Corporate responsibility; generous nature?; heavy news.


Corporate Responsibility

Among other strange things, Nick Gillespie ("Rebel Rousers," May ) writes that Bill Bennett's criticism of companies like Time Warner and Seagram is "rooted" in an "embrace of top down authority as the ultimate, rightful source of value and structure in society." Huh? Too much Hayek, perhaps. Bill Bennett is not making a complicated (or fascist) point.

It's very simple, in fact: Influential people should act responsibly and decently. Which raises a more interesting issue than the one Gillespie fumbles. What do libertarians make of those two words: responsibility and decency?

Jason Bertsch
Empower America
Washington, DC

Nick Gillespie replies: Jason Bertsch, who works for the Washington, D.C., think-tank-cum-"grassroots"-political-group co-founded by Bill Bennett, is at least partly right: The former drug czar and education secretary is not given to making complicated points, particularly when it comes to popular culture. Which was part of my critique of left-wing and right-wing cultural critics. Using author Thomas Frank as an example of the former and Bennett as an example of the latter, I noted that both focused exclusively on producers of cultural messages while ignoring consumers of such messages. The result, I suggested, is "impoverished analysis" that fails to do justice to how such messages circulate throughout society and what their actual meanings may be. Hence, Bennett's continuing use of an unpopular song by the unpopular band Cannibal Corpse as a leading indicator of cultural ruin.

Although I hesitate to speak for a group as diverse, contentious, and individualistic as "libertarians," I suspect that most of them would agree with the bland injunction that people, whether they are "influential" or members of the mass that makes popular culture popular, "should act responsibly and decently"–at any rate, I know I do.

The real issue, of course, is how such terms get defined. Unlike Bennett, I find nothing particularly objectionable in Burger King's Thoreauvian suggestion that "sometimes you gotta break the rules," or in Time Warner's continued interest in hawking popular music. Indeed, to the extent that such companies are attempting to serve customers, one might conclude that they are acting both responsibly and decently.

Generous Nature?

As a law review editor (many, many years ago) I had the privilege of editing an article by Tibor Machan. I've been a fan and reader of his work ever since. So I'm surprised that neither he nor Loren Lomasky ("Generous to a Fault?," May) addressed the most obvious explanation for people's decisions to be generous and help others: What goes around comes around. People who generously help others may actually be motivated by the notion of the "magnificent obsession"; what they do for you this time will somehow be done for them by someone else at some other time.

At its heart, this idea is in fact the basis for the Golden Rule. If everyone is decent and kind (and generous) to others, even to strangers, then in the grand scheme of things this decency and generosity will be passed around among us all.

People are led to be generous, at least in part, because they hope (and believe) that in some way this will lead to others being generous to them. Their own self-interest, manifested in their perhaps unconscious belief in the magnificent obsession, motivates them to extend a hand to others–even when there is no obvious or immediate reciprocation.

Paul Bent

In Loren Lomasky's review of Tibor Machan's book Generosity: Virtue in Civil Society, we once again encounter the implacable conviction that ethical egoism is incompatible with various forms of benevolence–specifically, in this case, with expressions of generosity.

It appears to be a widely held notion that, to the extent someone pursues his own interests, he must thereby be opposing the interests of someone else; or, at least, that while acting selfishly, he is necessarily unconcerned with the interests of others. Indeed, virtually all of the arguments against egoism include a belief that the basic conditions of human existence inevitably entail conflicts of interests among men, and that constructive social interaction therefore requires, at least occasionally, that individuals act against or beyond the scope of their own interests.

This idea is even implicit in some formulations of individual rights, such as the statement that one's rights end where another's begin, or that one's rights are limited by a duty to respect the rights of others. Such expressions presuppose that one might somehow have a valid interest in violating the rights of others, and that the rights of others are principles intended primarily to restrain the pursuit of such conflicting interests.

Yet there are really no conflicts of interest among rational men. A person fully committed to reason can live a completely selfish life, fully confident that his interests will never conflict with those of another rational person. Most people might find the suggestion of a completely selfish life abhorrent. The conventional view is that some degree of self-sacrifice is inherent in virtually every act of benevolence. To the extent that one is sociable, he is thereby presumed to be self-sacrificing or, at least, indifferent to his own interests.

In the limited space allowed here, it would be futile to attempt a sufficiently comprehensive refutation of the alleged dichotomy between selfishness and generosity, or between selfishness and other expressions of benevolence. The briefest and most cogent argument I can recommend is Ayn Rand's 1962 essay, "The Conflicts of Men's Interests," in her book The Virtue of Selfishness. The key question is what really constitutes one's rational interests.

Joseph Curran
Daly City, CA

Loren Lomasky replies:Paul Bent is surprised that neither Tibor Machan nor I thought to explain generous behavior as motivated by a perception that what goes around comes around. We had our reasons.

First, what goes around does not always come around; all too often it swings back wildly and hits you in the face. On this count the Book of Job and The Simpsons' Mr. Burns are instructive. Second, although a society in which most people are both providers and recipients of generosity is much to be desired, only occasionally is generous treatment received as a return on generosity supplied. So, third, someone whose interest is mostly or entirely in what comes around will be more apt to free ride on others' generosity than to supply his own. Fourth, scratching others' backs in order to secure relief from one's own itch is honorable and prudent, but it is not generosity.

