Altruism Delivers Where the Free Market Is Found Wanting

The Journal (Newcastle, England), July 30, 2012 | Go to article overview

Altruism Delivers Where the Free Market Is Found Wanting


Byline: GEORGE HEPBURN

ISPENT the weekend throwing trees on to a bonfire. It was utterly exhausting work. When I looked around at about 30 people also feeding the bonfire, I wondered what possessed them all to give up their weekend to help me.

It was the annual gathering of the Friends of Shepherds Dene who help us achieve tasks in the 20 acres of grounds that we could not manage ourselves or afford to have done professionally. There is much fun along the way, including entertainment from a budding young blues singer, but it is a hard working weekend.

Last year, we built a path through the woodlands down to the March Burn. This year, we are clearing newly felled woodlands in preparation for planting native trees in the autumn. It is the hardest job we have undertaken. Other Friends weeded the borders, tidied the rock garden, repaired a dry stone wall and practised their topiary skills. There is a job suitable for everyone.

As I wearily heave another log into the flames, I wonder why people give up their weekend with such good grace. Some have a long association with Shepherds Dene. "I feel closer to God here," one told me. Others love the woodlands or jump at the chance to stay in an Edwardian country house for the weekend.

Whatever the individual motivations may be, there is also a collective spirit of cooperation and goodwill that comes from doing something for nothing and out of love for the job.

The Bible reading on Sunday, quite by chance, is the story of how the young Samuel hears a voice calling him and responds, with youthful naivety, "Send me". For some of those present, it is a calling to work at Shepherds Dene, but by no means all do so with a Christian conviction as opposed a sense of community spirit.

Kim Sinclair, Shepherds Dene's full-time gardener, estimates it would take her six weeks working on her own to achieve what the Friends complete in a weekend. She and I are also uplifted by their goodwill in the weeks thereafter. I hope the Friends go away equally satisfied and indeed that they come back next year.

In his classic study of blood donors, written in the late 1960s, the social scientist Richard Titmuss argues that the morality of a nation can be judged by the level of its altruism - its willingness to do something for nothing.

The United Kingdom is one of the few countries in the world that depends entirely on volunteers to give blood. In most other countries, blood is a marketable commodity and a source of income for poor people.

Titmuss's study showed that the blood transfusion service is more efficient and more economic by using volunteers. The blood is of a reliably higher quality and less is wasted. In other words, altruism delivers where the free market is found wanting. …

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