The greater the distance

Over the weekend I listened to a talk by one of the leaders of my church. In it he shared a principle he has learned while working to understand how to help those who live in poverty throughout the world. That is, “the greater the distance between the giver and the receiver, the more the receiver develops a sense of entitlement.”

This principle isn’t a new principle. I’ve even talked about it on this blog before. Moses Maimonides taught the principle in his formulation of the highest level of tzedakah, or charity. According to this tenet of Jewish thought, the highest form of giving is the one in which the giver knows (and is known by) the recipient and gives a present or a loan, enters into a partnership with him, or finds him work so that “his hand will be fortified so that he will not have to ask others [for alms].”1 In this form of charity the giver and the receiver are brought into close proximity and are thereby allowed to better understand the position from which the other approaches the relationship.

The opposite sort of idea has become firmly entrenched in modern life. In law school we’re taught to evaluate the quality of our clients’ transactions against the idealized arms’-length transaction. The arms’-length deal stands opposite to the close deal, the one where both parties are so close to each other that we question their ability to judge the merits objectively. The distance that is a consequence of the arms’-length deal becomes a proxy for objective quality.

The problem is, I don’t think it’s only the receiver who develops a greater sense of entitlement as a result of this increased distance. As managers and as business owners we’ve been taught to manage the distance carefully. All of this distance, in the end, seems designed to keep us from caring about each other too much. After all, it’s only business.

The way to build an otherish business is to stop serving these faceless interests. It’s to reorient your priorities so that you enable your employees and your customers to become self-reliant, then to teach them (if you can) to turn around and pay it forward. The only way to do that is to get close to them.

  1. Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Matanot Anayiim, Chapter 10:7