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The deep roots of caring and sharing

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This is a summary of an article by Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis, “Is Equality Passe? Homo reciprocans and the future of egalitarian politics”. It was printed in the Boston Globe, and it is on line.

The authors argue that dissatisfaction with the 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. The US public is still deeply committed to helping those in need; it is still popular to pay higher taxes to reduce poverty and many would pay more taxes for job training to get people off welfare.

Bowles and Gintis set out to show that there is a solid foundation for cooperation and sharing in two basic human motives which they label “strong reciprocity” and “basic needs generosity”. Strong reciprocity (SR) is the tendency to cooperate and share with others, as long as they play by the rules of the game. SR also involved the desire to punish those who break the rules. Basic needs generosity is the desire to provide at least the basic essentials of housing, clothing and food for people who cannot provide for themselves.

They coined the term Homo reciprocans for the person who cares about the well-being of others and about the fairness of the processes that determining outcomes.

Homo reciprocans is not committed to the abstract goal of equal outcomes, but rather to a rough “balancing out” of burdens and rewards. In earlier times–when, for example, an individual’s conventional claim on material resources was conditioned by noble birth or divine origin–what counted as balancing out might entail highly unequal comfort and wealth.

Hence the tradition of noblesse oblige, the expectation that the nobility should provide leadership, protection and a measure of justice for their people. They suggest that we have a legacy of 100,000 years of sharing and they back this up with evidence from archaeology, history, and fieldwork among a tribe of contemporary foragers. Sharing is ubiquitous, and not just in the immediate family circle. They could have drawn on animal studies, not from migratory flocks and herds where all must keep moving or perish, but from species such as the beaver who 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”.

Another line of evidence comes from role playing games where people are called upon to share or allocate resources in various contexts where different patterns of generosity or self-seeking can be established over a series of transactions. Some important results came from the experiments:

1. People exhibit significant levels of generosity, even towards strangers.

2. People share more of what they acquire by chance rather than by personal effort.

3. People contribute to public goods and cooperate in collective endeavours, and consider it unfair to free-ride on the contributions and efforts of others.

4. People punish free riders at substantial costs to themselves, even when they cannot reasonably expect future personal gain from doing so.

They note that a significant fraction of subjects, perhaps a quarter, pursue self-interested “maximum gain” strategies rather than sharing. If this is not punished it can result in the erosion of generosity and cooperation in the other players. The authors note that it would not be hard to design a system of income security and economic opportunity that would conform with the motivations expressed in these results. “Such a system would be generous toward the poor, rewarding those who perform socially valued work, as well as to those who are poor through accidents not of their own making, such as illness and job displacement.”

They speculate on the evolutionary origins of the impulse or instinct to reciprocity, suggesting that there are survival advantages for groups which develop patterns of sharing and support.

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. The relevant traits may be transmitted genetically and proliferate under the influence of natural selection, or they may be transmitted culturally through learning from elders and age-mates and proliferate because successful groups tend to absorb failing groups or be emulated by them. We think it likely that both genetic and cultural transmission is involved. The 100,000 years in which anatomically modern humans lived primarily in foraging bands constitutes a sufficiently long time period, and a favorable social and physical ecology, for the evolution of the combination of norm enforcement and sharing that we term strong reciprocity.

Strong Reciprocity and the Revolt Against Welfare

They explored the decline in support for certain kinds of welfare provisions in the US, noting that “overwhelming majorities oppose the status quo, whatever their income, race, or personal history with such programs. This pattern of public sentiment, we think, can be accounted for in terms of the principle of strong reciprocity.”

They draw heavily from two studies. The first used data collected in late 1995 by Public Agenda, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization, and is published in Steve Farkas and Jean Robinson’s The Value We Live By: What Americans Want From Welfare Reform. The authors conducted eight focus groups around the country, a nationwide sample survey, plus a smaller national survey of 200 African-Americans. The second is Gilens’s Why Americans Hate Welfare, an analysis and review of several polls executed during the 1990s and earlier by various news organizations.

In the Public Agenda survey, two thirds of respondents thought the welfare system should be eliminated or “fundamentally overhauled”. Among respondents from households receiving welfare, only 9 percent approved fully with the system: 42 percent wanted a fundamental overhaul and another 46 percent wanted some adjustments. Farkas and Robinson note that by more than four to one (65 percent to 14 percent), Americans say the most upsetting thing about welfare is that “it encourages people to adopt the wrong lifestyle and values,” not that “it costs to much tax money.” . . . Of nine possible reforms presented to respondents–ranging from requiring job training to paying surprise visits to make sure recipients deserve benefits–reducing benefits ranked last in popularity. It is not a matter of cost. In focus groups, people invariably dismissed arguments about reducing the cost of welfare in almost derisive terms as irrelevant and beside the point.

Opposition is not based entirely on the perception of fraud, though in some studies a majority of respondents (including welfare beneficiaries), believe welfare fraud is a serious problem. Still, most people do not consider that fraud is more of a problem in welfare than in other government programs, and only a third of survey respondents would be more “comfortable with welfare” if fraud were eliminated. They report that 68 percent (59 percent of welfare recipients) think that welfare is “passed on from generation to generation, creating a permanent underclass.” In the same vein, 70 percent (71 percent of welfare recipients) say welfare makes it “financially better for people to stay on welfare than to get a job,” 57 percent (62 percent of welfare recipients) think welfare encourages “people to be lazy” and 60 percent (64 percent of welfare recipients) say the welfare system “encourages people to have kids out of wedlock.”

They comment that many objections to the system, and some moral judgements on the poor, are based on misconceptions, a lack of compassion, and prejudice. Still, there is overwhelming evidence that people still exhibit the second basic motive that they identified – that is, basic needs generosity. “Like many experimental subjects, those surveyed by pollsters exhibit what we have termed “basic needs generosity,” a virtually unconditional willingness to share with others to assure them of some minimal standard, especially, as the survey data show, when this is implemented through provision of food, basic medical care, housing, and other essential goods. The interplay of basic needs generosity and strong reciprocity, we think, accounts for the salient facts about public opinion concerning welfare.”


If we are right, egalitarians misunderstand the revolt against welfare and the resistance to helping the needy when they attribute it to selfishness. Opposition reflects instead the failure of many programs to tap powerful commitments to fairness and generosity and the fact that some programs appear to violate deeply held reciprocity norms.

Written by Admin

November 1, 2006 at 2:08 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response

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  1. Now that is interesting!


    November 1, 2006 at 10:47 pm

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