Forum Final Response
December 1, 1998
With Responses From
Dec 1, 1998
7 Min read time
Reciprocity and distributive justice.
Some analysts trace the problems of the welfare state to waning public altruism and ascendant self-interest. We disagree with this diagnosis. Rather, two other basic motives--strong reciprocity and basic needs generosity--underlie the public's assessment of the welfare state. By "strong reciprocity" we mean a propensity to share and cooperate with others similarly disposed, even at personal cost, and a willingness to punish those who violate these norms, also at personal cost. By "basic needs generosity" we mean a virtually unconditional willingness to share with others and assure them some means of subsistence. Strong reciprocity is an important source of hostility to current welfare programs, but it can--along with basic needs generosity--also provide support to a more just society. Whatever we may think of these motives, they are prevalent and powerful. So analysts and activists who are concerned with alternatives to the welfare state that are just and politically viable--need to pay attention to them.
That is what we said. Some of our readers thought we said something else; otherswished we had said something else; and many raised important questions about and challenges to our analysis. Here, we respond to five such questions and challenges.
First, we need to clarify the relationship between strong reciprocity and distributive justice. Strong reciprocity is not a determinate moral principle. It is a broad psychological predisposition that does not entail any particular view of fairness, and can even accommodate social practices that many readers would consider repugnant or immoral. We mentioned revenge; Nancy Folbre adds sexism. Rather than being a moral principle, strong reciprocity is a major terrain on which the battle over distributive ethics and welfare politics is fought. Generally speaking, reciprocity is about responding "in kind"; the fight is about what "in kind" means.
Winning the battle for an egalitarian reciprocity, in Stuart White's felicitous words, requires addressing the meaning of reciprocity in the relevant contexts. In many contemporary situations, as the experiments we cited show, 50-50 splits have normative salience. This experimental result is testimony to past egalitarian victories that stripped away the race, age, gender, and other characteristics of individuals as, in most cases, morally arbitrary and hence irrelevant: treating others in kind now often means treating them as equals. It does not bear on whether 50-50 is fair; that is a different question which we have not addressed here.
Strong reciprocity and basic needs generosity are elements of how people think, feel, and act concerning issues of redistribution. They are not answers to questions philosophers ask about distributive justice. White and Philippe Van Parijs want us to say what kind of welfare state we think would be just. But our essay is directed to a different issue, namely, the requirements of a politically viable system of egalitarian redistribution. Our own reasons for supporting redistribution are not at issue here. Rather, we would ask White, and particularly Van Parijs, if their favored concepts of justice can help to mobilize and sustain political support for redistribution in a public committed to strong reciprocity and basic needs generosity? And how might these ideals be advocated in terms that would evoke rather than offend these inclinations?
Second, some readers wondered if Homo reciprocans might be a superfluous concept, with Homo economicus--perhaps a kinder and gentler or more far sighted one--adequately doing the job (Robert Haveman), or perhaps old hat to everyone except economists (Kristen Monroe). We sympathize with their resistance to reinventing the wheel, but think that Homo reciprocans' penchant for engaging in individually costly enforcement of socially beneficial norms warrants a special name. Sociality and generosity are indeed widely documented and (outside of economics classrooms) hardly controversial human behaviors, but the norm-enforcing aspects of Homo reciprocans are distinct, and (here we agree entirely with David Sloan Wilson and his co-author Elliot Sober) important in understanding both human evolution and contemporary opportunities. We are also pleased that Kevin McCabe and Vernon Smith, who are among the foremost experimentalists in the world in dealing with these issues, agree with our interpretation, including the fact that strong reciprocity increases cooperation when cooperators are permitted to associated preferentially with one another. The point is that Homo reciprocans neither obeys enlightened long-run self-interest, nor simply has warm feelings towards helping others. Whether strong reciprocity is implicated in the upsurge of anti-welfare feeling is not easy to test empirically, and we would agree, in response to Haveman, that we have not produced the smoking gun.
Martin Gilens, while recognizing the distinctive norm-enforcing aspect of Homo reciprocans, points out that there is little evidence of a desire to punish the poor. But this does not bear on the apparently widespread impetus to punish behaviorsregarded as violations of norms. Note that forgiving behaviors account for the evolutionary success of tit-for-tat in Axelrod's experiments--"bear a grudge forever" is not a winning strategy, as it locks you into endless and costly recriminations. The widespread support for second and third chances for those who have fallen on hard times--"even those who wasted their wealth in wicked and foolish ways," echoing Juan Luis Vives in 1526--may reflect just this kind of generalized forgiveness.
Third, while we agree with McCabe and Smith about the facts concerning reciprocity motives, we find no merit in their view that "the alleviation of poverty should be none of the government's business" (along with health and schooling). Alleviating poverty is a form of social insurance for which there are no private markets (you can buy insurance on your life or property, but not your future income). Moreover, the absence of poverty is a public good, like environmental quality or public safety, the provision of which through private markets is bound to be insufficient. Voters have strong preferences to live in a society which protects all of its members against dire poverty, and these preferences simply cannot be implemented by private acts of charity. Still, we agree with McCabe and Smith that governments could be much more inventive in subjecting their own actions to more stringent tests of accountability to the public's heterogeneous preferences.
Fourth, some read us to say that strong reciprocity is a genetically transmitted attribute of human nature, and object to our endorsement of sociobiological reasoning. We suspect that some of the opposition to sociobiological insights stems from misconceptions about the current state of research in the field, as for example may underlie Ruy Teixeira's caution concerning the scientific status of group selection. Wilson and Sober's book Unto Others provides a welcome corrective. While genetic inheritance clearly underpins many human behaviors, and we think it likely that some aspects of strong reciprocity are among them, nothing hinges on the precise role of genetic and cultural transmission in the process. What matters, as Steve Teles says, is that reciprocity is "an enormously pliable concept. What counts as "service" to the larger society changes dramatically over time, in response to changing ideas, arguments, and social conditions." On the other hand the concept is not infinitely flexible. Lack of concern for the poor is out; full time year-round workers earning less than poverty incomes is also not acceptable; and neither--to quote Van Parijs' famous advocacy of an unconditional grant--is the idea that "surfers should be fed." The debate is thus not so much about whether people wish to be generous or reciprocating, but rather about what generosity and reciprocity require.
Finally, Susan Mayer and Van Parijs provide a thoughtful and deep challenge to our position: reciprocity may be the basis of mutual monitoring and sharing among the members of a community; but the parochialism of small groups makes them poor vehicles for redistribution, and reliance on solidaristic motivations may well promote insider-outsider distinctions that heighten social division and threaten the dignity and freedom of members of less influential communities.
Van Parijs is right to insist on the "fight to expand the relevant community, to subject larger numbers and greater varieties of people to the obligations of a common solidarity." But while we are not ready to dismiss the fear of Mayer, Van Parijs, Steven Durlauf and others that the language of reciprocity necessarily draws on a parochialism that contradicts the "we are the world" impetus for a non-exclusive solidarity, we note that the many battles for the ever-expanding concept of liberal rights since the seventeenth century successfully invoked just this language. Moreover, real politics-- even the most radical--necessarily works on the discursive raw material at hand. We suspect that Durlauf and Van Parijs would be rather more optimistic than we are about the capacity of moral suasion to fundamentally alter public sentiments on issues of redistribution.
In reporting behaviors and motives, suggesting that they are difficult to change, and urging that they be taken seriously, even if only as a political constraint, one may appear to endorse them as ethical principles. But we intend no such endorsement. Thus we reject Nancy Folbre's claim that we "legitimate the commonplace assertion that welfare mothers are not among the deserving poor." Nor did we refer to the "bad behavior" of out of wedlock mothers: we said that it is "socially disapproved," which it is.
While we have you...
...we need your help. You might have noticed the absence of paywalls at Boston Review. We are committed to staying free for all our readers. Now we are going one step further to become completely ad-free. This means you will always be able to read us without roadblocks or barriers to entry. It also means that we count on you, our readers, for support. If you like what you read here, help us keep it free for everyone by making a donation. No amount is too small. You will be helping us cultivate a public sphere that honors pluralism of thought for a diverse and discerning public.
December 01, 1998
7 Min read time