Reciprocation and the erosion of fairness in the welfare state

In the US Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis have a long running project on the evolution of cooperation, reciprocation and altruistic behaviour and contemporary attitudes towards welfare. In the early years of the new millennium the authors argued convincingly that dissatisfaction with the welfare system in the US was not due to selfishness or lack of desire to help poor people, but because many welfare programs violated deeply-held notions of fairness.

That view was held by many welfare-recipients who realised that their incentives are distorted by the system. The researchers considered that the US public was still deeply committed to helping those in need and it was 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.

The quotes in this post come from a paper that was on line circa 2002 which has been replaced by some very heavy and nerdish papers.

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 reported that we have a legacy of 100,000 years of sharing, based on evidence from archaeology, history, and fieldwork among a tribe of contemporary foragers. Sharing is ubiquitous, and not just in the immediate family circle.

“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 came 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 noted 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.

That looks like a critical point: maybe in the decade since their early work the standards have slipped in the direction of entitlements because the proportion or the visibility of exploitive players now exceeds the level that the system can carry without collapsing.

Strong Reciprocity and the Revolt Against Welfare

Bowles and Gintis 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.

Conclusion

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.

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15 Responses to Reciprocation and the erosion of fairness in the welfare state

  1. Elizabeth (Lizzie) B.

    Gintis and Bowles – onetime Marxists, in the 1970′s mode unless I am mistaken. Interesting. They are going back to anthropological fundamentals now – people share and care; something in our nature. Isn’t this just reprising the debate of Rousseau vs Hobbes? (Marx believed in some ideal state of co-operation and reciprocation). But, as Mauss, in his seminal book on the subject entitled ‘The Gift’, pointed out long ago, reciprocity means what it says – it has to be reciprocated in some way. Welfare ‘entitlement’ is not reciprocation. Reciprocation entails a concept of ‘fairness’, that what is freely given is also ‘rightly due’.

  2. Notafan

    It’s generally great to be generous but instead of gratitude all you get is gimme, gimme, gimme one is inclined to say get

  3. Paul

    I think many Americans are sick of paying taxes to support an undertow that is dragging the cities they built down into decay and ruin with their gangsta lifestyles.

  4. Peter

    There is only a limited extent to which you can threaten a man with force and imprisonment if he does not give up his property, and have him think that that is “fair”.

    The Socialists like to use the argument from selfishness, because it is their best red-herring to distract attention from the lack of fairness, reciprocity and “consent of the governed” that is inherent in their policies.

  5. Uber

    “They reported that we have a legacy of 100,000 years of sharing”

    Uh-huh. That ‘s a credible paper then.

  6. Tel

    Sharing with reciprocity is not altruism, it is correctly called “trade”.

    There is no 100,000 years of sharing, that’s bullshit. There is a long history of trade amongst humans, but anthropologists just can’t bring themselves to call it trade, because that would be admitting that classical economics was right all along.

    You can tell it is “fair” very easily, because people don’t have to be forced to trade, they do it willingly.

    Just look for voluntary behaviour vs use of force, and that tells you what you need to know.

  7. brc

    If it were just tithing I think many of us wouldn’t mind so much.

    When you’re looking at 50% of your marginal earned income and told your selfish for not making it more! then it becomes something else indeed.

    There’s helping out and there is getting fleeced.

  8. Vicki

    My comments in the latest post are more appropriate to this thread:

    I am going to start a personal campaign to “rebadge” ( to use marketing jargon) social welfare – which has already been “rebadged” by the union movement by the euphemism, “transfer payments”.

    Why not call it by what it actually is, namely, ” charity from taxpayers” to the disadvantaged.

    This may be the only way to remind recipients and the leftist media that welfare payments are NOT “income” in the sense of “work for pay” or reward for investment. This nonsense about the poorer groups in society having to “pay” more as a result of Budget decisions than higher “income” groups must be countered. The groups on welfare do not pay any tax at all. Rather, and of course I am stating the obvious (but not to the left wing media) those who do pay tax support these groups with money from their pay-packets. What is this, if not “charity”?

  9. Tel

    I am going to start a personal campaign to “rebadge” ( to use marketing jargon) social welfare – which has already been “rebadged” by the union movement by the euphemism, “transfer payments”.

    Absolutely agreed! The word “welfare” had a perfectly good meaning, one long ago. How well do you fare, sir? I fare well thank you.

    The correct name is “wealth transfer”, and this should always be used. Orwell explained it to us.

  10. Tel

    The other appropriate term would be “vote buying”.

  11. Vicki

    Forgive me if you have all read this before. It is so apt to this blog, that I will copy it for those who have not seen it before.

    THE TAX SYSTEM EXPLAINED IN BEER (Numbers can be adjusted for our tax system)

    Ten blokes go regularly to the pub, having agreed to limit their spending to $100. Four of them have fallen on hard times, four are battling, one is a little better off, and the remaining mate is a highly paid corporate type. So they agree that of the $100 bill, the unemployed guys will be subsidised by their mates, the four “battlers” will contribute $1, $3, $7 & $12 respectively, the better paid bloke can afford $18, & the rich bloke coughs up with the remaining $59.

    One day, the publican decided to give a discount to these regular customers, & knocked $20 off their weekly bill. They decided to divide this windfall $20 on the same principle of perceived fairness. Now, the mate who paid $1 would get his beer for free, like the previous four unemployed. The battler who paid $3 saw his share reduced to $2, while the contributor of the $7 share now paid $5, while the $12 contributor now paid $9. The moderately well off bloke was happy to see his $18 reduced to $14, and the rich bloke now paid $49, instead of $59.

    The unemployed amongst the group still drank for free, and the others were all better off with the discounted bill. But a perception emerged that some had been shafted.

    The bloke who got a $1 reduction complained that he was worse off than the rich guy who got a $10 discount, and before long the rest of the group turned on him as well.

    “None of us got anything like the discount you got!” they shouted at him. “The wealthy get all the breaks!”

    “Wait a minute”, cried the four blokes who got their drinks for free, “We didn’t get anything!”

    The rich guy decided that they well all ungrateful bastards & no longer went to the pub. And that was the end of the free and subsidised beers.

  12. Boambee John

    “Rather, and of course I am stating the obvious (but not to the left wing media) those who do pay tax support these groups with money from their pay-packets. What is this, if not “charity”?”

    Vicki:

    Charity is freely given, much welfare is forced “donations”.

  13. Monkey's Uncle

    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.

    As the saying goes, greed is when you want to keep your own money, need is when you want someone else’s money and compassion is when a politician wants to arrange the transfer.

    It is funny to think that it is always greedy or selfish to want to keep more of what you have earned yourself, but it is never greedy or selfish to want more things that one has not earned and are dependent on the coerced productivity of others. This is in fact an inversion of moral reasoning and logic, yet it is somehow accepted as self-evident truth. It is a testament to the insidious influence of cultural Marxism.

  14. rickw

    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.

    The Homo reciprocans of course give up quickly on anyone needing help who doesn’t care about helping themselves. Of course this simply doesn’t happen in any current welfare system we lug around vast numbers of people needing “help” who have no intention of helping themselves.

  15. Andrew

    What Vicki said, and what I’ve been trying to explain to my friends.

    The only difference in the real world is that the 4 unemployed got that way by electing a “progressive” union thug who promised to make them better off but ended up getting their workplace shut down and moved overseas, while the rich guy (me) spent the 6 years getting sneered at for warning that the snake-oil policies would end in disaster.

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