The Fallacy of Reap What You Sow

I read an opinion piece in an online newspaper on Sunday just been. And then I went on to read the comments. Possibly a mistake, but, meh. It happened.

The article was about private property vs a community’s right to protest what the owner of the property wants to do on or with that private property. In this case, there was a native tree estimated to be 500 years old in line to be chopped down for development. A comment (I’m not going to go on and rant about) disputed whether we knew the age of the tree …

Certain trees grow at certain rates. The size of the tree can give you a pretty close estimate). I guess you can see which side of the argument I err on. While I totally understand people’s desire to develop housing where housing is needed and wanted, and I understand people wanting to use their spare capital to grow their wealth, I just think there is more to the whole picture than our (fleeting) human wants and needs.
Anyway … back to the rant.

So, I came across a comment that included this statement:

Society uses self-interest as a motivator, which is fair enough; why should I advance the collective well-being if there is nothing in it for me?
I have always regarded pure altruism as pretty stupid & highly unreliable.

Of course, I took some offence. I spent a great deal of time–that I could have put to my own endeavours–fighting to win gigabit speed internet for my city last year. Why? Because this city has been steadily losing jobs because of decisions made by other people and I (along with several others) figured this was a way to bring valuable new businesses to this city. For our own gain? For many of the hardest fighters: no. I (and several others) do not live in one of the areas that can access the fibre to get the gigabit internet. But, I know that there are now businesses already setting up and others looking to set up in Dunedin because of the Gig. Sure, there are flow on effects I hope to benefit from: a more vibrant city (already being achieved through new Street Art initiatives, which I have donated to also), more development and redevelopment which will provide jobs to builders and other services (and, yes, I work with electricians, so …)

Still, in the past I have volunteered for the SPCA and Victim Support. I got little directly out of this other than the sense of a job well done. (And, honestly, Victim Support damaged me for quite some time, but that’s a tale for another time).

Guess I’m just stupid.

But the part of the comment that really got to me was the next bit:

Thus the developing world uses various degrees & forms of self-interest to drive forward improvements in the common-weal. This is a working proposition as individuals who contribute the most get a better
share of the returns.
(emphasis added by me)


Just no.

Nice idea, but this is not how the world works, buddy.

So, all the volunteers who give hours of their time to keeping the community ticking are the most well rewarded in society? St John? Parents on School Boards? Lifesavers? Volunteer fire fighters? Relief Aid Workers? All well rewarded, are they?

Teachers educate generation after generation. Good teachers, in particular, contribute to the success of our entire society. Rolling in cash, are they?

The CEO of a bank can be paid many hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. Tell me, oh commenter, just how much do they contribute to the whole?

I’m really grateful to the streetsweepers and my rubbish and recycling collectors. Because of them I have tidy streets to walk down. Paid well, are they?

If it weren’t for the postal service (granted, the NZ one isn’t performing so well… probably due to decisions made by people who are paid quite well) we wouldn’t get our mail and packages.

Each posty can serve hundreds of people. Well remunerated?

Nurses. How many lives do nurses help to get back on track? How many people do nurses help to get back in the work force?

That sports star who’s paid a million dollars just to show up. That kick through the goal posts helped how many lives?

Rest home assistants, who give elderly folk dignity at the end of a hard working life. How many lives do they touch? Hundreds? Thousands? Surely they are one of our highest paid professions, right?


It’s a nice ideal, isn’t it? You do the most good and you get rewarded for it.
What if, as many scientists and even artists will find, the good you do today isn’t fully realised or recognised until after the day you die? Perhaps the research being done today seems pointless. Another scientist comes along, takes that research, adds a bit to it and viola! They make a great discovery, or invent something no one can live without anymore. If they’re lucky
they might get rewarded for their result. But without the first scientist’s work, how would they have got there?

Again, I agree, it’s a nice ideal that those who give the most to society are rewarded. But that simply isn’t the reality we live in. And the question will always remain: how do you measure value/contribution? One person’s great contribution is another person’s foolishness.

A country’s leader takes tax money from one sector and gives to another. Who decides whether it was a good move or not?

What about the 1% Wall Streeter who moves money from an investment in one lot of nonexistent real estate and puts it in another. Who’s he/she helping? How much are they contributing? Are they proportionally rewarded?

Wonderful ideal. But who makes it work?

I think we have to admit that the world doesn’t and can’t work like that.

For one thing, purely self-serving people will work out ways to get the most benefit while either not helping the community as a whole, or actively hurting the community–taking advantage, ripping off, outright thieving…

In theory, a system that rewards those who work that bit harder to contribute that bit more would be wonderful. We’d all work for the system, but those who worked a bit harder would get the pat on the back they deserve. Yay. Job well done. Except that one guy/gal who works out how to get rewarded without working hard and takes advantage of the system for his/her own gain.

