A salesman makes a living selling used cars, which he refurbishes so he can sell them as “new,” knowing they will break down just months later. One customer, who borrows to pay for a car, goes into heavy debt, losing their home. Many years later, the salesman, now wealthy, comes across that homeless former customer. Neither recognize each other but moved to tears by his ex-customer’s predicament, the salesman founds a shelter for the homeless. Has the salesman righted his wrong?
An entrepreneur, seeking to cut costs, hires workers from the poorest part of town, knowing that most residents there will have no better option. Every day, the workers get a pittance for the products they assemble — much lower than the price they’d have gotten if they could sell the product themselves. Several decades later, the business has become a multinational corporation, but that part of town remains as poor as before. The entrepreneur now has a grandchild on the company board. The grandchild donates millions to education in impoverished regions but still pays as little as possible to the company’s workers. Has the grandchild righted the entrepreneur’s wrong?
I write this not as intellectual exercise. As the giving season begins, and many of us open our hearts and wallets, it is worth reflecting on why we give. “Charity” and “generosity” are often the reasons we go to, but I’ve long felt that they aren’t quite enough. Altruism is important, perhaps even necessary, but it’s not all of morality.
After all, it’s clear that each of our “protagonists” above has done something charitable. Moved by sympathy, they give away resources that they could have easily kept. Nonetheless, these acts of altruism don’t quite address their wrongdoings. They give without remorse, without taking responsibility. And while better than not giving at all, it hardly seems enough — especially not if they keep committing the same wrongs.
This would be academic if we were nothing like these “protagonists” — individuals who have benefited from either violence, deception or exploitation. Yet, I think a little bit of reflection suggests that many of our lives are closer to theirs than we might like to think. We live in a world where the top 20 percent of Americans own 88 percent of U.S. wealth (i.e. 25 percent of global wealth!), according to research from the University of California Santa Cruz, while 3 million die from preventable diseases every year, per the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. This is not by chance. It is the legacy of colonialism, exploitation, slavery and genocide: a history without which both Yale and America would not exist and a history of which we, by being here, are beneficiaries.
And some of us are beneficiaries more than others. I mention the top 20 percent because more than two-thirds of Yalies come from families at least that wealthy who have, however “indirectly,” profited from either stolen native land, worker subjugation or slave labor. I myself come from such a family — a Singaporean one, to be fair, but we have parallel forms of exploitation.
In other words, many of us including me are much like the “protagonists” above. We are the beneficiaries of a violent, deceptive, exploitative world. And we will keep on benefiting. Our Yale degrees will land us cushy jobs that pay on average $100,000 a year, according to Payscale.com, our economic opportunities only bolstered by illicit financial flows from the developing to the developed world.
So, charity no longer seems quite enough. Reparations are also needed. We don’t just have an opportunity to give, we have an obligation to redistribute. To think otherwise would be to remain complicit in a system that benefits us because it exploits so many others; that is, to enable the very violence that we seek to remedy through our gifts.
What does resisting that complicity look like? As someone who’s struggled with bourgeois guilt through young adulthood, I’m not sure, and I certainly haven’t done enough. But I’ve been grateful to learn this: It’s possible to go beyond occasional charity and make a lifelong commitment to redistribution. Nowadays, I give 10 percent of my Singaporean scholarship income to organizations both charitable and political. And my plan, which I hope others will hold me accountable to, once I start working is to “tax” myself through donations at least as much as the Swedish government would (57 percent at the highest bracket, according to Trading Economics). After all, there’s no reason why Swedes should be any better than Singaporeans at parting with income.
Of course, moving money, even to the most radical of organizations, isn’t enough. It is action that alters the structures of violence that we benefit from. Join protests, sit-ins, teach-ins. But especially for those of us with family capital and power, we should use that as leverage too. Let us advocate wage equity and unionization, democratize the workplace, abolish exorbitant managerial salaries, rebuild the co-operative and dismantle the corporation.
Only then might we be able to say that we’ve “done our part for the world.” In the meantime, we need not just charity, but reparations; not just generosity, but duty; not just altruism, but justice as well.
Xuan is a senior in Davenport College involved with both the Yale Effective Altruists and the Yale Young Democratic Socialists. Contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org.