In the latest issue of Design News magazine, a trade journal that I read, there is a an editorial called “Everything is ‘At Stake’.” The first line of the piece reads, “Engineers as a whole are an altruistic lot...”[emphasis mine]
Obviously, I wasn’t going to let that one go by without a comment. The author, editor-in-chief John Dodge, goes on to appeal to engineers to join him in his mission to solve the world’s problems, such as the hunger and disease represented by the dreadful photograph that accompanied the editorial. (The photo is not in the link above, but you can see it here. In the foreground, a tiny Sudanese child is bent forward with his head on the ground, possibly unable to move due to starvation, while a vulture looks on a few feet away, patiently waiting for its opportunity.)
I wrote and submitted the following letter to the editor:
In the article “Everything Is ‘At Stake’,” editor John Dodge rightly praises examples of engineering ingenuity, such as the products of Dean Kamen. With the problems we face today and our headlong rush to enlist the government to prescribe or proscribe our every action, everything is indeed “at stake.”
So, let us not badly misidentify the principles and mistake the poison for the cure.
It is not an embrace of altruism that we need today, but its opposite: a rediscovery of the respect for the individual, and the accompanying virtues of independence, honesty, and integrity. Third world nations do not suffer because there aren’t enough philanthropists; they suffer because they have bad governments. It is no mere coincidence that in the last century, the governments most dedicated to altruism - the communist nations - slaughtered and starved their citizens. The wealth and comforts that we enjoy today are due entirely to the institutionalization of Enlightenment principles: reason and a respect for individual rights.
The historical record itself, as well as thinkers from Adam Smith to Ayn Rand, have shown that when men are left free to pursue their own interests, they flourish peaceably and justly, to the benefit of all. Productivity and entrepreneurship does not (and should not) grow from appeals to altruism and sacrifice.