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The quotes in this post come from a paper that was on line circa 2002 which has been replaced by some very heavy and nerdish papers.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