What Goes Around

What Goes Around

Philosophy May 05, 2016 / By Ben Irvine
What Goes Around

Some reflections on reciprocity and society.

‘Let’s make a sandwich together!’ said the sign on the wall of my local Subway store. When the man behind the counter had finished making my bacon sandwich – with no discernible contribution from me – he poured me a coffee, and I said ‘let’s make a coffee together’. He laughed – knowingly. Then he handed me my breakfast, and I paid him.  

Outside, a scruffy old man was sitting on the pavement with his tramp friends, their backs against the glass frontage of the store. The old man was shouting the same phrase at everyone who passed by: “every little helps; you’re worth it!”. I think he was attempting a kind of witty anti-capitalist protest. Some of the passersby nodded comradely at him; others were startled by his sudden loudness. The tramp’s friends found it all hilarious, while they swigged beer and congratulated themselves on their anchorite, Platonic wisdom. 

On the street where I live, I encounter drunken tramps like these almost every day – social security sees to that. Occasionally, when they want a bed for the night and a shower, they stage a ‘fight’ on the pavement – with lots of swearing and shoving, what footballers would describe as ‘handbags’. A well-intentioned member of the public soon calls 999, and the police arrive, like a parent rushing to a tantrum-throwing toddler, whereupon the tramps are whisked into the warm embrace of the law. 

I walked to the bus stop. A statuesque woman in front of a boarded-up shop was muttering another nonsensical slogan on loop: ‘more money, more money; blacken the manana; more money, more money; blacken the manana’. This wasn’t an anti-capitalist protest; she obviously needed help. Occasionally, in spells lasting approximately a minute, she emitted urgent, high-pitched shrieks – like a hedgehog being attacked by a fox at dawn – before returning to her slogan.  

No-one at the bus stop, myself included, helped the woman. Perhaps we were lulled into inaction by the looping automaticity of her performance; the very repetitiveness that manifested her craziness seemed also somehow to sanitise her behaviour. A few old ladies raised their eyebrows, while other bystanders fiddled obliviously with their smart phones. I wondered about phoning the council. Then I remembered what happened the last time I tried to do so; automated pseudo-sanity of the telephonic kind was hardly going to help matters. My fellow passengers and I stood like conscious bollards, until mercifully – for us – the bus came.

Collective responsibility doesn’t, and cannot, exist. The only impetus that leads a man to make a sandwich for another man is the same and only impetus that leads a man to make a charitable contribution to society: reciprocity. Sandwiches are rewarded by money; charity is rewarded by a good reputation, or a vague sense that what goes around comes around.    

By replacing the mundane bonds of reciprocity with the Platonic ideal of collective responsibility, anti-capitalist bureaucrats and other ne’er-do-wells are annihilating our society. Yet even as these people undermine us, we give them our money, via our taxes. We are so in thrall to the nihilists that even the purchase of a sandwich is passed off insincerely as a form of socialism. Meanwhile, the genuinely needy have fallen into the gaps of our fractured society.   

As the bus pulled away, my mind was running on loop, the same repeated phrase taunting me: ‘let’s make a society together’.

Ben Irvine is author of Einstein and the Art of Mindful Cycling. Find out more at www.benirvine.co.uk
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