When I'm in Europe giving speeches and participating in conferences, it's quite common that folks on the left will attempt to discredit my views by asserting that Americans are selfish and greedy.
Since I'm generally sympathetic to Ayn Rand's writings, I don't see anything wrong with people striving to make themselves better off. Moreover, Adam Smith noted back in 1776 that the desire to earn more money leads other people to make our lives better. One of his most famous observations is that, “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we can expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest."
But, for the sake of argument, let's accept the premise of my statist friends in Europe and simply look at whether their assertion is correct. Are Americans more selfish and greedy that their counterparts across the ocean?
The most obvious way of testing this proposition is to compare rates and levels of voluntary charity. Selfish and greedy people presumably will cling to their money, while compassionate and socially conscious people will share their blessings with others.
So how does the United State compare to other nations? Well, I'm not a big fan of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, but the bureaucrats in Paris are quite good at collecting statistics from member nations and producing apples-to-apples comparisons.
And if you look at rates of "voluntary private social expenditure" among nations, it turns out that Americans are easily the most generous people in the developed world.
Magatte Wade, a Senegalese-American businesswoman in New York, writes in The Guardian:
Last Saturday I spoke at the Harvard Women in Business Conference, an annual event that I love...
Later, during a discussion on Going Global, a young woman asked, "For the Americans on the panel, how do you deal with being a person of privilege while working in global development?" My eyes lit up with fury as she directed her question specifically at the white Americans on the panel. I let them answer, then smiled and added with a wink: "I am an American, you know, and also a person of privilege." She instantly understood what I meant.
Her question assumed that those of us in developing nations are to be pitied...
For many of those who "care" about Africans, we are objects through which they express their own "caring".
To drive the point home, Wade posts this excellent video of "actor Djimon Hounsou perform[ing] a powerful rendition of Binyavanga Wainaina's piece How Not to Write About Africa."
(NB: The title of the original article appears to be "How to Write about Africa," without the "Not.")
It runs both ways. In Replacing ObamaCare, I discuss how "the act of expressing pity for uninsured Americans allows Rwandan elites to signal something about themselves ('We are compassionate!'). " Also:
My hunch is that this is an under-appreciated reason why some people support universal coverage: a government guarantee of health insurance coverage provides its supporters psychic benefits — even if it does not improve health or financial security, and maybe even if both health and financial security suffer.
Or as Charles Murray puts it: "The tax checks we write buy us, for relatively little money and no effort at all, a quieted conscience. The more we pay, the more certain we can be that we have done our part, and it is essential that we feel that way regardless of what we accomplish."