In Greek mythology King Sisyphus was punished for deceitfulness by being compelled to roll a boulder up a hill, only to watch it roll back down, and to repeat this action forever. Upon hearing this story, everyone I’ve ever met have agreed this would be a fairly frustrating way to spend eternity.
I can’t help but think of Sisyphus when reading about the ethic of my new co-blogger Nathaniel Snow. I find Nathaniel’s deep commitment to personally fixing the problems around him (rather than waiting for government to do it) to be very inspiring, and indescribably admirable in their charity, but also a bit short-sighted. (Sorry!) The issue I see is that there are circumstances where his strategy of unilateral charity brings lasting change, and circumstances where it does not. In this latter situation, the ethic leads to a Sisyphean task.
To keep things concrete, I will use the example of ending slavery and manumission. Nathaniel has made the case (and sensibly) that it would have been a lot more straightforward (and perhaps even cheaper) for abolitionists to have simply bought chattel slaves from their owners and set them free, rather than to organize politically to have the law changed in the face of stiff opposition. I can see the logic in one sense, but in other this view ignores that slaves (until the law was changed to end the slave trade) were a renewable resource. If one were to raise charitable money to buy all the slaves in Savannah (and the owners were willing to sell, which is another issue we’ll ignore for now), there’s nothing to stop the former owners to take you money, walk down to the port, and buy the next shipment of slaves coming in from West Africa.
In the above situation, the unilateral actor has actually made the situation worse. Now instead of there being a single African abducted from his or her home and shipped overseas, there’s two. The slave-owner is no less worse off (assuming slaves of equal quality), the charitable actor is poorer, and the scallywags involved in the slave trade have made twice as much profit on their endeavors.
Furthermore, there’s no obvious point at which this cycle stops short of the entire population of Africa being forceably moved overseas. From the point of view of the market, the charitable actor is just another source of “demand” for slaves.
Where I think Nathaniel’s ethic works best is illustrated by the example of his previous post, where he makes the point of knowing the people in his community and helping them. In his example community there is no obvious institutional failure. Parenting often involves personal failures (as I will be the first to admit), but it takes place within a good system. Inside that good system, good people are empowered to help each other effectively, and a few kind words and deeds go a long way to Pareto-improving everyone’s situation. This is the admirable and inspiring part of Nathaniel’s ethic of individual action.
So that’s the difference I think that illustrates when individual action is positive, versus when collective action is necessary. Inside a good system, individual action produces Pareto-improvements. (In fact, we could define “good” systems that ones that allow Pareto improvements from individual action) In bad systems, individual actions produce perversity, and collective action is necessary to change the system (because only a tyrant can change a system unilaterally). Note, however, that I’m not arguing against charity and personal sacrifice, those will be required in either case. In the collective action cases, charity is not only possible but required; write a check to your local Abolition Society, and volunteer your time.