Thursday, November 22, 2012

The Billionaire Test

- Do you remember, it's in one of your stories of fantasy, the billionaire test?
- "Who's Got A Billion To Spare?"
- Yes. The answer is, hundreds of people do. You wrote: 1 million children are starving in Africa. If not today, they will be tomorrow. One thousand dollars will airlift enough food for a year for each. One billion dollars will save a million lives.
- Yes. A calculation. You don't mean to say someone came up with the money?
- I do mean to say.

That is from a science fiction story. In reality, the billionaire responds: what good would it do? With my billion dollars they'd live and have more children, and there'd be more starving. I would be creating more suffering.

When a billionaire gives away money, and many make a part or full time job of it, it is usually to institutions that embody knowledge of one kind or another: universities, think tanks, medical organizations.

To save people just to save them: why?

Let's continue the science fiction conversation:

- The argument is wrong. It assumes starvation was the result of ignorance. Not from drought, or industrial over-harvesting, or war, or economic disruption of cheap imports. It is a plausible model that happens to be wrong. But even if it were right -
- Yes?
- It would still be wrong. A model wrongly applied. Why should anyone require for saving someone's life that they be living wisely?
- People don't like to encourage mistakes.
- Yes, because social life is a kind of collective art. But art is not the purpose of life, only a tool for making life better. If there is no life, there is no art. The billionaire imagines that the act of saving a millions lives would be a demoralizing example in his own world.
- But that is true, isn't it?
- No. There is nothing more demoralizing than forgetting that money serves life, not life serves money. Letting a million people die, which every billionaire on the planet does every year, is making it plain that, for them, life serves money*.

In the science fiction story a billionaire comes across with the money to finance - can you believe it? - a revolution against life serving money. It's only a story. A daily comic strip without pictures, in progress. You can read it here.
* See Hannah Arendt, Totalitarianism, Doing For The Sake Of Doing