Are Markets Better Than Altruism?
One of the cool parts of the Radford's 1945 article, "The Economics of a POW Camp," is this observation:
Our supplies consisted of rations provided by the detaining power and (principally) the contents of Red Cross food parcels – tinned milk, jam, butter, biscuits, bully, chocolate, sugar, etc., and cigarettes. So far the supplies to each person were equal and regular. Private parcels of clothing, toilet requisites and cigarettes were also received, and here equality ceased owing to the different numbers despatched and the vagaries of the post. All these articles were the subject of trade and exchange.
Very soon after capture people realised that it was both undesirable and unnecessary, in view of the limited size and the equality of supplies, to give away or to accept gifts of cigarettes or food. “Goodwill” developed into trading as a more equitable means of maximising individual satisfaction.
Trading is more equitable than goodwill? Think about it. I notice you don't eat your beef ration, and I ask for it. You give it to me, because it will be wasted else. But then next month, and the next, and... at some point, the fact that the beef has value means that I should pay you something. YOU may not value the beef, but it has value in the market. I am taking value, and you get nothing. Altruism, if systematized and made permanent, is inequitable. If the state FORCES us to act as if we were altruistic, then it isn't altruism at all.
SMBC illustrates the same problem: Altruism is at best an emergency solution, because it quickly devastates those it is intended to help. If you love something, set it free to find a way to support itself by producing something someone else wants to buy.
(A nod to David D)
UPDATE: From the intrepid Pels-min: PJ O'Rourke nailed it in 1994, "All the Trouble in the World," when he was baffled by Somalia's fields filled with (unharvested) crops. "Somalia was being flooded with food aid… Rice was selling for ten cents a pound in Somalia, the cheapest rice in the world. But what, we thought, did that mean to the people with the fields of corn and sorghum and the herds of goats and cattle? Are those now worth nothing, too? Had we come to a Somalia where some people some- times starved only to leave a Somalia where everybody always would?"