Pay it Forward is Nonsense

Pay it ForwardI’ve noticed that the concept Pay if Forward seems to be in the news lately. It’s a concept that goes against everything Randian and she spoke directly to this idea in her novel Atlas Shrugged when John Galt needs a car to ferry Dagny Taggart around Galt’s Gulch. He goes to his friend Midas Mulligan and pays him a dime for the day’s rental.

This scene demonstrates what I consider to be one of the most important concepts of Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism.

The concept of Pay if Forward is that after you do something nice for a person you don’t expect them to pay you back but to perform a similar act for another person when the opportunity presents itself. I’m certainly not suggesting that we stop doing kind things, I’m just suggesting that there is value to effort and when we reward people for such work we also encourage other people to do the same. When we give the undeserving rewards we encourage people to do nothing.

It’s an odd contradiction and I long struggled to understand that scene in Atlas Shrugged. I enjoy doing nice things for friends, it’s makes me feel good to buy a lunch or give a present to one of my nieces. It’s still not easy to put into words the idea that we should pay for the services we desire because by rewarding the people who provide a good service at a reasonable price I make the world a better place. When I simply give away my skills in the hopes that someone else will do the same I set in motion a chain of events that leads to decay.

It’s a difficult concept because it seems heartless, it’s not. As an example, I think taxes that support a school system are a good thing. I think education has a value to society that is almost impossible to value. I don’t have any children. I strongly appreciate that educating children leads to a better world for me in any number of ways that seem self-evident and therefore I won’t discuss them in-depth now. It’s in society’s interest not to have poor people, it’s in my interest to not have criminals roaming the streets. Paying taxes for schools isn’t to just to benefit children, it’s to make my life better.

One of the things I do supposedly for free is the writing of this blog. I do it to bring my philosophic interpretations of Rand to others, to the masses. This in turn hopefully makes them Randian in their behavior which benefits me.

I sell my books for $2.99. These books are written largely to illustrate my ideas about how we can make this world a Utopia. However, I do not write them solely to make the world a better place. I want your $2.99. I want a lot of people’s $2.99. I want to sell millions of books and make millions of dollars. I want my books to be made into movies and the studios to pay me more millions. I also want you to read about Jon Gray, Silenia, the First Rider, Shinamar the Unbeliever, and General Yumanar, the heroes of my novels who showcase my philosophies.

We cannot make this world a better place by Paying it Forward. This idealism actually leads to our nation and the world becoming a worse place. Let’s examine the ultimate goal of the Pay it Forward philosophy. Imagine a world where everyone helps everyone else without payment. It sounds good but it isn’t. That is a world in which lazy people rule because they don’t have to do anything. They are given everything by others doing good deeds. Of course, eventually this leads to a society where everyone has nothing because no one does anything. Naturally this philosophic endgame is never going to happen because the Pay it Forward concept is, at its heart, bankrupt. It’s going to be impossible to convince people to Pay it Forward to the point where they have nothing left. But, the philosophic goal is to reach that so-called dream world.

We should pay for things so that we encourage people to provide those things we want. We should patronize restaurants that make food we like at what we consider to be  a reasonable price. This allows that restaurant to succeed and we get good food. That’s a win.

If we look at poor people in Westernized countries as opposed to third-world countries we see a difference. Poor people in the United States, in Australia, in western Europe, are not nearly as poor as the destitute in India, Pakistan, Africa. Poor is a relative term and countries that live closer to Randian Objectivism, where the best are rewarded for their efforts, are far better off than their counterparts. This is the benefit of a system that doesn’t Pay it Forward. It encourage those who provide service to continue to do so. It rewards success instead of failure. That’s good for everyone, in the long run even the failures.

Tom Liberman
Sword and Sorcery fantasy with a Libertarian Twist
Current Release: The Sword of Water (yes it’s $2.99, yes it’s awesome)
Next Release: The Spear of the Hunt(Yes it will be $2.99 and awesome)

12 thoughts on “Pay it Forward is Nonsense

  1. Bravo! I have long felt unsettled by the term to which you refer. I have always acted with kindness toward others; and when others are kind to me, this does indeed lift my spirits, so to speak and make it a bit more likely that I will be that much more kind to any I should encounter. However I have always rewarded, in any way in which I am able, acts of kindness shown to me.