Much the same as Communism should work. We all work for the greater good and everyone is working for everyone’s good. Yay! Except that one guy/gal, who’s working for himself/herself and takes advantage of the system for his/her own gain.

Sense a common theme?


What lets them down? People.

I just think it’s time we get honest. Just because someone has been well rewarded in life does NOT mean they have earned it. I’m not saying people don’t ever deserve to become millionaires, or even billionaires (although, come on, really?). Sometimes, one person, or a small group of people come up with the next big thing (or story!) that everyone wants to buy, while it cost pennies to make. Well done.

But I can’t help but think that when someone experiences reward like that, there must come a time when they realise that the underpaid workers who put the consumer version of their product together and the people who keep their house clean, their mother, etc all played a part in them getting to where they are now (granted, few sucessful people forget to buy their mum and nice house).

A couple of quotes to keep in mind:

No man is an island.

John Donne

and (one of my favourites):

If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.

Various possible original sources (each probably building on ones that came before!)

You can’t always directly thank those who have helped you get where you are. But you can thank your community by helping those in need, raising up those who haven’t had the opportunities you have.

Worked hard to get where you are? Well done you.

So did that guy over there. He just didn’t meet the right person with the right authority to pat him on the back and give him a promotion, or put him under the noses of other influential people. But, maybe if he had, he would have been the new billionaire on the block.

Want to win in this game of life? I believe you’ve got to work hard. But I’m well aware that many work hard and won’t see the proportional reward.

For writers, it may be that they like to write about topics the greater public isn’t interested in, or their voice just doesn’t gel with the masses. Doesn’t mean they don’t work hard.

What about the farmers who planted out their crops, and worked long hours to tend to their stock, only to suffer a devastating drought and then a thunderstorm with huge hailstones that decimated their orchard? They worked hard. Did they see reward?

I don’t believe you have to feel guilty for the rewards you receive. I think you just need to be realistic. Recognise what got you where you are and that, perhaps, you owe a little something something to the world around you, because it played its part in getting you where you are.

The generations before who helped shape the schooling system you were a part of? Wow. Great job, thanks guys. How can we thank them? By ensuring the next generations get even better opportunities.

How do we do that?

By giving forward.

You give to the next generation, and hope they give to the one after them. (By the way, they’re way more likely to give if those before them gave freely first… funny how that happens).

When all we see are people striving for themselves and keeping all the rewards for themselves (dismissing all that came before to help them get where they are) it breeds more self-serving interests.

My favourite story in the last year was of a man whose mother had received sponsor money. He went on to become a doctor–something he could not have done without the education he got because of this sponsor. He then went on to fund opportunities for other children in a similar situation he grew up in… He experienced selfless giving, and wanted to do the same.

Therefore–I think I may finally have got to my point–altruism breeds altruism and the community at large benefits far more widely than pure self-serving. I would rather live in a world full of altruists than a world full of self-servers.

Sure, I understand some people need to be motivated by “What’s in it for me?”, but perhaps what we need to nurture is a sense that the warm fuzzy from moving the whole forward is enough for “me”.

As an(other) aside, I feel like writing is, often, a selfish pursuit. Who am I helping through writing fiction? Well, if I consider my role as educator, and take it as seriously, then hopefully I will be helping many… Thousands? Millions? Maybe one day, a theme I touch on in a book, or some clever one liner (still working on that) will change someone’s life. Maybe. Maybe not.
But I can strive. I can work hard to do the best I can to contribute to the world using what strengths I have to do so.

Sure, like many, I dream of one day earning enough through writing to be able to live in a nice house with space for all the animals I’d love to share space with (not very many… just a few). But I often find myself wondering: what would I do if I found real success? What if I sold millions of books and had more cash than I could spend in a life time? Who would I help? I have some plans. Like, I’d like to refurbish some of the playgrounds in the less well off areas in Dunedin, because a decent playground is a wonderful asset. I’d love to help community garden initiatives. Sometimes I think I’d like to walk around a neighbourhood slipping grocery vouchers in letterboxes…

How many lives could I positively touch if only I had the resources?

How about you?

Wow. I think I’ve hit on another point I want to make:

I don’t think our communities can function well for long with an attitude that “individuals who contribute the most get a better share of the returns”.

How about we flip it around:

Those individuals who have received a better share of the rewards have an obligation to contribute the most (because they can). Hmm… Sounds a lot like how the tax system is meant to operate…

“With great power comes…”

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