From The Vaults

The Great American Think-Off!

Each year, The Great American Think-Off is conducted by the New York Mills Regional Cultural Center in New York Mills Minnesota.  (See: )  “Do the wealthy have an obligation to help the poor?” is this year’s question.

The four finalists were to be announced on May 1.  Since I haven’t heard anything back, it appears that I wasn’t chosen to be a finalist.  Since that means that my entry won’t be posted on their website, I’m posting it here.  I hope everyone can find some benefit in reading it.


Yes, the wealthy do have an obligation to help the poor.

I shall forego the arguments based on emotion (helping the poor gives you a good feeling) and morality (you yourself were born needy, but survived by sustenance provided by others, and were made wealthy partly by labor done by other people working in your enterprises, so you owe it to society to “give back”).  I shall focus mainly on the practical reasons that wealthy people’s own well-being depends on helping the poor.

To understand WHY the wealthy need to help the poor, it is helpful to first discuss HOW the wealthy can best help the poor.  One of the most beneficial things the wealthy can do for the poor is to invest in facilities that produce the products that everyone (wealthy and poor) need.  Very few products in today’s world can be made entirely by one person.  It takes numerous people and various equipment to convert raw materials into useful products.  Only wealthy people have the ability to gather and organize all the resources it takes to produce the products that people need.  Poor people NEED to have wealthy people around to assemble the facilities that enable the poor to be productive and create a better standard of living for everyone.

Another thing the wealthy should do for the poor is to facilitate education and positive culture.  No one person is able to understand everything about how to make the products that improve the lives of poor and wealthy alike.  It takes many people with expertise in many specialties to make just one television or car or air conditioner or any other thing that any person, wealthy or poor, enjoys.  Most people are pretty fully occupied in their own field.  The “idle rich” have more time available to learn about various fields and figure out ways that they can be combined to produce new and better products that improve life, including medical devices that may save the wealthy person’s own life.

By enhancing education, wealthy people can get more people thinking about more fields and creating more new products to enhance everyone’s life.  By supporting foundations, the wealthy person can facilitate the discovery and dissemination of knowledge that can help create better products and help people learn how to manage their own affairs in ways that are not wasteful and destructive.

There’s also the traditional charity of material assistance to poor people, like those struck by disaster (storm, fire, flood, etc.) and those displaced by economic shifts (employees of a factory that closed).  This kind of charity keeps people from becoming so desperate that they resort to crime (including the organized crime of chronic welfare dependency).  It helps them get back to being useful, productive members of society.

It’s better for the wealthy to give voluntarily.  That way they can direct the resources to do the most good and help people become the most productive.  If the wealthy decide to be tightwads, poor people’s needs are not met and they become more desperate and ruthless.  They tend to elect political con artists who exploit their needs and impose “solutions” that only increase poor people’s dependency on government.  Such politicians are like drug dealers, who are not for the addict, they are for the addiction.  Likewise, such politicians are not for poor people, they are for the poverty.  The politicians exploit the poverty to keep poor people dependent on the politicians.

Some people are obsessed with exalting themselves.  Some people think, “I want all the wealth and power I can get, and I don’t want any mamby-pamby considerations of morality getting in the way!”  (One person actually told me exactly that!)  The logical conclusion of that sort of thinking is played out in real life in third world dictatorships.  One person actually does have all the wealth and power, and uses it ruthlessly to hold onto it.  Everyone lives in terror of him.  They also see how he got his power (ruthlessly), and seek to grab it from him by the same means.  Such a dictator has to be paranoid.  He lives in terror of his subjects!  He has to sleep with one eye open, lest he be overthrown.  Not exactly a good life!

In summary, helping the poor intelligently makes the world a better place to live for everyone, including the wealthy.  We all get to enjoy a better standard of living, a more wholesome culture and freedom from crime.

Jeff Putman



16 comments to The Great American Think-Off!

  • Robert Vigh


    You did not address the question. What obligation does anyone have to help another? Is this a moral obligation or legal obligation? You have attempted to demonstrate that wealthy people can help the poor by acting on their own self interest. But, other than demonstrating self interest, what obligation do the rich actually have?

