What can the economics of altruism inform us about why we might hold particular political beliefs? Lots, I think. Let’s assume for simplicity that altruism is an act or emotion that provides no benefit to oneself and which redounds exclusively to someone else. Some may go so far as to suggest that true altruism must actually hurt oneself. We think we see all kinds of evidence of altruism in human beings. For example, when we play things like the “ultimatum game” in lab settings it turns out that people are very likely to share with others. This is often viewed as being altruistic. We see people give to charity. This is viewed often as altruism. Your mileage may vary, but let’s not debate what is actually going on for now.
A recent body of research has been building in economics that has demonstrated, fairly convincingly, that what appears to be altruism in many instances to turn out to be plain ol’ fashioned self-interest in disguise. You might check the research of John List to explore the details. Again, we can discuss that in another post. I just want to run, for now, with the implications of such findings if in fact they are true as it pertains to political beliefs.
When asked about politics, or when you see writings on politics, you inevitably run into a line of thinking that says, “I and MY people have views X and Y because we care about other people.” The mantra of social justice is not far in the offing, but the point is that people of all stripes seem to publicly support their political beliefs on the grounds that they care about others. But what if altruism is largely a figment of our imagination and not really there? Then it would seem that so too are these common defenses for our worldviews. People must be holding political beliefs not because they have an intrinsic care for others, but rather because they care about themselves. If they support policies that actually help others, it is because that “help” redounds as benefits to themselves. So, maybe you support farm subsidies not because you care about American farmers having an advantage, but you imagine yourself being a farmer. Maybe you support a war in Iraq because you really are worried about WMD. Maybe you support measures against gay marriage because you simply do not like the idea of gay people marrying. Again, choose better examples. Maybe you support the minimum wage because it makes you feel like you are actually doing something you are supposed to be doing. Maybe you support progressive taxation because you don’t like people that earn more than you. And so on.
In other words, the findings on the actual existence of altruism undercut much of the “moral” claims people make for believing their political views are “right” and “superior.” I put “moral” because I find no reason to believe that the soundness or morality of a political view rests solely on what your political views DO to others. But that is for another day. In short, what I have learned from studying economics, perhaps cynically, is to start by asking the question, “How does your view on policy X actually end up benefiting you?” And I adjust my attitudes toward such views accordingly.
NOTE: I am NOT above this either. I am a classical liberal, perhaps you want to say, because I just want to be left alone. You’d only be partially right I guess – because there are times when I actually wish to be around people and their property, but you would certainly not be wrong. But at least I don’t “hide” my preferences behind some non-existence moral high ground.