"Enlightened Self-Interest" vs. Communal Responsibility

About a month ago, I heard Dr. Walter Williams speak at the Heritage Foundation. He was giving a deliberately abrasive introduction to standard Libertarian ideas of government's role in the economy, with which I generally approve. At several points he was asked the inevitable question, "How can the poor/environment/elderly survive without the government to protect it against the ravages of capitalism?"

He answered, briefly, that if people were free to follow their selfish impulses, the problems would work themselves out. This is due to the idea of enlightened self-interest, i.e. that it is in the best interests of each individual to do things that benefit the group. (He gave the example of planting fruit trees on his property that he would never live to eat from, because doing so raises his property value.)

Now while this is often true, it is a problematic answer. I tend to be put off by the enthusiasm with which some defenders of the free market will trumpet selfishness as the cure for all our ills, for several reasons. First, this idea completely ignores the trouble of parasitism or free-riding, and the related problem of the Tragedy of the Commons. To wit, there are circumstances in which it is most advantageous for the individual to act to the detriment of society as a whole.

Second, people do not always follow their enlightened self-interest; often they prefer a short-term interest over a longer-term one, for more or less irrational reasons. To defend a system by saying that it works if everyone is rational is hardly a ringing endorsement.

Third, even aside from these issues, such a defense is worse than useless as a persuasive tool, which is ideally the point of the exercise in the first place. It runs counter to the everyday experience of most people, in which acts of selfishness cause hurt and acts of selflessness accomplish great good. Moreover, it reinforces the caricature of the greedy capitalist, and makes agnostics all the less likely to embrace capitalism; nobody wants to think of himself as a bad person, and you will usually get much farther by appealing to man's virtues than by excusing his vices (this is why advocates of abortion speak of "defending the rights of a woman's body" rather than granting permission to kill inconvenient babies, for example).

This all being the case, why then do so many people use this argument with so much glee?

I think we must look to the original question for our answer. "What will happen without government?" assumes that there is a large class of necessary civic functions that would simply be left as a gaping void, without the compulsion of government to ensure their performance. These functions now include such elementary things as feeding the poor and caring for the elderly, which would have been unthinkable not even a century ago.

Alexis de Tocqueville commented on the remarkable habit of Americans at the time to form more or less local associations to perform functions that Europeans would generally leave to the government. He gives the example of clearing a fallen tree from a road; while a European community of the 1830's would have called on the government to remove it, Americans would simply organize themselves and do the job on their own. (This sort of thing is so rare today as to be unheard-of in most of the country, sadly.)

One of the themes hammered on by the aforementioned Dr. Ryn in class is that Americans used to be motivated chiefly by a sense of virtue based on "Love your neighbor." That is, your first duty was to care for those closest to you, your family and your community. This led to a vibrant communal life, in which concerned citizens would care for each other and do what needed doing in the community, because that was what being a good person meant.

Now, on the other hand, we are encouraged to care for Humanity in the abstract (often to the detriment of individual humans right next to us). Since no individual could possibly care for all of humanity, we must delegate our responsibilities for humanity to an entity powerful enough to do so—namely, the government. Hence, we can pay our taxes, send off the government to do good on our behalf, and feel that we have discharged our obligation.

This is an exagerration, of course. But it is based on truth. It is often noted, for example, that Americans give much more charity per capita of GDP than do Europeans; this is explained most often by the tendency of Europeans to place social responsibility on the back of their governments, to which they pay so much in taxes. And this tendency is on the rise here as well. It is worth noting that the most generous states in the U.S. are not the richest—indeed, they tend to be the poorest—but tend to be least associated with expansive liberalism. The reverse is also true; those states most associated with liberalism and social welfare are disproportionally near the bottom of the rankings.

Ergo, many defenders of capitalism have apparently decided that they cannot appeal to any sense of communal obligation to explain why civilization will not collapse in the event of a free market; in some cases, they themselves are not keen on the idea of communal obligations either (this seems to be common in the troglodyte-wing of the libertarian or libertarian/conservative community). Instead, they are forced to appeal to pure selfishness, and give assurances that selfishness will bring about a new golden age.

This is a mistake, for the reasons I have already pointed out. Furthermore, selfishness as an ideal leads to a narrowing of the human spirit and is ultimately unsatisfying, perhaps immoral. If free-marketeers were smart, they would invest their energies in trying to reawaken the old spirit of communal responsibility in America. (I should really say, to spread the spirit of communal responsibility, for it is still alive and well in many communities.) It is this spirit that can make a free market work: the idea that the successful have a duty to care for the less fortunate, directly, without any reliance on governments to do the dirty work for us.

Indeed, statists of all types know that their greatest challengers are private benevolent organizations. Just look at the vitriol that is commonly poured upon the Boy Scouts...


Anonymous said...

I've never believed the claim that US citizens give more privately than the citizens of other nations. For example, consider this. It shows Norway giving nearly 5x as much per capita privately and more than 6x publicly. Ireland, which has nowhere near our per-capita GDP, also exceeds the US in both categories. As you point out, many defenders of capitalism (usually but incorrectly used to refer only to the laissez-faire kind) cannot appeal to any kind of communal responsibility. The "magical fountain of private charity" is a great way to salve consciences, but I don't think any but the most ardent really believe in it.

Frank said...

As far as I know, if you include donations to religious institutions (churches), the US is first, if not, the US is not (can't dig up a source right now). Since churches do use the money for projects to help the poor, the homeless, etc, it's reasonable to include this way of giving. Still, it is an interesting nuance to bring to the discussion, I think.