  • Mike Bock

    An “obligation” is a duty or responsibility. A lot of obligations are legal requirements. I have an obligation, a legal requirement, to pay my taxes or obey traffic laws. So, of course, the wealthy have legal requirements they must meet, as does everyone. This question, evidently, is asking us to examine other meanings to the word “obligation,” other than “legal requirement.”

    We are given instruction, in ancient religious teachings handed down in scripture, “Do unto others what you would wish others to do unto you.”

    The scripture says that we, who have plenty, have an obligation to feel empathy for others and to act on that empathy. We are commanded in scripture to love our neighbor as ourselves, to “do justice, love mercy and walk humbly,” to transcend our natural selfishness — to extend ourselves to others in practical and material ways — as illustrated in the story of the “Good Samaritan.” In scripture, we are admonished, “To whom much is given, much is required.”

    So, an answer to the question, “Do the wealthy have an obligation to help the poor?”, might begin by seeking to understand why a “Yes” answer to this question is encoded in the most ancient of religious teachings.

    Robert seems to dismiss Jeff’s answer, by writing, “You have attempted to demonstrate that wealthy people can help the poor by acting on their own self interest. But, other than demonstrating self interest, what obligation do the rich actually have?”

    Maybe the way to answer this question, about the obligations of the wealthy, is to think of the obligation of every human — not just wealthy ones — and to understand how a fully developed human is obligated to act. It is an obligation for everyone to seek to grow into the potential of who they are, to become a fully actualized human being, just as it is the obligation of an acorn to seek to grow into a great oak. This growth, profoundly, is a matter of self interest, and it is this growth, by which, not only the individual, the whole world is blessed.

    Religious teaching, it seems to me, at its heart is about self interest, properly understood, and the obligation of pursuing self interest. Self interest is all about achieving personal happiness, personal fulfillment. Scripture has distilled insight gleaned through the ages concerning human happiness, and says it is found in a generous and humble spirit, a harmonious and just society, and is enlarged by the capacity of enjoying the happiness of others, and in bringing happiness to others.

    Do the wealthy have an obligation to help the poor? Yes. And the poor have an obligation to help the wealthy, and to help each other as well. It is every person’s obligation to work to make a better world, to work for peace and justice, because it is every person’s obligation to grow into his or her own happiness, and into the fulfillment of his or her potential as humans.

    Thanks Jeff, for sharing both this question and your thoughtful response.

  • Such a question is nice in the abstract. But the difference in duty of a rich person toward a poor person who has be disable since birth is vastly different than a person who, through a life of crime, booze, being a sperm donor and having to pay child support, finds himself in a financially impossible situation.

    BTW, I especially like your last paragraph.

  • Robert Vigh

    Mike, because this question is asking us to examine obligations outside of the legal requirement, that allows the answer to be outside the boundaries of the law. Such as, the government by force seizes money from wealthy people and creates entitlement programs that delivers these funds to the poor. The wealthy therefore out of self interest of not going to jail, fulfill their forced obligation to the government and hence help the poor. This is a legal example for the USA.

    So, I agree that the question was philosophical in nature. But an obligation is entered into in one of two ways. You are either forced into an obligation or you enter yourself into an obligation. So, the question free of the legality which we have already bound ourselves to, becomes philosophical in nature. And while I think both Mike and Jeff have demonstrated that the wealthy would often choose to enter an obligation with poor, is their a just embodiment for punishing those who choose not to? Mike chose to demonstrate that through religious teachings, that he feels the obligation is of a religious and moral nature. But, much of what you demonstrated was the pursuit of self interest.

    The answer is no. The wealthy have no obligation to help the poor. There is no unnatural, religious or supernatural force that is going to punish or force one person to help another. The force to be employed is employed by man. To seek out that which is not theirs and seize it for their own use, be it charitable or other. But, there is in no way an obligation which exists prior to an uncoerced man freely entering into an agreement, obligating himself to his side of a bargain.

    To answer otherwise, leaves us arguing about degrees of obligation. Is the wealthy man obligated to spend half his wealth and half his time? Is he only obligated to spend 10% of each. What about 90%, for his paltry 10% that remains still leaves him a rich man. And, if this charity is not freely given, then can we truly define it as an obligation of moral nature? So, through means of political strata, we enact methods to force people into obligations, of which they may or may not agree.

