Even if now is not the time to be thrilled about how your infamous $39,000 backpack sold out, as Mary Elizabeth Williams writes in today’s Salon, obviously, the Olsen twins, their successful fashion line and—apparently—quite adept business sense are not villains in the current economy . Williams is right that the rich will always be with us and times are not equally hard on everyone. I disagree with Williams, however, that “wealth does not equal social obligation”, even as I agree with her that you can spend “thousands on your purses and still be a decent, generous person.”
Fundamentally, I believe that any surplus you have: wealth, time, intelligence, skill, tomatoes in your garden imposes a social obligation of generosity upon you. I do not believe government has the authority to mandate your generosity, nor do I believe the social obligation extends to the entirety of your surplus. Nonetheless, I remain convinced that society only works when each of us accepts some responsibility for the needs of people with less.
It is not solely about wealth, either, even if wealth or conspicuous consumption is the easiest target when you try to encourage charity. Why shouldn’t we chide a person who buys a purse which costs the average American’s entire year’s pay when children in the U.S go hungry every day? Actually, I can’t come with a good reason why we shouldn’t chide that person, but I do recognize that the social obligation of generosity or charity is not confined to the easy targets and neither should our opprobrium be.
I’ll take an easy target for me: law firms. Law firms are businesses, who need to be concerned about gaining, keeping and serving paying clients , so that they can employ lawyers, paralegals, clerks, and other staff. So they can be profitable businesses. Yes, of course. But a lawyer has an obligation of charity, based upon his or her surplus of skill, which requires that the lawyer donate pro bono hours to the community. Law firms, in my experience, actively place barriers between their laws and staff which prevent all but a few attorneys at elite firms, handling really exciting matters, from performing pro bono work on a regular basis. We should not allow businesses to force a choice between keeping your job or donating your professional skills to your community.
We should not expect only the very rich to donate to food banks, to arts organizations, to anything that serves a social good. We should not measure charity and generosity only in the amount of money one can throw at a problem. As long as each of us lives within society, each of us is required to give to it from whatever personal abundance you have.