5.18 Free-Giving

The golden rule is to do “right” regardless of personal benefit. This doing good without seeking a reward can be called free-giving. Free giving is free in the sense that the giver acts freely and is not forced, bribed, tricked or directed to do what they do. It is giving in the sense that it benefits others. So while people working for money may benefit others and those making money in a market inadvertently help others, as Smith argues, they are not free giving. They are giving with conditions whereas free-giving is giving without conditions. And in history, the actions that advanced humanity, were those done freely not personal benefit, even against opposition. They were acts of free-giving.

Heroes of society illustrate free-giving. Many people have literally given their lives to create civilization today. Socrates, the father of modern science, asked questions freely and in the end was sentenced to death for “corrupting the young”, yet his pupils Aristotle and Plato planted the seeds of the later scientific revolution. All heroes freely give, e.g. Tolkien wrote the Lord of the Rings in his free time while teaching philology at Oxford. His book was thought unpublishable at first and generated most of its value after his death. It made society rich not him. Likewise although Mozart needed money to live, he did not compose his music for that reason, just as Van Gogh painted even though he only ever sold one painting. Scientific heroes like Newton, Galileo, Darwin and Copernicus all had to eat but they didn’t do what they did for money. The point is not that money doesn’t matter but that people who freely give of themselves to society are heroes.

Personal benefit does not explain heroes. Neither Rule 1 (compete) nor Rule 3a (compete by the rules) explain why heroes happen. The people who enabled the benefits we enjoy today, whether of science, engineering, art, music or any other endeavor were driven by motives beyond personal gain. There is no other way to explain what they did. They wanted to give their vision to everyone, which is to say they wanted to help others. This then is Rule 2, an inbuilt urge to help the social group not just oneself. These two age-old motives of self-survival and community survival combined into the current dominant capitalist Rule 3a, to compete by the rules: to maximize profit while doing the social minimum of obeying the law. The alternative Rule 3b mix is to give and survive: to maximize social benefits while taking for yourself only what you need. Rule 3b reverses the logic of Rule 3a, to put synergy first instead of profit, to give the small heroes of society.

Societies succeed by small heroes. Not all of us can be heroes but there are many small heroes, people who help others for no reward. Every mother or father who cares for a child knowing they will leave them is a small hero. You see it when lost in a new city and some stranger gives you directions, knowing that they will never see you again. It is a fact that people will help others for no benefit to themselves. Such gratuitous acts of kindness are essential to any social success because they encourage the trust necessary to enable synergy benefits. Profit-based measures of social success like Gross Domestic Product or GDP measure the consumption of goods and services but ignore social health, e.g. national disasters like earthquakes or forest fires increase GDP but volunteers helping others for nothing don’t. Social performance is more than GDP, leading to calls for measures of national well-being. What makes a society worth living in is small heroes who are willing to freely give to others. 

Social technologies enable small heroes. Today, technology lets us all be small heroes, to help others for no reason. We can add a page to Wikipedia, tweet against injustice or give to Kickstarter, a funding platform for creative projects.  The technology that creates spam also enables free-giving. Good acts cascade just as criminal acts do, as the movie Pay it Forward suggests. Technology now lets small heroes join together to create more than any past hero could alone, e.g. In 1755 Samuel Johnson took seven heroic years to write his influential Dictionary of the English Language, but today 20 million volunteers wrote the four million articles of the English Wikipedia that equates to about 1,000 books with 1,200 pages each. Small heroes did what no individual could ever achieve. Even BitTorrent, a community where people download pirated web content for free, survives only because people give to others. Consider Wikipedia’s business plan: to ask unknown people to freely contribute their expertise to create a free encyclopedia for everyone. It only worked because small heroes exist.

That technology supports “virtue” is an important discovery. Socio-technical systems succeed not just by technical efficiency but because the invitation to do small virtuous acts of community service is taken up (Benkler & Nissenbaum, 2006). Technology allows online synergies but they would not happen if people didn’t respond. Egypt’s pyramids show that autocratic rule can direct people to work for others. Markets show that one can incentivize people to get synergy within a contextual legal system. What we did not know until the Internet was that people not directed or incentivised will freely synergize. We knew people could be forced or enticed to help others but not that they would freely do so.

This is not communism because individuals are free to act without social control. It is not capitalism because the primary goal is not personal profit. It is not socialism because individuals can take from the community and not give back. It is not anarchy as there are anti-social defenses to oppose disorder. It is not altruism as no-one has to sacrifice for the society. Modern social technical systems illustrate new social designs based on small heroes freely giving to others.