    We often forget that a real life and fiction are not the same. We write a certain passage in as a philosophical passage in a book–as did Miss Rand–to illustrate a philosophical point. It is not, I think so much a blueprint for action but rather a thing to keep in mind in real life.

    For example, when recently our car was down with unexpected and catastrophic repairs, which I found would take some time, owing to the unavailability of parts and the type of work needed, to repair, our friend JR whose work and sleep schedule is quite opposite mine most of the time, offered me his car until the work was done, provided he was not at work himself, and was in essence done with his car for the day. He did not ask for a dime or a dollar–this was real life, after all, not a lesson in a book. HOWEVER, the lesson of Miss Rand’s book, and perhaps one that was reinforced by good parenting and perhaps even by the Andy Griffith show : ) caused me, without even thinking about it, to wash my friend’s car and leave the tank full. I did this whether there were ten gallons or a half gallon missing, and regardless of how much or how little I drove.

    Yes such an act is encouraging. But even such an unsolicited payback as I describe is all the more encouraging to those who have done someone a good turn. I would have done this even if my friend had insisted It was not necessary. Just as are the two characters in Miss Rand’s book, both of us are financially stable enough that my act of recompense was neither necessary nor burdening to either of us, still the goodwill was priceless! And, what better way to show my appreciation that to save him a trip to the car-wash and the gas station for a few weeks.

    • Thank you for the comment, David.

      You are absolutely correct in the idea that doing kind things is good. Several of my friends when reading this post interpreted it to mean that we shouldn’t be kind to one another but that’s the nuanced difficulty of Rand’s (and my) ideology here.

      Having a good friend to loan you his vehicle was helpful for both you and him and thus beneficial. Generally being kind and having friends is important to success in life. Why do I hold the door open for a stranger at the store? Because a polite society is beneficial to me in the long run. I guess the most overlooked point of this philosophical idea is that what is in the short-term best interest for me is not always (or even usually) in my long-term benefit.

      My good friend uses eating as an example. If you eat nothing but cake it sure tastes good but it’s very bad for you. If you grab everything and have no friends that’s likewise not good for your long-term prospects in life.

      Have a great day and come back and comment any time, even if you disagree!


      • I shall, sir. And you are, of course welcome to drop by any time and read a sonnet or two. Most of mine are not overtly Objectivist in their themes (some of them are quite “in your face,” as goes the saying) however as a long time reader and admirer of Miss Rand and having long been a champion of the individual (as Miss Rand says, “the smallest minority there is,” as well as the most important to protect, not to mention that one might generally describe all my writing (although I do only publish this sonnets and their introductions) is flagrantly Romantic-Realist, In fact, I very much enjoyed writing today’s sonnet.

        if you are curious..

      • Also I do not have a sense of your age, however I have read AS and FH in particular every several years. And with each passing decade, I see much more in the books and the characters than at first I thought was there. Funny that.

        Miss Rand dealt many times with such subjects. And does in fact draw a distinction between an individual choosing to be kind and being required by law to be enslaved by some committee’s kindness agenda.

        You are a very interesting young (or old : ) man, sir, I should like very much to converse more with you. And please, please, please…. feel free to correct my grammatical error, as I often type faster than my brain can think and quite often forget to ‘pop’ as many times as I ‘push.” Not to mention that I do often begin one sentence and end with another. Very embarrassing, This is why I often save my long replies for my own blog–so I can fix my gaffs in grammar and spelling!

        Also, although I am not British (Dear Mrs. Emeron is) I use a British spellcheck because I feel such spelling goes better with the archaic–though admittedly quite anachronistic–language I use. (She does love this language, having had a proper humanities education where I have not; and as such is well and truly my intended audience. Publishing my sonnets was, at first, a way to keep myself honest in writing at least one sonnet per day.)

        Although…. It can be a taxing proposition and of late, doing some reorganising on the site–very work intensive–I have been “slacking.” I can, of course write a sonnet in under 15 minutes however chose to spend at least 2 hours on each one for its first draft. And sometimes they take much longer because fair bit of research is involved.

        In this way, I have long described sonnet writing as something of a “Gateway Drug” to a finer education albeit autodidactic.

