Money can’t buy happiness, so goes the popular saying. This is probably true for most of the readers of this column: A few thousand more dollars in the bank don’t matter nearly as much as a late-night conversation with a friend, a hug from a family member or a supportive community. But, for many people in the world, money does indeed buy happiness — the ability to spend evenings with one’s children instead of having to work two jobs, or to sleep securely under a mosquito net without fear of malaria.
A good deal of progressive political activism in the United States today is driven by the conviction that most social problems could be alleviated by taking money from some people and giving it to others. This is the premise behind federal antipoverty programs, such as food stamps and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, which transfer money from the rich to the poor. (It is also, unfortunately, the premise behind several other federal initiatives, such as Medicare and the mortgage interest tax deduction, that simply transfer money to the upper middle class).
Recent progressive activism at Yale seems to be driven by a similar conviction: that our University’s problems could be solved if different people had money. Nearly every one of campus activists’ prominent grievances is a demand that the University distribute its money differently: whether to low-income students, marginalized communities or mental health — as well as away from the fossil fuel industry.
Sometimes money can buy happiness, and sometimes it can’t. There are some problems in America and at Yale that I imagine can be solved with more money, and some that I don’t think money will help at all, but most of my thoughts are based on speculation. Most of the time, people have no idea what will make them happy, so I certainly don’t know either. Instead, I’d like to make a broader point about social responsibility and institutions.
There is an instinct that many of us possess: When we see a problem in our society or our communities, we look for the biggest institution around and demand that it solve the problem. Usually, the easiest way we can think of for an institution to solve a problem is to throw money at it, so that’s what we demand. We see communities crumbling across the United States, and we call for new welfare programs to allow for our social fabric to mend itself. We see a campus full of anxiety and stress, and we call for more mental health professionals — who are definitely essential to improving campus mental health, but only one part of the solution.
When our go-to strategy for solving problems is to appeal to large institutions for money, we do our communities and ourselves a great disservice. We compress our vast social responsibilities into the small box of “political activism” and lose many opportunities to help those around us.
Not all problems are best solved by large institutions or with money. Many problems can only be solved with personal attention, emotional energy and relationship building — when individuals take on the challenge of changing people’s minds or helping them to feel loved. It’s easy to demand that other people spend their money differently. It’s much harder to live your life and build your community according to your highest ideals.
At Yale, activists often claim that students have little power over how the University operates. This is untrue. Students have almost no power over the University budget, for sure, but we have almost complete control over our campus culture. Every four years, the undergraduate population turns over fully, and the student body gets to decide what sort of expectations to convey to the freshmen, which set of social norms to promote, which extracurricular activities will thrive and what memories alumni will carry with them.
Money sometimes buys happiness, and all of us should be willing to lead less comfortable lives in order to share our prosperity with others. But, ultimately, social responsibility is about much more than giving our own money or taking it away from other people. It’s about making an effort to change the world through our actions and relationships, rather than waiting on a larger institution to do so.
Scott Greenberg is a senior in Ezra Stiles College. His column runs on Tuesdays. Contact him at email@example.com .