So why, then, do people act generously? I remain content with the hypothesis offered in the review: One acts to ameliorate others' distress for their sake, not one's own. Toward this end generous individuals are willing to bear some small (or, occasionally, substantial) sacrifice of their own interests to advance the well-being of others.

Joseph Curran finds this unintelligible because, he says, the interests of rational persons don't conflict. Based on extended research at the poker table, I judge this claim to be false. Curran might respond that I have failed to grasp the sense in which he uses rational and interests. Perhaps; his letter is long on pronouncement and short on explication. Not that it matters much in this context: Ordinary people's generosity is to be understood by reference to what they themselves take their interests and reasons for actions to be, not what Mr. Curran or Ms. Rand declares that these should be.

Heavy News

Letters directed at Jacob Sullum's review of my book The Fat of the Land (Letters, May) are really directed at my own research, and I gladly respond.

Brian Carnell scores me for criticizing the EPA report concluding that passive smoking is a carcinogen based on a mere 19 percent increase in deaths, then turning right around and accepting "American Cancer Society claims that men 19 percent overweight have a 15 percent increased likelihood of death." He doesn't tell readers that the ACS study also found that the fatter you are, the higher the likelihood of death. By the time members of the ACS cohort were 40 to 49 percent overweight, their increased chance of death was 87 percent for both men and women.

Further, the larger the sample size, the greater the relevance of any increase in death or illness. The EPA report looked at a combination of 11 studies that between them had a mere 734 subjects. The number of people in the ACS study and every obesity study I relied upon dwarfs the size of the EPA study. They also all use the considerably tighter 95 percent confidence interval (meaning there's a 95 percent chance the conclusion didn't come about by chance), not the 90 percent confidence interval the EPA used to make its results for any of the 11 reports or all 11 together statistically significant.

For example, the study by Dr. June Stevens and others in the January 1, 1998, New England Journal of Medicine observed over 320,000 men and women. It found, "Excess body weight increases the risk of death from any cause and from cardiovascular disease in adults between 30 and 74 years of age." Longest life was associated with the leanest bodies, specifically those with body mass index (BMI) between 19 and 22. Yet the average American has a BMI over 25. "I'm sorry to tell you," Stevens told one reporter, "it's the very lean weight that is associated with the best survival rate."

The second largest obesity report, from the ongoing Nurses' Health Study, looked at 115,000 women and found that a mere 30 to 40 extra pounds on a five-foot, five-inch woman more than doubled her chance of death over a 16-year period. Only 15 to 20 extra pounds greatly increased the risk of adult-onset diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease.

The male counterpart to the Nurses' Health Study, the Harvard Alumni Study, with 20,000 subjects, has so far found that men in the thinnest fifth of the group had a 60 percent lower chance of dying of a heart attack than those in the heaviest fifth. Other huge studies, such as the famous Framingham Heart Study and numerous ones from the Netherlands, Sweden, Norway, and other nations have produced similar findings. Observations by insurance actuaries dating back to the 19th century have shown a strong association between fatter bodies and shorter lives. Modern epidemiological studies have merely quantified these risks.

Evidence continues to come in that thinner is better. A study released January 14 of 170,000 Swedish women found that the heavier the woman, the more likely she was to miscarry. Among women who had not yet had children, "the risk of late fetal death was roughly doubled among women of average weight [BMI 20-24.9], as compared with lean women [BMI less than 20], tripled among those were overweight [BMI 25-29.9], and quadrupled among those who were obese [BMI 30 and above.]"

The idea that 300,000 premature deaths a year are caused by being overweight was explained in detail in a letter from Dr. JoAnn Manson, one of the nation's premier obesity experts, to the New England Journal of Medicine. It's also accepted by Surgeon General David Satcher, Harvard School of Public Health Chairman Walter Willett, and the obesity research field in general. But Carnell ignores this, instead offering the opinions of NEJM Editor Marcia Angell and Steve Milloy, publisher of the "Junk Science Web Page." Neither has ever published an article, study, or book on obesity. That Carnell can do no better than rely on two editorials by nonspecialists in the field speaks volumes.

Jacob Sullum correctly replied to David Moshinsky's letter that studies show the thinnest persons die younger only because, as Framingham Heart Study director William Castelli told me, "The lowest-weight group keeps getting contaminated by people who lose weight because they have a chronic illness, usually cancer." I have also pointed this out directly to Moshinsky in a letters exchange in The American Spectator. He just doesn't care.

Finally, Thomas Cunningham is right that (my words now, not his), "Rubenesque" women are called "Rubenesque" precisely because they were the obsession of a single painter, and not representative of male preferences as a whole during his time. While fatter women have been more in vogue in other eras, studies have shown that men universally favor women with hourglass shapes, probably because they are genetically inclined to choose women who are more fertile and more likely to bear healthy children, and that means choosing a Coke bottle over a whiskey jug.

Yet I advocate a thinner America for health reasons, not aesthetic ones. Let Moshinsky fret about food police and Richard Klein talk lovingly of the allure of female adiposity, but obesity kills, cripples, and makes life less enjoyable. People have a right to choose this condition, just as they have every right to smoke a carton of Camels a day. But they also have the right to know the truth.

Michael Fumento
Washington, DC