        I do not often comment on philosophical sites of any kind because I am deficient in the language of philosophy–the “nuts and bolts” of it. However your site eschewed such language so I felt I could fully understand your points and make some of my own. (although I would like to apprehend a bit more of this philosophical jargon at some point)

        aakk! I push the wrong button and lost my post! Saved by Lazarus again!!! Everyone should use it!! (plugin for firefox)

        • Hi David,

          I’m very glad that Firefox saved your post!

          I’m 48 although I’ll be 49 in a couple of weeks. I’m more of a fan of The Fountainhead than Atlas Shrugged. My fellow Randians will hate me of course but I find Atlas Shrugged rather dull. I love the philosophy but the characters are boring, the plot often illogical, and the ideas hammered home again and again to the point where I want to shout out, “I get it, Ayn. Move on!”

          I read your latest sonnet and it seemed like it was quite good but I’m afraid my ability to judge the quality of poetry is sorely lacking. I can say that I felt the passion in the words.

          The language of philosophers is also a little beyond me because I did not study it in school. I’ve tried to read Wiki articles (I keep telling people Wiki is generally a great source of information) but the terms can get extremely confusing. I’m a teacher in real life and one of my skills is the ability to explain things in words people seem to understand (or at least I like to think that’s one of my skills).

          I’m not big on correcting spelling and grammar in comments as they are generally not written with the same attention as an original post. I did once correct a fellow St. Louis Cardinal’s fan who had more grammar errors than words in his post (I counted, I’m not making that up).

          I’ll drop in on your site and look at the sonnets now and again although I’m afraid I will never be able to truly appreciate their beauty. Thanks again for the comments!


          • Re AS/FH I you could be echoing my thoughts and emotions if we turn the clock back a few decades. Sometime in my sixth decade, rereading both books, I no longer thought the characters were wooden, nor did I find the pace slow. This is particularly amazing since I have found in recent years that ADD symptoms I have are quite treatable–this makes it seem like I have something approaching 4 times as much time as I used to (yes I do mean four!! No exaggeration.) This would tend to make a novel I find slow and wooden seem 4 times more so. So something in my perception has clearly changed over many decades.

            Re sonnets, please do not feel obligated. If I wanted to win some sort of popularity contest or reach a broad audience, I would chose to publish other work of mine which sure would have broader appeal. I could choose to publish my short, long, or continuing stories, or even regarding poetry, I could publish shorter freeverse which is quite ubiquitous on the web in general, but certainly much more accessible. In any case by all means look if you are curious, but please do not make yourself miserable on my account.

            A colleage of mine–much more brilliant than am I–for example, loves mud-bog-racing (I believe this is what it is called) and it would not be an exaggeration to here state that I do not “get it” at all : )

  2. The concept of “Pay It Forward” presupposes that all misfortunes are the result of random chance. If that were true, then people would need help approximately as often as they were in a position to give it. Then the most efficient way to help everyone would be for everyone to offer help to the next person that they encounter who needs it.

    However, the fact that most “misfortunes” are actually the result of poor planning on someone’s part, and adding in that both poor planning and good planning are habitual behaviors, what happens in the real world is that a small group ends up being a position to receive a disproportionate amount of help, and another small group is in a position to offer a disproportionate amount of help.

    The unintended consequence is then that good behavior is punished and poor behavior rewarded, which is always the result of a morality based on need rather than responsibility.

  3. I agree that “pay it forward” is an affront to justice.
    However, on your point about taxes for public education being good, I disagree. It doesn’t follow that, because education is good, the government must do it and force people into a one-size-fits-all way of doing it.

    • Thank you for the comment, Sword of Apollo.

      As to your disagreement about government funded education; this is where I suggest there is a difference between Libertarianism and Anarchism. Not all government is bad. If it wasn’t for government intervention rural areas would not have nearly the roads, electricity, plumbing, schools, mail service, and hospitals they enjoy.

      I absolutely agree that the government shouldn’t micro-manage school districts but I do think government has a place in society. One of those places is providing an educational opportunity for those who would not otherwise be able to afford it. I don’t argue that education is “good”, I argue that it’s good for me and therefore I eagerly pay my state taxes in support of it. Do I wish the money was more wisely spent, yes. Do I want the federal government to stop meddling in local school districts, yes. But, I’m still for government provided education for all.

      Thanks for the comment and particularly the disagreement! Dissent is always welcome here.


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