articles from Rand et al. bashing altruism per se. You also see that their critiques have had little societal impact.
My explanation for this failure is that the attacks on altruism are strategically misplaced. Altruism is less a moral cause than a moral *conclusion* — a logical choice for those who believe that socio-economic relationships involve inherent conflicts of interest. If that’s your Narrative about the social world — if you see transactions as nothing but power relationships about dominance and submission — then you have a logical choice to make: either to become a cold-blooded predatory brute, or to become (or remain) “nice” and allow yourself to be an exploited victim. Those who truly believe in this Narrative may conclude that they’d rather keep their self-respect by being victimized than join the criminals and brutes.
Is this far-fetched? I observe how, even in this discussion, many of us recoil from a view of emergency situations that would push us into zero-sum conflicts that would require us to become brutes, surviving at the expense of others. We’d prefer to keep our humanity and self-esteem by dying nobly rather than surviving like predatory beasts.
Well, imagine how you’d LIVE if you truly believed that NORMAL LIFE was all about zero-sum conflicts of interest — that each transaction under capitalism entailed someone gaining at someone else’s expense. You’d conclude, logically, that economic winners were all rapacious predators — robber barons. You’d conclude, logically, that to keep your soul, you’d have to sacrifice your prospects for economic well-being and do your work solely for the love of it, not for commercial success. You’d conclude, logically, that to keep the economic predators in check, you needed a strong cop to suppress predatory “greed”: government regulation of business.
If I’m right about this, then the REAL target of our moral proselytizing ought to be the zero-sum Narrative, i.e., the belief in inherent conflicts of interest — and not altruism per se, which is mainly an emotionally driven reaction to the zero-sum worldview. We need to teach people that economic relationships in a free society are “win/win,” not “win/lose.” We ought to teach what Frederic Bastiat labeled “Economic Harmonies.”
And we ought to teach that the “win/win” marketplace is the moral antithesis of the world of politics, where all relationships ARE in fact zero-sum and “win/lose.”
And that my friends is a very wise analysis of most of our societal problems, if you think this through for yourself.  Thank you ever so much Robert Bidinotto.

By the way, the Bidinotto novels are a rare pleasure to read.  Here is his author page on


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