    In consideration, we also are choosing the living over the unborn. For it must be considered that a wealthy man may invest and be driven by acts, inventions or medicines with his wealth that would help future generations. Do we hold that seizing this wealth is not an act of theft on our part, but an obligation on his? That the immediate demands of the living poor outweigh the demands of the poor to be born?

    I believe that man is charitable by nature and charitable by self interest. That man obligates himself when free to do so in ways that benefit self interest and the party to which is being helped. To mistake coercion as obligation; and to mistake that one person has the means to rule over another to declare what is obligation and what is not seems to levy authoritarian power over our freedom. If our freedom is given to authoritarian power, then we no longer have a question of philosophical nature. It will all be legal in nature as that power will have legislated and pre-determined our obligations.

    My answer is no, unless you point a gun at me and tell me my answer is yes……….in which case I will declare the gun holder moral and righteous.

  • jesse

    Robert Vigh,

    I think it is the best thing I have ever seen you contribute. Congratulations.

  • Mike Bock

    Robert, you write, “There is no unnatural, religious or supernatural force that is going to punish or force one person to help another.” And, I agree.

    I’m saying that “obligation” is not defined or determined by degrees of coercion, but by self interest. As a living being, wealthy or not, it is my obligation, my responsibility, my duty, to pursue my self interest. Just as it is the duty of an acorn to seek to become a great oak, it is the duty, the obligation of a human to seek to grow into his or her potential. The fact that few acorns fulfill their potential, or that few humans fulfill their potential doesn’t change the fact that it is the obligation of every living being to seek to do so. In my view, moral teaching is all about giving guidance as to how humans can behave, think, and relate to each other, how humans can create whole societies, to best meet this fundamental obligation of fulfilling self interest.

    This question, about the wealthy, is almost a trick question, because it puts the focus on a specifc group of humans — those who have material posessions several standard deviations above the mean. It’s a question sort of like the child’s riddle, “Why do firemen wear red white and blue suspenders?” The reason firemen wear suspenders is the same reason anyone else does. The reason that the wealthy should have a generous, humble and giving spirit is the same as why the poor should have that spirit as well. The reason the wealthy have an “obligation” to help the poor is the same reason as the poor have an obligation to help the wealthy and to help each other. Moral and right living is the only way humans can grow into their potential to experience fulfillment, happiness, authenticity. It is our obligation, our duty as living beings to seek to do so, to seek to fulfill the potential of who we are.

    The problem with defining this question in terms of everyone’s self interest in pursuing a successful life is that our culture seems to say that a successful life is measured exclusively in terms of material success. If this definition was accurate, then it would be every person’s obligation to accumulate as much wealth as possible. This POV is what is relentlessly taught in our media and educational system and this is why the rat race is increasingly more viscious and why the earth is filling up with ever greater piles of crap, greater piles of hate and envy and greater piles of twisted and dangerous thinking. And this is why humanity, in all likelihood, has zero future and why, within 50 years, this planet will be uninhabitable.

    Robert, you seem to be giving a thoughtful response to the question: “Should we have laws that coerce the redistribution of wealth?” That would be a worthwhile question to debate, but I don’t think it is the question that is being asked.

  • Robert Vigh

    I felt it was safe to utilize the economic definition of wealth. Where, for your argument you seem to have defined wealth as an abundance of spiritual wealth. Whether we are arguing economics or whether we are arguing spirituality, I stand by my argument. I have answered the question directly and accurately.

    The question restated: “should those with an abundant amount of resources have an obligation to help those with little to no resources?

    Should someone in group A have a specific obligation to someone in group B by transferring their resources to them?

    While I stated and you stated that self interest often drives us to interact, I feel that is done of free will, free of obligation. Man creates the obligations when and of their choosing to enter into an obligation. Because man, free of force, will choose his obligations as he sees fit. There is NO predetermined obligation. There is no blanket which covers all of group A and demands that they assist group B.

