Does radical welfare reform require cultural change?

"Hostility towards benefit claimants is founded upon a moral instinct", says Chris Dillow. The instinct is the norm of reciprocity. According to this norm, people are entitled to the community’s help when they need it, but must also contribute in return. According to Dillow, many people worry that "that claimants are getting something for nothing" and "that ‘hard-working tax-payers’ are being ripped off".

Dillow is not alone. Peter Saunders of the Centre for Independent Studies suggests that the norm of reciprocity is a cultural universal. As a result: "In all human societies, long-term dependency on others without some form of reciprocity is associated with low social status, weak self-esteem and powerlessness."

Psychologist Jonathan Haidt offers a theory of how the norm of reciprocity developed. Individuals are better off when they are members of groups that work together. By working together hunters can catch more game and by sharing what they catch and gather, individuals members of a tribe are more likely to survive periods of illness or unreliable food supplies.

In his book The Righteous Mind Haidt argues that human beings gradually developed practices of reciprocal altruism that are underpinned by gut feelings about fairness and unfairness::

For millions of years, our ancestors faced the adaptive challenge of reaping these benefits without getting suckered. Those whose moral emotions compelled them to play ‘tit for tat’ reaped more of these benefits than those who played any other strategy, such as ‘help anyone who needs it’ (which invites exploitation), or ‘take but don’t give’ (which can work just once with each person; pretty soon nobody’s willing to share pie with you)

This is why we "feel anger, contempt, and even sometimes disgust when people try to cheat us or take advantage of us", writes Haidt. When people believe that welfare recipients are choosing not to work, this perception triggers moral emotions.

For conservatives like Saunders, there’s nothing wrong with our moral emotions. What governments ought to do is make sure the welfare system aligns with them. Dillow has another view:

I fear this reciprocity norm is an atavistic instinct with an evolutionary basis which is no longer relevant to post-industrial society.

In hunter-gatherer societies struggling for subsistence the man who does no work and expects others to provide for him is a threat to the very existence of the tribe. It’s natural, therefore, for a norm of reciprocity to emerge so that shirkers are stigmatized and shunned.

But we no longer live in that world. We have the opposite problem. There’s not enough work to go round. In this world, the shirker does not threaten our existence. If anything, he’s a help, as his not looking for work increases the chances of others getting it. And, remember, on average the unemployed are significantly unhappier than others.

Dillow is not the first thinker to argue that the norms of reciprocity and proportional reward are a throw back to a long vanished form of society. Friedrich Hayek’s argued that the ideals of socialism:

… do not really offer a new moral but merely appeal to instincts inherited from an earlier type of society. They are an atavism, a vain attempt to impose up the Open Society the moral of the tribal society which, if it prevails, must not only destroy the Great Society but would also greatly threaten the survival of the large numbers to which some three hundred years of a market order have enabled mankind to grown (p 304).

Hayek was particularly worried about people demanding to receive the incomes they morally deserved. While the free market is efficient, it can never live up to this ideal of fairness. If embraced by government, the norm of proportional reward would bring the market to its knees.

So Dillow and Hayek share the same problem. They both want to suppress social norms that are so deeply embedded in our psychology and culture that arguing about them is pointless.

But as Haidt argues, while the basic framework of our moral-emotional psychology is fixed, culture shapes how it is expressed. In some groups most people may feel morally uneasy about the idea of women having authority over men. But while this taps into an innate moral foundation of authority, it is not an inevitable feature of all human societies. How this foundation is activated and expressed depends on the culture, according to Haidt.

If Haidt is right then culture will be a site of political struggle. Children’s books, television shows, movies, school curricula, the words people use to describe each other; all of these will help shape people’s moral-emotional predispositions. Far from being a political side show, the culture wars are likely to have more impact than scholarly reports filled with philosophical arguments, charts and statistical modeling.

For those like Dillow who support radical policies like a basic income, cultural change may have to play a central role in their political strategy.

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35 Responses to Does radical welfare reform require cultural change?

  1. GrueBleen says:

    Interesting that there’s two clearly identifiable social groups that are exempt from the ‘reciprocity’ requirement: the young (which nowadays can stretch up to the early 20s) and the old (which may go on for 30 or more years).

    I daresay we exempt the young becasue we do expect them to ‘reciprocate’ in the future, and the old because we expect that they’ve ‘reciprocated’ in the past.

    But there’s nothing, as far as I know, that says you have to prove that you’ve been an appropriately ‘reciprocating’ adult in order to qualify for a Federal age pension. You can have been a total ‘live on the dole’ bludger all your life, but you’ll still get an age pension.

    There’s obviously a few holes in the ‘reciprocity’ criterion, I think.

    • desipis says:

      Is it about inter-temporal expectations, or is it more about a lack of present capacity to reciprocate? While I can understand that there is some sort of loose expectations about past or future reciprocation, these seem to be a more general population wide expectation rather that expectations placed directly on individuals. Any evolved sense of morality is not going to include lifetime accounting elements, rather it’ll use heuristics based on current attributes. The discrepancy seems to me more related to something like disability pension where we acknowledge a lack of capacity to reciprocate does not mean a lack of moral worth. Hence it becomes morally acceptable for these categories of people to get without having to give.

  2. Sancho says:

    There’s not much point discussing reciprocative instincts while the concept of “benefit claimants” is so vague.

