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Outsourcing Morality

Outsourcing Morality

Ron Brown and Bill Clinton

All the benefits of virtue without the costs.

Remember when you had to do something virtuous to signal your virtue? Some of the virtuous way back when did virtuous acts and didn’t even tell anyone else about them. If you go into older museums and other civic monuments and look at donors’ names on plaques, you’ll find anonymous donors. They didn’t get a wing named after them, there were no press releases, they just gave to a good cause and that was its own reward. If they were alive today, they wouldn’t have Twitter feeds. Private virtue and public anonymity—incomprehensible!

At least plutocrats who plaster their names where they donate are donating their own money. Perhaps the most odious form of virtue signaling demands everyone’s taxes fund a chosen cause, then claims the same moral stature as the plutocrats. Strictly speaking this can’t be virtue signaling. There’s no virtue, only coercion and theft. The merit, if any, of the cause never justifies the immoral means used to fund it.

Gresham’s law of virtue: phony virtue drives out the real thing. It’s partly mathematical—what the government steals cannot be donated—but it goes much deeper.

There’s an intergenerational understanding rooted in biology: parents take care of children when they’re young; children take of parents when they’re old. Rearing children and caring for aging parents impose inconvenient burdens, but for most of history people had little choice, the only alternative was neglect and abandonment. Enter the state. In most Western countries responsibility for both child rearing and elder care has in whole or in part shifted to it.

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