    I do not feel you have succeeded in establishing a moral case. Quite the opposite. You have deigned to know what is right and wrong for all people. You have created a knew undefined “fundamental obligation” and asked that all of humanity align their pursuits of happiness toward this new layer of obligation.

    I am unsure how your doomsday attitude entered at the end, but it seems misplaced.

  • jesse

    Here we go again with using the English language poorly. You cannot use the word “obligation” to mean “a duty owed to ones self” any more easily than you can use it to mean “the duty a fish with a large mouth owes to a worm”. The word obligation can be defined as:

    1) The act of binding oneself by a social, legal, or moral tie.

    2) A social, legal, or moral requirement, such as a duty, contract, or promise that compels one to follow or avoid a particular course of action.

    3) A course of action imposed by society, law, or conscience by which one is bound or restricted.

    4) A legal agreement stipulating a specified payment or action, especially if the agreement also specifies a penalty for failure to comply.

    5) The document containing the terms of such an agreement.

    6) Something owed as payment or in return for a special service or favor.

    7) The service or favor for which one is indebted to another.

    8) The constraining power of a promise, contract, law, or sense of duty.


    1) A legal agreement stipulating a specified payment or action, especially if the agreement also specifies a penalty for failure to comply.

    2) The document containing the terms of such an agreement.

    3) Something owed as payment or in return for a special service or favor.

    4) The service or favor for which one is indebted to another.

    5) Something owed as payment or in return for a special service or favor.

    6) The service or favor for which one is indebted to another.

    7) The state, fact, or feeling of being indebted to another for a special service or favor received.

    None of these definitions support your definition. The connotative meaning of the word “obligation” is even more legalistic and damning. It is essentially, “something you owe to someone else, that if you fail to provide, you have aggrieved the other party and should expect justice to be exacted.”

    You cannot be obligated to yourself. You cannot create a contract with yourself.

    This is easily evident when the first statement of your post is, “Yes, the wealthy do have an obligation to help the poor.” To whom to the wealthy owe an obligation in this statement? Let us break down the sentance. Subject = Wealthy… Verb = help… Direct Object = poor. What do you think you are writing here? Why does the subject (wealthy) verb (help) direct object (poor)? Because of an obligation! You didn’t say, “a wealthy individual should help the poor because it will be a benefit to his spiritual well-being and has the possibility of benefitting society.”

    You create obligations between groups througout your second post. Wealthy to poor. Poor to wealthy. Poor to poor. Note that again, you are creating obligations between groups.

    Only individuals or freely associating groups of individuals can create obligations. They can only do this with other individuals or freely associating groups of individuals. They can only do this via human action. There can be no “obligation” that exists without choice. As Rob points out…obligation without choice is slavery at the point of a gun.

    Please note that to create “freely associating groups of individuals” individuals must be free to obligate themselves to a group of other individuals.

  • Mike Bock

    Robert, I think you are correct that the intended meaning of this question is, as you say, “Should those with an abundant amount of resources have an obligation to help those with little or no resources?”

    I am suggesting that this question is a trick question because, in my view, this is a question of morality, broadly defined, and the rules of morality apply to everyone, to those you designate as group A, but also to those you designate as group B. There are not special rules of morality for the wealthy, as this question implies.

    And you write, “While I stated and you stated that self interest often drives us to interact, I feel that is done of free will, free of obligation.”
    You seem to be saying that, in your view, an act of free will cannot be an act that results from fulfilling an obligation. You seem to be saying that an obligation is something that is coerced, something that is not an act of free will.

    The definition of “obligation,” I’m keying on, is the second definition given by Jesse: “A social, legal, or moral requirement, such as a duty, contract, or promise that compels one to follow or avoid a particular course of action.”

    A moral requirement is one that is fulfilled by an act of free will, and ultimately, I’m arguing, it is through answering one’s moral requirements, properly understood, that one grows into one’s potential and one lives a happy life, and one contributes to a positive future. We each have an obligation to live such a life.

