The Fun Factor

by Kevin D. Williamson
When it comes to charity, an adventure beats a crusade.

Mohandas Gandhi once observed that there were many causes for which he was willing to die, but no cause for which he was willing to kill. George R. R. Martin, on the other hand, wants to kill you for a good cause. The “Song of Ice and Fire” novelist, whose fiction has reached a very large audience as the HBO series Game of Thrones, has generated a great deal of publicity — and is on his way to generating a half-million dollars — by offering fans of his work a few interesting experiences in exchange for donations benefiting two charities dear to him, a wolf sanctuary and a food bank, both in New Mexico, where the New Jersey native has lived since the 1970s. The pièce de résistance, currently bid up to $20,000, is having Mr. Martin name a character for you in an upcoming “Song of Ice and Fire” installment — a character that the author promises will face one of the spectacularly gruesome deaths for which he is famous.

Mr. Martin is making his offer through Prizeo, an Internet-based philanthropy platform that has executed similar projects with such celebrities as Paul McCartney, Celine Dion, and Paris Hilton. If you would like to attend the next photo shoot for the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, bidding is open, and the proceeds will benefit the Happy Hearts Fund, which is not a cardiac concern but rather is occupied rebuilding schools around the world that have been damaged by natural disasters. Just as the modern for-profit economy is characterized by an ever-more-precise division of labor, so is the modern philanthropic enterprise characterized by an ever-more-precise application of generosity. Thus the fame of Paris Hilton is alchemically transmuted into something useful, in this case a new animal-rescue bus for the American Humane Association.

Technology and the radical, wonderfully unpredictable exercises in innovation and labor specialization associated with it are only partly economic phenomena. While the relative material abundance of our time, which far exceeds both popular and expert expectations prevalent as recently as the 1970s, is not to be held in low regard, affluence is only the beginning, a necessary but not sufficient condition for social change. As F. A. Hayek argued at some length, a robustly realized liberty consists not only of political liberalism but also of putting some distance between one’s self and conditions of real material privation. There was a great deal of political experimentation before the Industrial Revolution, but it had relatively little effect on how the vast majority of humanity lived, because the great majority of the world’s people were occupied in subsistence agriculture, or in low-level commercial agriculture, for much of that time. There is relatively little social experimentation in subsistence-agriculture societies in part because there is little leisure time or capital to enable it, but mostly because the potential price of such experimentation is very high: Without the cushion of a highly productive modern capitalist economy, a wrong step could prove catastrophic. Change, for those societies, has not historically been something to be welcomed, because change generally consisted of war, plague, or famine.

Technology drives social change, but social change drives technology, too: Human groups in relatively dense areas and coming into regular contact with other groups — which entails everything from trade to war — have generally developed technologically more quickly than other groups, while isolated groups have stagnated or even declined. While there is some academic argument over the subject, it appears to be the case that once indigenous Tasmanians became separated from the Australian mainland, their material culture declined: Fishing disappeared from their economic repertoire, and certain tools vanished as well, along with some of the ends to which those tools were put. It is probable that trade preceded human beings’ settlement into fixed locations and dwellings — that permanent communities grew up around trading posts, not the other way around. Thousands of years passed between the development of the first hand-ax and some prehistoric Steve Jobs’s design-savvy decision to put a handle on that ax, but once the innovation was established, hafting spread relatively quickly through societies that were in regular contact with one another. Some isolated societies seem to have reverted to hand-axes even after having experience with hafting.

For Hayek, economic independence in the old sense of “a man of independent means” was a necessary condition for social innovation, and he worried that the rise of salaried managers in large enterprises would contribute to a culture that put less value on independence and individualism. He was probably right: Compare the relatively statist views of people who work in large, bureaucratic enterprises in either the private or the public sector to those of entrepreneurs and the self-employed.

But what he did not foresee is that the unprecedented abundance of our time would make even salaried middle-managers of relatively modest means effectively independent in a way that their predecessors simply could not have been a generation or two before. Even in the relatively difficult recent economic period, those of us fortunate enough to live in the capitalist world and to be gainfully employed generally have enough steaks in the freezer, and so we can take a few risks here and there. We can try a new product or bid $100 to benefit Mr. Martin’s wolves and food pantry; we can start a business, or try something new with our business, without worrying that the range of likely results will include destitution. This has unfortunate effects, too: It is surely a mighty contributor to the chaos that has characterized American and European family life during our period of greatest prosperity, and many social conservatives have pointed out insightfully that the rich can afford certain social experimentations that impose relatively heavy costs on the poor. Dan Quayle was ridiculed for pointing out that the experience of most single mothers is not very much like that of television’s Murphy Brown, but he was inarguably correct. Many of the disagreements among the various schools of conservatism are arguments about how to properly value that tradeoff.

One of the interesting features of our time is that business and philanthropy have come to more closely resemble each other. Even the most obvious feel-good marketing schemes — Warby Parker gives away a pair of glasses to someone in need for each pair of hipster frames it sells — do real good in many cases, and the costs of entry into many kinds of business and philanthropy have been dramatically reduced as a result of technological innovations. There is a magazine ad for some rich-guy product, I forget which, that consists of a photo of a scruffy-looking young man on a bicycle over a multiple-choice caption: “Lives in his parents’ basement and plays video games — or, his parents live in his guest house after he sold his video-game company?”

The garage-based startup is not only a Silicon Valley phenomenon; at this year’s “Disruptive Innovation” seminar at the Tribeca Film Festival, I had the pleasure of sitting on a panel with Pencils of Promise founder Adam Braun, a former Bain finance geek who launched what is now a global school-development program after meeting a young beggar in India whose great desire was to own a pencil of his own. (Yeah, a pencil — not lost on me.) Braun objects to the term “nonprofit,” preferring to describe his enterprise as “for-purpose.” Consider the implicit calculation in his career choice: On the up side, he might really change the world in a meaningful way; the down side is, what, hoping that he can get his old job back at Bain or taking at worst a slightly-less-lucrative job elsewhere? In the 1930s, the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis was raising money the old-fashioned way, with slotted donation boxes on the streets, hence its popular (and now official) name, the March of Dimes. That represented an enormous investment, at least of manpower. Organizing money for good works, and connecting people with philanthropic organizations, is a great deal less labor-intensive now. And, as Martin’s projects and others have shown, doing good need not be a dour and po-faced exercise in virtue — it can in fact be somewhere between fun and a luxury good. You may not get the same moral jolt out of it (I am not sure how salubrious that particular emotion is), but if I were betting on which model will result in more resources’ being voluntarily and joyfully dedicated to those in need, I’d bet on fun over piety. There were saints who wept, but there also were saints who laughed.

In The End Is Near and It’s Going to Be Awesome, I argue, among other things, that we are very close to having at hand the necessary technological and economic tools to render the traditional welfare state obsolete. But the social innovation is up to us, as citizens and human beings. Voting, knocking on doors for political campaigns, or, in the words of T. S. Eliot, “dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good,” may in the end turn out to be of relatively trivial importance. I prefer my orders spontaneous, but that does not mean that they happen without our making them happen.

— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent for National Review.

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