"Yeah, but I would basically be the only one"


Must be a yearning deep in human heart to stop other people from doing as they please. Rules, laws--always for the other fellow. A murky part of us, something we had before we came down out of the trees, and failed to shuck when we stood up. Because not one of those people said: 'Please pass this so I won't be able to do something I know I should stop.' Nyet, tovarishchee, was always something they hated to see their neighbors doing. Stop them 'for their own good'--not because the speaker claimed to be harmed by it.

-Manuel Garcia O'Kelley Davis
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

I just had an interesting conversation at dinner. Two of my friends and I went to the restaurant Khao Sarn in the Coolidge Corner area of Brookline, MA. The food was delicious, and the service was excellent - it was probably the best Thai food I have had in the Boston area.

The converstation eventually turned to politics. My friends - let's call them Tony and Ron - see my libertarianism as something of an exotic quirk. I find talking about libertarian issues difficult. My friends usually ask me odd questions that I don't expect, and I've found that it's hard for me to make oral arguments and much easier to make written ones.

Tonight Tony said something that I've never really understood. He made the argument that people are too selfish to give to charity, and thus a society without government welfare programs would simply desert the less fortunate. So I asked him, "Would you give to charity?" to which he replied, "Yeah, but I would basically be the only one."

This kind of statement bothers me something fierce. First, I find it highly arrogant to hold the view that the only virtuous person in the world in yourself, or even that you are one member of a small minority of compassionate people. Imagine what it must be like going through life believing that most of the people around you are scoundrels. And keep in mind that Tony is entering the 'real world' with a prestigous career in a few months and is currently making all sorts of arrangements to avoid taxes. I don't blame him, but just find it hypocritical.

Second, if you are the only one of a few who cares enough about the poor, then what good is it to have government welfare programs in the first place? Isn't it all the more reason to not have those programs? Aren't the people who would run these programs the same people you find 'greedy'? Aren't they the very source of your support for government welfare programs? Isn't it a conflict of interests when the livelihoods of these greedy people depend on a constant supply of less fortunate?

To me, the argument that most people are too selfish, too dumb, too biased, too whatever, thus necessitating government programs is a self-defeating argument. It's all the more reason to deny these same people government power. Government is not a filter of virtue or intelligence. The essential character of individuals does not improve in the transition from the private sector to the public sphere. If however, most people are not too selfish, too dumb, too biased, too whatever, then civil society is the best answer for the hardships of life. Free choices are preferable to forced actions.

Which brings me to another conclusion. People often hypothesize ideal societies based on various government structures, constitutions, edicts, 5-year plans, bylaws, escape clauses, super-majorities, etc. I think most of these institutional features are ultimately irrelevant. The success of any society depends on the character of its people when they are allowed to make choices. No amount of inalienable rights, checks and balances, or historical documents will change this fact.

Share this

I like telling those

I like telling those "whither charity!?!" folks that it isn't charitable by any stretch to take money from others, waste 20-30 percent (I'm being charitable here...) of it, and then spend it on social programs. All against the explicit will of the "donor."

Forced charity is a contradiction. If these people want to give more, they shouldn't be looking to loot others.

Couldn't agree more. I find

Couldn't agree more. I find that people who are mostly contemptuous of their fellow humans are usually projecting.

The truth is that all of the high-minded rhetoric that spews from the political class, all the public moralizing, and all the laws encoded into tiny paragraphs do not change society in any appreciable way. Only a widespread change of heart can influence the manner in which people live their lives.

Patri, You misunderstood

Patri,

You misunderstood that portion of my post, though I can see how I was less than clear. When I say, "The success of any society depends on the character of its people when they are allowed to make choices," I mean *free* choices, and when I say "institutional features," I mean state structures.

IOW, if people in general are too 'greedy', no amount of intervention will make them less 'greedy'. Or racist, or wise, or moral.

I agree that markets, i.e., free choices, create the best incentive structures.

I strongly disagree with: I

I strongly disagree with:

I think most of these institutional features are ultimately irrelevant. The success of any society depends on the character of its people when they are allowed to make choices. No amount of inalienable rights, checks and balances, or historical documents will change this fact.

Doesn't this strike you as the opposite of what you said earlier in the entry? You said that a drawback to government is that it is run by the same imperfect humans as the rest of us, and thus is imperfect. If character is what matters, not institutions, then why don't we just put the "right" people in public office?

The difference between public and private is not a difference in individuals. It is a difference in incentive structures. Give someone a public sector job where they can get ahead by politicking and making themselves appear useful, not by serving the public, and that's what they'll do. Give the *same* person a job where they are part of a private company which will be rewarded based on its success, and they'll try to succeed.

If what matters is the character of the people, that implies that if we took the right people, and put them into a socialist institution, the society would succeed. That's total BS. You could take the best people we have, and they would still fail at large-scale centralized control.

If you agree that most person will have significantly different performances in the public and private sectors, and you agree that even the best people in the world couldn't make a large socialist state work, then you have totally contradicted your paragraph, right?

Do you believe that people change how hard they work based on tax structures? But tax structures are an institutional feature, not a matter of character. Yet again we see that institutions matter.

Institutions matter because they create the incentive structures, and incentive structures guide human decisions. They are crucial, no matter what the character of the people. That's why I believe in designing institutions that optimize performance with the imperfect people they have to work with.

I don't understand the

I don't understand the clarifications. By "institutional features" I was talking about state structures as well. And the private individual and public servant are both making free choices.

if people in general are too 'greedy', no amount of intervention will make them less 'greedy'. Or racist, or wise, or moral.

Perhaps the miscommunication is over the difference between intervention and incentives. I agree that intervention does not change people's character. Yet under different incentive structures, those characters will be expressed in different ways. If we increase the expression of altruism (perhaps by tax breaks for charity donations), its effectively as if people become more altruistic.

I guess I'm still not understanding what you meant by your closing paragraph. To me, institutional features appear deeply relevant. Can you explain which ones you think are irrelevant and why? My guess is that for any institutional feature you pick, I can find ways in which it changes the incentives facing individuals. If you agree that incentives change actions, this would seem to make such features relevant.