    You write, “Because man, free of force, will choose his obligations as he sees fit. There is NO predetermined obligation.” But, I am saying that we have obligations as living beings to ourselves, to this generation, and to future generations. We have predetermined obligations, “moral requirements,” as a condition of our being alive. The fact that much of the world tramples this point of view and seeks to fulfill selfish delusions, religous and otherwise, the fact that the world is full of deadly poisons and science and technology has advanced far beyond our morality, is what lately has me dwelling on a doomsday attitude.

  • jesse


    You have reminded my why I stopped reading and posting on this site. Your inability to understand the language creates such a large barrier to discussion that it renders discussion useless.

    Quite simply:

    Obligation without free will is slavery. You cannot assign “obligations” to someone else. “Obligations” must either be freely chosen or they are coercively forced.

  • Stan Hirtle

    I have not tried to hang with all the detail the back and forth here. My gut reaction is that people are talking past each other because their basic assumptions are different. Bock is describing a reality in which people live in an interdependent society, and in which all individual acomplishments and doings of harm relate to those of everyone else. Robert and Jesse take a more abstract and individualistic approach, which is based on concepts of freedom and choice, and sees them opposed by coercion. However individual possession of resources, with it the right of the rich to exclude the poor, is also based on coercion. Individualistic freedom of choice may also be given a more worshipful attitude than it deserves as a description of reality. We do not have a society of independent people subsisting in the wilderness. We also have a question of whether there are underlying moral foundations as to the value of all people regardless of wealth, or whether either people deserve what they get, or perhaps that there are a range of levels of social inequality which can survive at some cost but if we have a properly equipped and motivated componment of violence protecting it.

  • jesse


    What about individual possession (ownership) or resources, with the right to determine the use of said resource, is coercive?

    I (probably Robert too) understand that society is based on the interaction of individuals, and have not suggested on this post or elsewhere, that society exists without individuals who interact. The difference is that Robert and I both argue that the only way you can have a “civilized society” is to move past coercive and allow individuals to be free.

    The “Golden Rule” that Mike invoked earlier in this post is best understood in this context. I will not live at the expense of others via coercion, nor will I accept their demand that I live for them.* I will act as a free individual and allow others the same freedom. I will request assistance when I need assistance and people will choose to help me or not, based on the return they expect to get from their action (spiritual, societal, monetary, etc).

  • jesse

    I just looked at Stan’s post again and something struck me. It is the assumption that ownership itself is immoral. That any one person having the right to own a thing and decide where it should be used and for what purpose is the negative and coercive.

  • Stan Hirtle

    Ownership is immoral if you think coercion is immoral. Certainly property is the right to have the cops throw people off your land. More often people struggle over when coercion is ok, most visible as we try to figure out new institutions like the internet, how much should be public and how much private. One theory was that a person’s right to swing their fist ends when someone else’s nose begins. That is too simplistic as you deal with peoples “rights” or lack of them, to make the world they want it to be. Gated communities? Segregated communities? Casting the “undesirables” based on race, sexual orientation, looking like immigrants, or where they went to school, into the outer darkness?

  • jesse


    What is the nature of ownership? Why does an old lady have a right to a purse that is hers?

    If a thug tries to steal an old lady’s purse, is the lady being coercive if she pulls out a gun to stop him? Is that self-defense of private property or coercion?

    Self-Defense is defined as:
    the act of defending one’s person when physically attacked, as by countering blows or overcoming an assailant: the art of self-defense.
    a claim or plea that the use of force or injuring or killing another was necessary in defending one’s own person from physical attack: He shot the man who was trying to stab him and pleaded self-defense at the murder trial.
    an act or instance of defending or protecting one’s own interests, property, ideas, etc., as by argument or strategy.

    Coercion as:
    the use of express or implied threats of violence or reprisal (as discharge from employment) or other intimidating behavior that puts a person in immediate fear of the consequences in order to compel that person to act against his or her will.

    So the difference is who initiates the interaction. The person, in your example, who is trespassing, is the initiator of the interaction. The police are acting properly as agents of defense. The trespasser is acting aggressively by invading land to which he has no claim.

    Coercion is never okay. Defense is okay.

    “Undesireables” as you call them…are people. They are not to be cast anywhere. They are to be left free.