Anonymous said...

What fraction of church donations go to help the poor etc.? You're right that it would be unfair not to include those donations at all, but it would be equally unfair to credit 100% or not to count the same figures for other countries. I suspect that after those adjustments were made the picture would look much the same. Americans might not be the most miserly people in the world, but they're also far from the most generous.

Anonymous said...

In my experience, churches are often used to launder gifts so that they are tax deductible.

Mastiff said...

All right; setting aside the question of U.S. vs. everybody else, it is still rather interesting to see which states within the U.S. are most generous. Methodological issues disappear at this level, I think.

And in any event, I'm not trying to say that we give enough charity; I want to see a whole lot more, but given freely to whomever the giver chooses to give. That requires something of a cultural shift at this point.

Shakespeare's Sister said...

Hi, Mastiff. I'm from the other side of the aisle, and came here by way of Ezra....

I thought this piece was quite interesting and enjoyed reading it; I have just one comment for your consideration, in reference to the following:

Americans used to be motivated chiefly by a sense of virtue based on "Love your neighbor." That is, your first duty was to care for those closest to you, your family and your community. This led to a vibrant communal life, in which concerned citizens would care for each other and do what needed doing in the community, because that was what being a good person meant.

To the extent that this was true and has changed, the suggestion that it's attributable to being "encouraged to care for Humanity in the abstract" is not really accurate; the adoption of a global concern was a response to the social trends that led Americans away from their homes in ever greater numbers and into neighborhoods designed around commuting and convenience (suburbia). The organically grown communities observed by de Tocqueville don't really exist anymore. Our economy has changed radically since then, and the way we view work. People are more likely to move than stay in the same place their entire lives. The bonds that were once formed over generations are not given the chance to take root the way they once were.

It's not really a conservative or liberal philosophy at work (or even religious versus secular; over the same period, many churches have redirected funds toward international missionary programs that were once dedicated toward local programs). We've all looked outward toward a bigger picture in some way or another.

Mastiff said...

Granted, Sister. If you read my previous post on my professor, you'll see that we don't really see eye-to-eye on a few things, and he does have a tendency of conflating a number of different causes into one semi-malicious Cause.

I'm glad you enjoyed the post. Stick around, maybe you'll see something else you like :-)

Michael Jones said...

Very interesting post.

A broader enlightened self-interest can and should be marketed as a positive alternative to state involvement. It is harder than it sounds, however.

One compelling reason for state participation in social services is because it is cost-effective to amortize the cost of a necessary component of civil society over the entire population vs. only those who choose to participate.

Consider it as an extension of the tragedy of the commons: for lack of a better term, the "I gave at the office" fallacy. I know people who give $500 to the United Way and feel not only that their enlightened self-interest needs are met, but that it gives them moral ground to attack tax revenue expenditures on similar projects.

It'd be more convincing if the books balanced.

Hypothetical example: if 10% of the population giving $500 goes only 1/4 of the way towards a non-governmental charity's goals to resolve a basic need of decent civil society, it's an ineffectual solution by definition. While the altruism is appreciated, it's simply not enough, and does not excuse washing one's hands of the problem.

Now, there are market-based solutions here: if 40% of the population gave $500, or the 10% already giving gave $2000, the charity's goals would be addressed. Unfortunately, either can be a tough sell in practice.

This is usually where state intervention pops up, and for good reason.

The troglodytes' (great descriptor, BTW) arguement of course is that these needs are best left unmet.

We unwittingly experimented with this in Ontario. The Conservative government cut taxes, gutted expenditures, and transferred many responsiblities down to municipalities.

The effects on basic civil infrastructure were negative and in cases catastrophic: most dramatically at Walkerton, where a 66% cut in the Ministry of the Environment budget led to gutting of professional water quality testing and, due to the idiocy and laziness of the new undertrained and undersupervised local management, an e.coli outbreak that killed seven and left 2300 ill.

Here in Toronto, we now has a visible homeless problem after the gutting of welfare, social housing and mental health budgets, and parks, education and transit infrastructures are in visible decline.

All for a provincial income tax cut - which, in the case of the working poor and lower middle class, was reabsorbed by increases in user fees and municipal property taxes to pay for notably poorer services.

Enlightened self-interest compels the existence of a strong civil society. Someone has to pay for it.

If this emerges solely from private charitable efforts, great - this should be encouraged.

But when private charity falls short, government must foot the bill, because a 1/4 solution isn't sufficient.

Anonymous Person said...

You know, this is the exact debate that's currently happening in the software industry. Open source software is created by the community and given away. Bill Gates likens it to communism but in reality it leads to standards and transparency and ultimately more market freedom.

Anonymous said...

You might find the book The Voluntary City interesting, it talks about communities handling duties that we normally think of as being governmental.

- Patri Friedman

Anonymous said...

All right; setting aside the question of U.S. vs. everybody else, it is still rather interesting to see which states within the U.S. are most generous. Methodological issues disappear at this level, I think.

no, they don't. not at all, and, in fact, quite the contrary.

the state-by-state data is derived from tax returns, which include church donations as charitable donations. nearly all the states at the top of the list are Bible Belt states, which are pumping tons and tons of money into the coffers of tax-exempt religious/political organizations like the Christian Coalition and into huge megachurches through tithes and other such forms of giving.

the list is basically a reflection of which poor states are getting fleeced the most by opportunistic televangelists. hardly helpful at all.

- dizfactor (brendan)

Anonymous said...

Where in the text, did Tocqueville cite the Americans as clearing a fallen tree? I am writing a paper on the topic.