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catallaxy in technical exile

Altruism and the Welfare State

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This is not a new article but it is particularly interesting for the light that it casts on the evolutionary origins of altruism and the way that some aspects of the welfare state violate norms of fairness that are acknowledged by many of the welfare beneficiaries themselves.

Bowles and Gintis have provided a great body of evidence to back up the simple truth that most people do care about the welfare of others but they also expect able-bodied others to help themselves. They call this attitude “strong reciprocity”, that is, the tendency to collaborate and share with others, as long as they play by the rules of the game. They provide survey evidence that current dissatisfaction with the US welfare system is not due to selfishness or lack of desire to help poor people, it is because many welfare programs violate deeply-held notions of fairness. This view is also held by many welfare-recipients who realise that their incentives are distorted by the system.

As to the roots of strong reciprocity, it appears that we have a legacy of 100,000 years of sharing, revealed by evidence from archaeology, history, and fieldwork among contemporary foragers. Sharing is widespread, and not just in the immediate family circle. They could have drawn examples from the animal world such as the beaver that is not only a model of industry but also of mutual support.

The modern welfare state is thus but an example of a ubiquitous social form. Sharing institutions–from families to extended gift-giving, barn raisings, tithing, or egalitarian division rules for the catch of the hunt… Strong reciprocity thus allows groups to engage in common practices without the resort to costly and often ineffective hierarchical authority, and thereby vastly increases the repertoire of social experiments capable of diffusing through cultural and genetic competition.

They consider that both genetic and cultural transmission were involved because recognisable humans spent 100,000 years in foraging bands and that allowed plenty of time for the evolution of the combination of norm enforcement and sharing that they labeled strong reciprocity.

This is a really important paper, breaking new ground in the debate on rights and responsibilities with an evolutionary perspective that matches the mature thinking of Popper and Hayek. The authors provide a valuable analysis of recent research on attitudes towards the US welfare system and they offer a fascinating account of simulation experiments to explore human attitudes to giving and taking under various conditions.

Written by Admin

January 5, 2006 at 10:03 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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