    If I want to put a gate around land that I own and sell parcels of it to private individuals, then I should be allowed by nature of my owning the property. If I want to only sell to people over 250lbs, then I should be allowed, by nature of my owning the property.

    If a person owns a house who only weighs 150lbs, I have no right to “cast them out”, by the nature of their owning the property. They can decide what to do with their property. I can decide what to do with my property. There is no coercion there…only freedom.

  • I entered the contest myself. Didn’t win. Here’s my contribution: Do the Wealthy have an Obligation to Help the Poor?

    No. In a free society the wealthy have no obligation to help the poor. The wealthy already have compassion to help the poor through loving acts of charity—like America sending money and rescuers to Haiti earthquake victims. During the financial earthquake of the Great Depression, my father couldn’t find a job. A farmer let him pick apples off the ground (not the trees) in his orchard. Dad hitch-hiked 40 miles from Haymarket, Virginia to Washington D.C. to sell apple cider on the sidewalk. That farmer had no obligation to help. He wanted to.

    Rush Limbaugh didn’t create his show out of obligation to the unemployed, but his success propelled “talk radio” into an industry employing thousands. The rich, freely pursuing their own dreams, spending their own money, and building their own mansions, can’t avoid helping the poor.

    That the wealthy are obligated to help the poor runs counter to the principle of individual freedom–America’s prime directive. The O.J. Simpson trial taught me about freedom. Enraged that he seemed to get away with murder, I couldn’t accept the verdict until I “got” that freedom is our highest principle. Therefore, justice must come second.

    Why? Freedom guarantees the possibility of justice; if not now, then later. The converse is not true. A totalitarian state like Cuba can have perfect justice, or “social” justice, but no built-in possibility for individual freedom. And freedom provides the self-sustaining, economic growth that a government controlled economy cannot. Freedom doesn’t obligate redistribution of finite amounts of existing wealth, freedom creates infinite wealth.

    As historian Rose Wilder Lane reminds us, George Washington rode to his inauguration in a horse-driven coach. 6,000 years after its invention, that was the best that a totalitarian, socialist world could do with the wheel. But in less than 200 years, the American republic brought unheard of wealth to even the poorest through electricity, washing machines, dishwashers, refrigerators, telephones, airplanes, radios, TVs, nuclear energy, air conditioning, and computers. Some ideas originated elsewhere, but only here in this free land, did they actually come to market.

    Freedom is the source of American exceptionalism. America is only the third free civilization in human history (after the Jews under Abraham, and the Saracens (Muslims) under Muhammad). All other societies were founded on the principle that the state, king, or emperor held total, original power, then granted limited rights to the people, like Britain’s Magna Carta. The free civilizations were founded on the opposite principle: all power originates in the people, who are born with inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

    Free people create their own government, granting it limited powers. They profit directly from the work of their own hand. I’m a writer. I can write any book I want and, if enough people buy it, I make a living from my craft. If I’m successful like Stephen King, I’ll be rich. But if I fail, and become poor, Stephen King is not obligated to give me any of his money. I am obligated to earn my own livelihood somehow. I am free to get a job cleaning Stephen King’s house.

    “Sure, you’re free,” a friend complained, “because you were born white to middle-class parents. Poor, black people aren’t free.” Wrong! Justice, provided by anti-discrimination legislation the past 100 years, insures for any citizen the opportunity to go as far as their talent, skill and hard work can take them. Many black American millionaires were born poor, but free—like me. And I was born in a charity ward, not an obligation ward.

    The obligatory $ trillion dollar “War against Poverty” created only misery. It fostered an entitlement mentality, demoralizing people who expected to be provided with a living “by rights,” instead of by earning it. Economist Friedrich Hayek warns: there’s no viable third way for economic security between liberty and coercion. A society must choose one or the other when establishing the principles that organize their government.

    America has chosen liberty over coercion, and charity over obligation. No society flourishes economically or advances the cause of the poor by obligating “from each according to his ability and to each according to his need.” Such a principle necessitates a controlling, coercive government that stifles the freedom that guarantees the pursuit of happiness that produces economic wealth. The poor in America became better fed, better clothed, and better doctored than any other nation that has ever existed due to our love of freedom, not our obligation to “social” justice.

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