Infectious Generosity

From The Wall Street Journal:

In this unpleasant cultural moment, there’s no shortage of thinkers with ideas to cure what ails us. In “The Soul of Civility,” Alexandra Hudson argued that a broader spirit of respect and tolerance is the saving tonic. In “The Canceling of the American Mind,” Greg Lukianoff and Rikki Schlott made the case that free speech supplies the needful corrective. Now comes Chris Anderson to advocate the radical throwing-wide of arms, hearts and wallets as a means of ensuring a better future for all. In “Infectious Generosity,” Mr. Anderson describes with boyish enthusiasm and embarrassing naiveté his vision of how generosity could save the world. He imagines a future “lit up by maximum philanthropy,” in which human needs are gratified to such an extent that human beings cease to be handicapped by what cynics might call human nature.

“Let’s be generous in a way that gives people goosebumps,” writes the excitable Mr. Anderson, a British expatriate who has run the nonprofit speech-sponsoring TED organization for the past 23 years. “You don’t have to be rich or a creative genius. If you can adopt a generous mindset, seek to understand people you disagree with, and write words that are kind instead of cruel, you can help turn the tide.”

Mr. Anderson makes the case that beneficent acts need no longer go unknown. Good deeds and largess can go viral online, thus establishing as social norms the doing of good deeds and the giving of largess. Media executives can emphasize heart-warming stories. By such means, the internet can be a force-multiplier, making generosity contagious and causing people to crowdfund, spread kindness and share artistic work free.

To the author, generosity is “arguably the best idea humans have ever embraced.” As to why one ought place others before oneself, Mr. Anderson makes no transcendental claims, though as a former Christian he respects the role that religion plays in helping men and women to behave unselfishly—partly because they think God is watching and partly because, in most faith traditions, they are called to be charitable and give alms.

Money and the spreading of it plays a big part in “Infectious Generosity,” which is dotted with Liana Finck’s humorous drawings. Mr. Anderson believes that everyone, from billionaires downward, should give more than they do. He favors an examination of conscience—“Am I being generous with my money? Is my carbon footprint fully offset?”—and a secular sacrifice to replicate the Christian and Jewish practice of tithing (giving away 10% of one’s income) or the Muslim obligation of zakat (giving 2.5% of one’s wealth to charity).

Were all persons to follow suit, Mr. Anderson promises, the result would be a pot of philanthropic cash he puts at between $3.5 trillion and $10 trillion. Almost giddily, he lists the outcomes that such a flood of money could produce, from ending hunger and establishing a universal basic income “for the entire world” to making “meat alternatives as cheap and tasty as the real thing” by, in part, giving “meat alternatives the same advertising budget as the meat industry.”

The inclusion of meat substitutes on Mr. Anderson’s list of grandiose possibilities points to the fundamental silliness of “Infectious Generosity.” Meat substitutes, like heart-warming news operations, have not managed to entice the public. If people really wanted synthetic meat, they’d buy it; if they wanted media that feature only good news, they’d pay for them.

There are more serious problems with the premise of Mr. Anderson’s ecstatic vision. People differ on what is desirable, and desires conflict. Davos Man’s meatless cause is a cattle rancher’s anathema. A cash handout designed to uplift may just as easily corrupt. Do-gooders often fail to take into account the law of unintended consequences. For instance, the mosquito nets blanketing Africa to fight malaria are also causing ecological damage, because people are using them for fishing. Charlatans, too, are always ready to take advantage of donors with soft hearts and deep pockets.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal