Is Equality Passé?
The welfare state is in trouble not because selfishness is rampant (it is not), but because many egalitarian programs no longer evoke deeply held notions of fairness.
December 1, 1998
Dec 1, 1998
38 Min read time
The welfare state is in trouble not because selfishness is rampant (it is not), but because many egalitarian programs no longer evoke deeply held notions of fairness.
This article is part of “Is Equality in our Nature?” a forum on egalitarian politics.
A man ought to be a friend to his friends and repay gift with gift. People should meet smiles with smiles, and lies with treachery.
—The Edda, a thirteenth-century collection of Norse epic verse
Is equality passé? We think not. The welfare state is in trouble not because selfishness is rampant (it is not), but because many egalitarian programs no longer evoke, and sometimes now offend, deeply held notions of fairness—notions that encompass both reciprocity and generosity but that stop far short of unconditional altruism towards the less well-off. Recasting egalitarianism to tap these sentiments should be high on the agenda of those who worry about the human toll being taken by poverty, inequality, and insecurity in the United States and in the world.
The US public remains deeply committed to helping those in need. A 1991 ABC/Washington Post poll found that twice as many people were “willing to pay higher taxes” to “reduce poverty” as were opposed. In 1995, 61 percent expressed willingness to pay more taxes to “provide job training and public service jobs for people on welfare so that they can get off welfare.” Almost three quarters of those surveyed by Time in 1991 agreed (more than half of them “completely”) with the statement: “The government should guarantee every citizen enough to eat and a place to sleep.”
Many also think, however, that policies to pursue these objectives are either ineffective or unfair. In a 1995 CBS/New York Times survey, for example, 89 percent supported a mandated work requirement for those on welfare. It is thus not surprising that egalitarian programs have been cut even in the face of increases in measured inequality of before-tax and-transfer income. For the most part voters have responded to the cuts with approval rather than resistance.
Egalitarians now defend their programs on moral and empirical grounds that many people, even among the less well-off, find uncompelling. In the face of a hostile public, some egalitarians have soured on what they consider to be a selfish electorate that identifies with materialistic middle-class values and is indifferent to the plight of the less fortunate.
We believe this pessimism is fundamentally misdirected. It misunderstands the opposition to egalitarian programs and the powerful sentiments behind it. It is not self interest that opposes the welfare state, nor unconditional generosity that supports it. We will show that there is a solid foundation for cooperation and sharing in two basic human motives—we call them strong reciprocity and basic needs generosity. Moreover, we argue that hostility to contemporary forms of egalitarianism is evidence for, not against, that deep foundation, and that new egalitarian initiatives are fully compatible with it.
Understanding the predicament of egalitarian politics today thus requires a reconsideration of Homo economicus, the unremittingly selfish prototype whose asocial propensities have provided the starting point for deliberations on constitutions and policies from Thomas Hobbes to current debates on welfare reform. We do not wish to replace this textbook figure, however, with a cardboard-cutout altruist, an equally one-dimensional actor willing to make contributions to others no matter the personal cost. While such motives may seem admirable to some, we doubt that unconditional altruism can explain the success of the welfare state, nor its absence explain our current malaise. In experiments and surveys people are not stingy, but their generosity is conditional. Moreover, they distinguish among the goods and services to be distributed, favoring those which meet basic needs, and among the recipients themselves, favoring those thought to be “deserving.” Strong reciprocity and basic needs generosity better explain the motivations that undergird egalitarian politics than does unconditional altruism. By “strong reciprocity” we mean a propensity to cooperate and share with others similarly disposed, and a willingness to punish those who violate cooperative and other social norms—even when such sharing and punishing is personally costly. We call a person who acts this way Homo reciprocans. Homo reciprocans cares about the well-being of others and about the processes determining outcomes—whether they are fair, for example, or violate a social norm. He differs in this from the self-regarding and outcome-oriented Homo economicus. We see Homo reciprocans at work in Chicago's neighborhoods, in a recent study that documented a widespread willingness to intervene with co-residents to discourage truancy, public disorders, and antisocial behaviors, as well as the dramatic impact of this “collective efficacy” on community safety and amenities.
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. But, as we will see, in the absence of specific counter-claims, modern forms of reciprocity often take equal division as a reference point.
We do not wish to banish Homo economicus, however. The evidence we introduce shows that a substantial proportion of individuals consistently follow self-regarding precepts. Moreover most individuals appear to draw upon a repertoire of contrasting behaviors: whether one acts selfishly or generously depends as much on the situation as the person. The fact that Homo economicus is alive and well (if often in the minority) is good news, not bad, as people often rely on asocial individualism to undermine socially harmful forms of collusion ranging from price-fixing to ethnic violence. Pure altruists also doubtless exist and make important contributions to social life. In short, egalitarian policy-making, no less than the grand projects of constitutional design, risk irrelevance if they ignore the irreducible heterogeneity of human motivations. The problem of institutional design is not, as the classical economists thought, that selfish individuals be induced to interact in ways producing desirable aggregate outcomes, but rather that a mix of motives—selfish, reciprocal, altruistic and spiteful—interact in ways that prevent the selfish from exploiting the generous and hence unraveling cooperation when it is beneficial.
People are unselfish in seeking to punish, often at great cost to themselves, those who have done harm to them and others.
The strong reciprocity of Homo reciprocans goes considerably beyond the outcome-oriented motives that define Homo economicus. We call these self-interested forms of cooperation “weak reciprocity.” Examples include market exchange and cooperation enforced by “tit-for-tat” behavior—what biologists call “reciprocal altruism.” Such actions are costly to the giver but still self-interested because they involve the expectation of future repayment. Strong reciprocity, like the biologists’ concept of altruism, imposes costs on Homo reciprocans without prospect of repayment. Yet unlike the vernacular usage of “altruism,” it is neither unconditional nor necessarily motivated by good will towards the recipient.
Students of cultural and biological evolution have long wondered how individually costly but socially beneficial traits such as altruism might evolve in competition with genetically and economically rewarded selfish traits. Like altruism toward strangers, strong reciprocity thus represents an evolutionary puzzle, one that we will seek to unravel. But first we will show that Homo reciprocans is indeed among the actors on today's political stage, and most likely has been for the last hundred thousand years.
The Legacy of 100,000 Years of Sharing
Aside from unconditional altruism, there are two distinct reasons why people might support egalitarian policies. First, many egalitarian programs are forms of social insurance that will be supported even by those who believe they will pay in more than their expected claims over a lifetime. Consider unemployment, health insurance, or other social programs that soften the blows during the rocky periods that people experience in the course of their lives. Even the securely rich support ameliorating the conditions of the poor on prudential, that-might-happen-to-me grounds. Assuming people are broadly prudent and risk-averse, then the insurance motive is consistent with conventional notions of self-interest. The second reason for supporting egalitarian programs, in contrast, is not fundamentally self-regarding: egalitarianism is often based on a commitment to what we are calling “strong reciprocity.” It is little surprise that people are more generous than economics textbooks allow; more remarkable is that they are equally unselfish in seeking to punish, often at great cost to themselves, those who have done harm to them and others. Programs designed to tap these other-regarding motives may succeed where others that offend underlying motivational structures have been abandoned.
Both historical and contemporary experimental evidence support this position. Consider first the historical evidence. In his Injustice: The Social Bases of Obedience and Revolt, Barrington Moore, Jr. sought to discern if there might be common motivations—“general conceptions of unfair and unjust behavior”—for the moral outrage fueling struggles for justice throughout human history. “There are grounds,” he concludes,
for suspecting that the welter of moral codes may conceal a certain unity of original form . . . a general ground plan, a conception of what social relationships ought to be. It is a conception that by no means excludes hierarchy and authority, where exceptional qualities and defects can be the source of enormous admiration and awe. At the same time, it is one where services and favors, trust and affection, in the course of mutual exchanges, are ideally expected to find some rough balancing out.
Moore termed the general ground plan he uncovered “the concept of reciprocity—or better, mutual obligation, a term that does not imply equality of burdens or obligations.” In like manner, James Scott analyzed agrarian revolts, identifying violations of the “norm of reciprocity” as one the essential triggers of insurrectionary motivations.
One is tempted to consider strong reciprocity a late arrival in social evolution, possibly one whose provenance is to be found in Enlightenment individualism, or later in the era of liberal democratic or socialist societies. But this account does not square with overwhelming evidence of the distant etiology of strong reciprocity. The primatologist Christopher Boehm finds that:
with the advent of anatomically modern humans who continued to live in small groups and had not yet domesticated plants and animals, it is very likely that all human societies practiced egalitarian behavior and that most of the time they did so very successfully. One main conclusion, then, is that intentional leveling linked to an egalitarian ethos is an immediate and probably an extremely widespread cause of human societies' failing to develop authoritative or coercive leadership.
And anthropologist Bruce Knauft adds:
In all ethnographically known simple societies, cooperative sharing of provisions is extended to mates, offspring, and many others within the band. . . . Archeological evidence suggests that widespread networks facilitating diffuse access to and transfer of resources and information have been pronounced at least since the Upper Paleolithic . . . The strong internalization of a sharing ethic is in many respects the sine qua non of culture in these societies.
Far from being a mere moment in the history of anatomically modern humans, the period described by Knauft and Boehm emerges roughly 100,000 years before the present and extends to the advent and spread of agriculture 12,000 years ago. In short, it spans perhaps 90 percent of the time we have existed on the planet.
One group of contemporary foragers, the Aché of Eastern Paraguay, has been particularly closely studied, with close attention to the amounts and nutritional values of food acquired and consumed by members of the group. Sharing is so widespread, researchers have found, that on average three-quarters of what anyone eats is acquired by someone outside the consumer's nuclear family; even more remarkable, in the case of meat and honey (the main goods foraged by men):
women, children and adult siblings of the acquirer receive no more . . . from their husbands, fathers and brothers respectively than would be expected by chance, and men eat from their own kills a good deal less than would be expected by chance.
The Aché are probably unusually egalitarian, and there is evidence that hunting prowess is rewarded, if not with more food, then with enhanced social esteem and increased mating success. Nevertheless it is typical in foraging societies that families with less successful hunters, and indeed those unable to hunt, are nonetheless adequately provisioned by the group.
The resulting egalitarian distribution of resources is not simply a byproduct of ecological or other constraints; it is deliberately sought. Using data from forty-eight simple societies, Christopher Boehm concluded that they “may be considered to be intentional communities, groups of people that make up their minds about the amount of hierarchy they wish to live with and then see to it that the program is followed.” He found evidence that potentially arrogant members of the group were constrained by public opinion, criticism and ridicule, disobedience, ostracism and assassination.
It seems likely then, that “politically assertive egalitarianism” has characterized most of human history. 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—have cropped up in human history with such regularity and under such diverse circumstances that one is tempted to place them among what Talcott Parsons called “evolutionary universals”: social institutions that confer such extensive benefits upon their users that they regularly reappear in the course of history in otherwise diverse societies.
In The Great Transformation, Karl Polanyi described nineteenth-century reactions to the human costs of laissez-faire capitalism. Polanyi's classic 1944 account, which records the eventual emergence of modern protections from the vicissitudes of the market, as well as the sharing of the national product, is just one of thousands of cases of such institutions emerging independently. The evolutionary viability of sharing institutions and the motivations that support them cautions us against the view that egalitarianism is an idea whose time has passed.
Our suggestion that these distantly originating dispositions may be important influences on contemporary conduct is not an ethical endorsement of them or the societies from which they originated—indeed some of the baser human motives, such as the desire for revenge, are examples of strong reciprocity. Rather it is a hypothesis that if true has significant bearing on present day egalitarianism, because it can help us understand the pattern of public approval and disapproval of welfare state initiatives. Is it true?
An impressive body of experimental evidence, much of it deployed in the first instance to validate that model of the selfish purveyor of market rationality, Homo economicus, has in fact served to undermine this model and suggest a new persona. A convenient starting point in tracing the birth of Homo reciprocans is a tournament involving differing strategies of the play in the “prisoner's dilemma” game undertaken two decades ago by Robert Axelrod at the University of Michigan. The prisoner's dilemma requires each of two players to choose simultaneously one of two actions, “cooperate” or “defect.” The way the payoffs work is that both players do better by cooperating than defecting, but whatever one player does, the other player does better by defecting. For example, the payoff to mutual cooperation is 10 for each, the payoff to mutual defecting is 5 for each, but the payoff to defecting when the other player cooperates is 15 for the defector and 0 for the cooperator. The iterated prisoner's dilemma is simply repeated play of the game with “winners” being those with high cumulative scores over however many rounds are played.
Strong reciprocity coexists with simple generosity and compassion in many, perhaps most people.
Axelrod asked a number of game theorists, economists, political scientists, sociologists, and psychologists to submit computer programs giving complete strategies for playing the game successive rounds of which were repeated with the same partner. Each program was pitted against every other program, as well as itself and a program that randomly chose to cooperate and defect. Surprisingly, the winner among the fourteen strategies submitted was the simplest, called “tit-for-tat” (submitted by game theorist Anatol Rappoport). Tit-for-tat cooperates on the first round, and then does whatever its partner did on the previous round.
Following up on this result, Axelrod held a second tournament in which a larger number of participants, including the original contributors, were told of the success of tit-for-tat and asked to submit another program for playing the iterated prisoner's dilemma. Knowing that tit-for-tat was the strategy to beat did not help the players: once again Rappoport submitted tit-for-tat, and once again, it won.
Speculating on the strong showing of tit-for-tat, Axelrod noted that this strategy for cooperation has three attributes that are essential for successful cooperation. The first is that tit-for-tat is nice: it begins by cooperating, and it is never the first to defect. Second, tit-for-tat is punishing: it retaliates relentlessly once the other party defects. Finally, tit-for-tat is forgiving: as soon as a defecting partner returns to cooperating, tit-for-tat does the same.
Homo economicus would readily embrace tit-for-tat, of course, at least if there were enough other tit-for-tatters around and a reasonable chance of interacting repeatedly with the same person. Under these conditions tit-for-tat will be the self-interested strategy to follow, and thus is an example of reciprocal altruism rather than strong reciprocity. But for reasons that will become clear immediately, we think that the ubiquity of tit-for-tat sentiments among people (rather than computer programs) is more aptly explained by strong reciprocity motives that violate the tenets of economic man.
Many researchers have conducted experiments with human subjects involving the iterated prisoner's dilemma. If Axelrod's tournaments showed that nice guys finish first, the experiments reveal that there are lots of nice guys, even among the economics majors who show up for experimental games.
The simplest, but still quite revealing, laboratory experiment is the “dictator game,” in which one of two players, the “proposer,” is given a sum of money (typically $10), is asked to give some part to the second player (the two players are mutually anonymous), and permitted to keep the rest. Homo economicus gives nothing in this situation, whereas in actual experimental situations, a majority of proposers give positive amounts, typically ranging from 20 percent to 60 percent of the total.
The commonly observed rejection of substantial positive offers in what are called ultimatum games is our second piece of experimental evidence. The general structure of the ultimatum game is simple: one subject is the responder, the other the proposer. The proposer is provisionally awarded an amount (“the pie”—typically $10) to be divided between proposer and responder. The proposer offers a certain portion of the pie to the responder. If the responder accepts, the responder gets the proposed portion, and the proposer keeps the rest. If the responder rejects the offer both get nothing. In experiments conducted in the United States, Slovakia, Japan, Israel, Slovenia, Germany, Russia, and Indonesia, the vast majority of proposers offer between 40 percent and 50 percent of the pie, and offers lower than 30 percent of the pie are often rejected. These results have occurred in experiments with stakes as high as three months’ earnings.
When asked why they offer more than one cent, proposers commonly say that they are afraid that respondents will consider low offers unfair and reject them as a way to punish proposer's unwillingness to share. When respondents reject offers, they give virtually the same reasons for their actions. The proposers' actions might be explained by selfishness but the respondents' cannot. Because these behaviors occur in single-shot interactions and on the last round of multi-round interactions, they cannot be accounted for by the responder's attempt to modify subsequent behavior of the proposer. Punishment per se is the most likely motive. As evidence for this interpretation, we note that responders are much less likely to reject when the game is altered so that rejection does not punish the proposer. Moreover the fact that offers generated by a computer rather than another person are significantly less likely to be rejected suggests that people rejecting low offers at a cost to themselves are reacting to violations of fairness norms, rather than simply rejecting disadvantageous offers. Thus the ultimatum game experiments provide evidence for our view that strong reciprocity is a common motivation.
More directly analogous to strong reciprocity in groups, however, are findings in what are called n-player public goods experiments. The following is a common variant. Ten players are given $1 in each of ten rounds. On each round, each player can contribute any portion of the $1 (anonymously) to a “common pool.” The experimenter divides the amount in the common pool by two, and gives each player that much money. If all ten players are cooperative, on each round each puts $1 in the pool, the experimenter divides the $10 in the pool by two, and gives each player $5. After ten rounds of this, each subject has $50. By being selfish, however, each player can do better as long as the others are cooperating. By keeping the $1, the player ends up with “his” $10, plus receives $45 as his share of the pool, for a total of $55. If everyone is selfish, however, then no one gives to the pool, and each receives only $10. Thus this is an iterated prisoner's dilemma in which self-regarding players contribute nothing.
In such experiments, however, only a small fraction of players contribute nothing to the common pool. Rather, in the early stages of the game, people generally contribute half their money to the pool. In the later stages of the game, contributions decay until at the end, they are contributing very little. Proponents of the Homo economicus model initially suggested that public contributions decay because participants really do not understand the game at first; as they begin to learn it, they realize the superiority of the free-riding strategy. But considerable evidence undermines this interpretation. For instance, the economist James Andreoni has found that when the whole process is repeated with the same subjects, the initial levels of cooperation are restored, but once again cooperation decays as the game progresses.
Andreoni suggests a Homo reciprocans explanation for the decay of cooperation: public-spirited contributors want to retaliate against free-riders and the only way available to them in the game is by not contributing themselves. Indeed, if players are permitted to retaliate directly against non-contributors, but at a cost to themselves, they do so. In this situation, contributions rise in subsequent rounds to near the maximal level. Punishment levels are undiminished in the final rounds, suggesting that disciplining norm violators is an end in itself and hence will be exhibited even when there is no prospect of modifying the subsequent behavior of the shirker or potential future shirkers.
Such experiments show that agents are willing to incur a cost to punish those whom they perceive to have treated them, or a group to which they belong, badly. In everyday life, we see people consumed with the desire for revenge against those who have harmed them or their families, even where no material gain can be expected.
Moreover, strong reciprocity coexists with simple generosity and compassion in many, perhaps most people. Evidence for this comes not only from dictator games, as we have seen, but also from an ingenious set of experiments devised by political scientists Joe Oppenheimer and Norm Frohlich. Twenty-eight groups of subjects engaged in individual work tasks and decided on a principle of redistribution within the group of the rewards associated with successful performance. The stakes were real: at the end, the experimenters distributed cash rewards to the subjects according to their productivity and the rules of redistribution selected by the group. Because the subjects decided on the redistribution rule before knowing how well they would perform on the task, the experiment would seem to elicit the subjects' abstract notions of just reward—a kind of experimental instance of the Rawlsian veil of ignorance.
Experiments show a powerful concept of fairness or sharing—the notion that there should be a rough balance of rights and obligations in social exchange.
By far the most popular principle of distribution was to grant a minimal floor to every member of the group irrespective of individual productivity. Subjects elected to finance the floor by taxing the individual earnings of the more productive members. High levels of support for the floor principle were expressed by the high productivity (and hence highly taxed) members, and their level of satisfaction with the floor principle increased with repeated play. Of course the rules selected by the group reflect reciprocity as well as generosity, as the principle of individual reward proportional to productivity was only modified, not annulled by the tax. When these rules were imposed on the groups by the experimenters rather than chosen by the groups, the floor principle remained popular, but less so.
These results show clearly that people are not generally the self-interested actors of traditional economics, since they value treating others fairly, and will incur personal costs to do so. Nor are people the unconditional altruists of utopian thought, since they want to hurt free-riders and other norm-violators. These experiments also show that strong reciprocity is not simply a mechanism for norm-enforcement, but also often includes a powerful concept of fairness or sharing—the notion that all else equal, there should be a rough balance of rights and obligations in social exchange. Proposers in the dictator game treat sharing as a good in itself, and respondents in the ultimatum game retaliate not against the violation of norms in the abstract, but against norms of equal sharing in particular.
A further remarkable aspect of these experiments—and one very germane to our concern with egalitarian policy—is the degree to which behaviors are affected by the experimentally contrived social relationship between players. Communication among participants prior to the game, or experimental conditions that reduce the subjective “social distance” among participants, lead to higher and more sustained levels of generosity and cooperation. For example, fraternity brothers at UCLA were asked to rank outcomes in a prisoner's dilemma situation given that they were interacting with a fellow fraternity brother, a member of another (unnamed) fraternity, a non-fraternity student at UCLA, a student from USC and an officer from the UCLA Police Department. They showed a strong preference for mutual cooperation over defection against one's partner when playing with fraternity brothers, with the rankings reversing with increasing social distance—they were as willing to exploit the USC students as the UCLA police!
People also care about who they give to: one study found that proposers in a dictator game gave more when the recipient was “the Red Cross” rather than another experimental subject. Finally, when the right to be proposer in the ultimatum game is earned by being a winner in a trivia quiz rather than by lot, proposers offered less, and respondents accepted lower offers. It appears that minor shifts in the social context of interactions may support significant behavioral differences. In all the experiments a significant fraction of subjects (about a quarter, typically) conform to the self-interested preferences of Homo economicus, and it is often the self-serving behavior of this minority that, when it goes unpunished, unravels initial generosity and cooperation. These experiments also indicate that strong reciprocity spans all the societies studied, though in somewhat varying strength and content.
Five generalizations sum up the relevance of these experiments to the problem of designing and sustaining programs to promote economic security and eliminate poverty. First, people exhibit significant levels of generosity, even towards strangers. Second, people share more of what they acquire by chance rather than by personal effort. Third, people contribute to public goods and cooperate in collective endeavors, and consider it unfair to free-ride on the contributions and efforts of others. Fourth, people punish free riders at substantial costs to themselves, even when they cannot reasonably expect future personal gain from doing so.
It would not be difficult to design a system of income security and economic opportunity that would tap rather than offend the motivations expressed in these first four generalizations. 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.
The fifth, however, is more troublesome: each of these aspects of reciprocity becomes more salient when the social distance participants perceive among themselves is smaller. This last generalization may help explain why inequalities are so readily sustained even among apparently generous publics. Economic inequality—particularly when overlaid with racial, ethnic, language, and other differences—increases social distance, which in turn undermines the motivational basis for reaching out to those in need. Indeed, surveys consistently reveal that the support for those in need is stronger in societies whose before-tax and -transfer incomes are more equal.
Experimental evidence, casual observation of everyday life, ethnographic and paleoanthropological accounts of hunter-gatherer foraging bands from the late paleolithic to the present, and historical narratives of collective struggles—these have combined to convince us that strong reciprocity is a powerful and ubiquitous motive. But we hesitate to replace Homo economicus with Homo reciprocans until we have addressed the evolutionary puzzle posed at the outset. In short, we are more prone to believe (and to generalize from) the experimental and historical evidence we have introduced if we can explain how strong reciprocity motives might have evolved despite their costs to those bearing them.
We have elaborated our attempt to resolve this puzzle in a recent technical paper and we are continuing to explore the issue with a research team of experimentalists, ethnographers, and others. Our reasoning is that strong reciprocity supports the adherence to norms within groups, and some of these norms—requiring work towards common ends, sharing, and monogamy for example—are beneficial to most group members. Where reciprocity motives embrace the individually costly enforcement of these group-beneficial norms, strong reciprocity may evolve because Homo reciprocans will be disproportionately likely to be in groups that have effective norm adherence, and hence to enjoy the group benefits of these norms. By contrast, where reciprocity motivates the individually costly enforcement of norms that on average confer little benefit on group members, or inflict group costs, of course reciprocity is unlikely to evolve.
Politics is often viewed as a process centered on the question ‘who gets what.’ For ordinary Americans, however, politics is more often about ‘who deserves what.’
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
This model of Homo reciprocans supports our optimism concerning the political viability of egalitarian policies. Like Petr Kropotkin almost a century ago, we find compelling evidence—both evolutionary and contemporary—for the force of human behavioral predispositions to act both generously and reciprocally rather than self-interestedly in many social situations. While most egalitarians have failed to appreciate the practical importance of these predispositions in policy matters, their salience was not missed by the conservative economist and philosopher Frederick Hayek:
[W]anting to do good to known people will not achieve the most for the community, but only the observation of its abstract and seemingly purposeless rules . . . .the long submerged innate instincts have again surged to the top. [The] demand for a just distribution . . . is thus strictly an atavism, based on primordial emotions. And it is these widely prevalent feelings to which prophets, (and) moral philosophers . . . appeal by their plans for the deliberate creation of a new type of society.
But while strong reciprocity may support egalitarianism, it may also help explain the rising tide of opposition to welfare state policies in the advanced market economies in the past decades. Specifically, in light of the experimental regularities outlined above, we suspect the following to be true as well: egalitarian policies that reward people independent of whether and how much they contribute to society are considered unfair and are not supported, even if the intended recipients are otherwise worthy of support, and even if the incidence of non-contribution in the target population is rather low. This would explain the opposition to many welfare measures for the poor, particularly since such measures are thought to have promoted various social pathologies. At the same time it explains the continuing support for social security and medicare in the United States, since the public perception is that the recipients are “deserving” and the policies do not support what are considered anti-social behaviors. The public goods experiments are also consistent with the notion that tax resistance by the nonwealthy may stem from their perception that the well-to-do are not paying their fair share.
These inferences from the experimental evidence find some confirmation in survey and focus group data. Opposition to egalitarian policies does not primarily reflect the selfish interests of the economically secure. Indeed, income and social background are very poor predictors of the degree of one’s support for either particular programs or egalitarianism in general. Of far greater import is one’s views of why the poor are poor, and specifically one’s beliefs about the relative importance of effort rather than luck or other circumstances beyond the control of the individual in explaining individual incomes. In an unpublished paper studying a 1990 sample of the General Social Survey, Christina Fong found that only 18 percent of respondents who cited “lack of effort by the poor themselves” as a reason for poverty thought “too little” was spent on welfare, while 49 percent thought that “too much” was being spent. In contrast, among those who thought that lack of effort was “not important,” 44 percent thought that we were spending too little on welfare, compared to 28 percent for “too much.” Fong found that a belief that effort is important to “getting ahead in life” has a considerably larger impact on opposition to aiding the poor than does one’s income, years of schooling, and parents’ socioeconomic status combined.
Fong’s research confirms earlier studies. In a 1972 sample of white women in Boston, the perceived work ethic of the poor was a far better predictor of support for aid to the poor than one’s family income, religion, education, and a host of other demographic and social background variables. Indeed in predicting support for such aid, the addition of a single variable measuring beliefs about work motivation tripled the explanatory power made possible using all of the background variables.
Consistent with our interpretation of these data, support for anti-poverty expenditures varies with economic conditions. Fong found, for example, that statistically controlling for race, schooling, income, religion and other variables, the self-employed tend to oppose such policies, and that much of their opposition is statistically associated with a belief—no doubt grounded in their experience—that individual effort makes a difference in getting ahead. In his forthcoming Why Americans Hate Welfare, political scientist Martin Gilens notes that during recessions people are less likely to explain poverty by “lack of effort by the poor,” and more likely to support egalitarian programs.
A more striking fact about the decline in the support for the former Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), Food Stamps, and other means-tested social support programs in the United States, however, is 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.
We rely mainly on two studies. The first analyzes 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, then did a national survey, involving half-hour interviews, of 1,000 randomly selected Americans, plus a national oversample 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, 63 percent of respondents thought the welfare system should be eliminated or “fundamentally overhauled” while another 34 percent thought it should be “adjusted somewhat.” Only 3 percent approved of the system as is. Even among respondents from households receiving welfare, only 9 percent expressed basic approval of the system, while 42 percent wanted a fundamental overhaul and an additional 46 percent wanted some adjustments. The cost of welfare programs cannot explain this opposition, even if we take into account popular exaggerations about the share of the Federal budget devoted to welfare. 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 too 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.
The cost, apparently, is not the problem. In focus groups, “participants invariably dismissed arguments about the limited financial costs of welfare in almost derisive terms as irrelevant and beside the point.” Nor can the perception of fraud account for this opposition. It is true that 64 percent of respondents (and 66 percent of respondents on welfare) believe welfare fraud is a serious problem. However most do not consider it more serious than in other government programs, and only 35 percent of survey respondents would be more “comfortable with welfare” if fraud were eliminated.
In commenting on this fact, Martin Gilens observes that “politics is often viewed, by elites at least, as a process centered on the question ‘who gets what.’ For ordinary Americans, however, politics is more often about ‘who deserves what’ and the welfare state is no exception.” In the Public Agenda study, respondents overwhelmingly considered welfare to be unfair to working people and addictive to recipients. By a more than five to one margin (69 percent to 13 percent, and 64 percent to 11 percent for people receiving welfare), respondents say that recipients abuse the system—for instance by not looking for work—rather than actually cheating the system—e.g., by collecting multiple benefits. Moreover, 68 percent object (59 percent of welfare recipients) 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.”
But this is beside the point. Whether or not, welfare causes out of wedlock births, for example, or fosters an unwillingness to work, citizens object that the system provides financial support for those who undertake these socially disapproved behaviors. Their desire is to bear witness against the behavior and to disassociate themselves from it, whether or not their actions can change it.
This then is the moral opposition to welfare. Many objections to the system, and many ethical judgments of the poor, are based on misconceptions, a lack of compassion, and prejudice, fanned by political entrepreneurs of the right. Racial stereotyping and welfare bashing are closely associated. The public agenda survey shows that whites are much more likely than African Americans to attribute negative attributes to welfare recipients, and much more likely to blame an individual’s poverty on lack of effort. But even here reciprocity motives are evident. The survey data show, Gilens writes, that:
For most white Americans, race-based opposition to welfare is not fed by ill-will toward blacks, nor is it based on whites’ desire to maintain their economic advantages over African Americans. Instead race-based opposition to welfare stems from the specific perception that, as a group, African Americans are not committed to the work ethic.
Taking account of the fact that many Americans see the current welfare system as a violation of deeply held reciprocity norms does not oblige us to either agree or disagree with these views. Still less does it require that policy makers adopt punitive measures and stingy budgets for the poor. Indeed the public strongly supports income support measures when asked in ways that make clear the deserving nature of the poor: a 1995 CBS/New York Times poll, for instance, found that twice as many agreed as disagreed that “it is the responsibility of the government to take care of people who can't take care of themselves.”
Like Oppenheimer and Frohlich's 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.
Our argument faces an obvious objection. “Morality is socially determined,” we hear the reader musing, “so why not transform morality to fit the needs of egalitarian policy rather than tailoring policy to existing morality?” Why not promote a public morality of expanded, virtually unconditional altruism towards people left behind by the hypercompetitive, hyperindividualist market system? Why pander to the sometimes punitive expressions of strong reciprocity? Have not radical egalitarians, from nineteenth century abolitionists to contemporary feminists, civil libertarians, and welfare state activists, successfully made consciousness-raising a central part of their political practice? Why, in short, be trapped by the present in designing a future?
Our answer is that while a strong public morality is important in an egalitarian society, the human mind is not a blank slate that is equally disposed to accept whatever moral rules are presented to it by either dominant élites or egalitarian reformers. Rather, people are predisposed to accept some moral rules, others can be imposed upon them with some difficulty, and still others cannot be imposed in any stable manner at all. Egalitarians have been successful in appealing to more elevated human motives precisely when they have shown that dominant institutions violate norms of reciprocity, and may be replaced by institutions more consistent with these norms. Countless other egalitarian initiatives have failed. We believe that basic needs generosity and strong reciprocity are among the norms that people are predisposed to accept. Barrington Moore, Jr., in his comparative study of revolution and revolt cited earlier, expresses this idea in the following words:
[A]wareness of social injustice would be impossible if human beings could be made to accept any and all rules. Evidently there are some constraints on the making of moral rules and therefore on the possible forms of moral outrage.
What accounts for our moral predispositions? The answer is some combination of genes and culture. Though neither is immutable, neither is amenable to arbitrary reconstruction. The cultural and the genetic structures that frame our lives and affect our propensity to accept or reject particular moral principles are products of cultural and biological evolution. Moral principles succeed because they have aided those individuals who have used them and those groups in which they have been prevalent. They may well conform to particular philosophical, political, and/or religious logics, but they persist largely because the individuals and social groups that have deployed these moral principles have prevailed, while others that have not have perished or been assimilated.
This is not to say that cultural change is always conservative and slow-moving, or that public opinion is immune to persuasion: the rise of environmental concerns and feminist values over the past three decades prove otherwise. Rather cultural change, like technical change, is subject to enduring laws and material constraints. Among these regularities is the ease with which people assume the behavior of Homo reciprocans and the unsustainability of egalitarian programs that violate norms of reciprocity.
Many traditional projects of egalitarians, such as land reform and employee ownership of their workplaces, are strongly consistent with reciprocity norms, as they make people the owners not only of the fruits of their labors, but more broadly of the consequences of their actions. The same may be said of more conventional initiatives such as improved educational opportunity and policies to support home ownership—there is good evidence, for example, that home ownership promotes active participation in local politics and a willingness to discipline personally those engaging in antisocial behaviors in the neighborhood. An expansion of subsidies designed to promote employment and increase earnings among the poor would tap powerful reciprocity motives, as has been suggested recently by economist Edmund Phelps and by Robert Haveman. Similarly, social insurance programs might be reformulated along lines suggested by John Roemer in these pages: we would protect individuals from risks over which they have no control, while not indemnifying people against the results of their own choices, other than providing a minimal floor to living standards. In this manner, for example, families could be protected against regional fluctuations in home values—the main form of wealth for most people. Other forms of insurance could partially protect workers from shifts in demand for their services induced by global economic changes.
If we are correct, an egalitarian society can be built on the basis of these and other policies consistent with strong reciprocity, along with a guarantee of an acceptable minimal living standard consistent with the widely documented motives of basic needs generosity.
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December 01, 1998
38 Min read time