    The US is a case in point: the people who engineered the global financial crisis make no distinction between third generation dole-bludgers who live off the state with no consideration of contribution, and otherwise productive people who’ve been made unemployed by the economy the Republicans wanted all along.

    When critics of welfare recipients can define which ones are unfortunate and which qualify for contempt, we can have a meaningful discussion about it.

  3. conrad says:

    Along Sancho’s line of individual differences, its also the case that some people are not going to be good at anything in the modern world for reasons which they can’t control (just imagine having a verbal IQ of 75 or minor frontal lobe damage). With these sorts of people, it’s not clear to me why one would even bother to think about the concept of reciprocity when thinking about welfare payments.

  4. Tel says:

    I agree with Haidt’s logic about the evolution of reciprocity and judgement of fairness and unfairness, I’m pretty sure he wasn’t first to the ball on this one. That naturalist guy who is always going on about primates also covers reciprocity, and anyhow the basic Prisoner’s Dilemma studies from yonks ago covered it (err Robert Axelrod, Evolution of Cooperation, 1984, h/t google&wiki).

    Dillow is not the first thinker to argue that the norms of reciprocity and proportional reward are a throw back to a long vanished form of society.

    Just because it is old, doesn’t mean long vanished. People have been wearing shoes for a long time, but still they seem to be in fashion year after year. Bare feet never seem to make that big comeback.

    So Dillow and Hayek share the same problem. They both want to suppress social norms that are so deeply embedded in our psychology and culture that arguing about them is pointless.

    Hmmm, sounds like a swifty being pulled. Did Hayek really say he wanted to suppress reciprocity and proportional reward? Did Dillow say such a thing? Has anyone?

    If the free market doesn’t operate very fundamentally on the concepts of reciprocity and proportional reward, then how could it possibly operate at all? Why do Libertarians support the concept of voluntary association and exchange unless there was some mutual gain involved?

    This may not meet up with everyone’s gut definition of “fair” and “unfair”, but those are very tricky concepts. I’m pretty sure that Haidt somewhere points out that evolution has also programmed people with emotions like envy, and a tenancy to always measure “fair” and “unfair” just a little bit in their own favour (or possibly quite a lot in their own favour)… and again, Haidt isn’t the first.

    • desipis says:

      The market operates on a transactional basis using market values of legal rights. Moral contribution is assessed using a more holistic perspective of personal sacrifice, and is closer to labour theory of value. A market trader who makes millions doing a few trades while spending most of his time free from work is seen as reciprocating much less than a factory worker who spends long hours each week producing goods for a low wage.

      It seems clear to me that if you want to advocate for public support of a free market system you have to want to suppress peoples instinctive tendencies towards how they assess reciprocity.

      • Tel says:

        When you say, “is seen as” you refer to whose point of view exactly?

        Are you proposing moral absolutism there? Not just absolutism in principle, but with an ordinal “contribution” metric, and a well known one at that. Gosh, the churches pushed moral absolutism for thousands of years and people seem to have decided that’s a load of cobblers.

        Some reference to this moral tome you have found would be useful, unless it happens to be something you are selling, in which case I require evidence of value before buying it.

        It seems clear to me that if you want to advocate for public support of a free market system you have to want to suppress peoples instinctive tendencies towards how they assess reciprocity.

        Me? I certainly don’t have to suppress people’s anything. Free people will always trade amongst themselves, and have done at every possible opportunity to do so. Pick up any history book.

        I would like to suppress people’s instinctive tendencies toward violence, if I knew how to do. It is true that envy often leads to violence so maybe we would overall be better off if we agreed amongst ourselves to discourage envy, but you can just ask anyone you like whether envy plays a motivating part in their politics and/or their world view. Just ask, they will all tell you, “Oh no, absolutely not.” Apparently there, nothing to worry about.

        • desipis says:

          Are you proposing moral absolutism there?

          I was speaking to an evolved/instinctive sense of morality rather than an ideologically based morality. I wasn’t trying to suggest that one was exclusively superior to the other. It’s merely a factor I think influences the moral compass of many people, particularly when it comes to economic matters.

          I certainly don’t have to suppress people’s anything. Free people will always trade amongst themselves, and have done at every possible opportunity to do so. Pick up any history book.

          Pick up any history book and you’ll also see people will come up with rules and laws about what (economic) behaviour is acceptable and how wealth should be controlled. “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need” was so widely influential because it appealed to an instinctive sense of fairness. Of course, like all ideas, if you naively apply it to the exclusion of other ideas things won’t turn out too well. If you want to remove legal/regulatory constraints on the market, you’ll likely have to suppress such instincts to gain democratic support.

          we would overall be better off if we agreed amongst ourselves to discourage envy

          Question, are you:
          a) envious of Kim Jong-un’s power in North Korea; or
          b) morally accepting of his power?; or
          c) smart enough to realise that framing any criticism of power injustice as ‘envy’ is a false equivalence.

          I would like to suppress people’s instinctive tendencies toward violence

          You seem to have a focus on violence and violation of property rights as the sole sources of immorality, I would suggest that this is unusually abstract and most people have a far more nuanced sense of morality.

        • Tel says:

          I was speaking to an evolved/instinctive sense of morality rather than an ideologically based morality. I wasn’t trying to suggest that one was exclusively superior to the other.

          That’s doesn’t really answer my question. Do you think that we have all evolved an identical instinctive sense of morality, or does significant variation exist caused by cultural upbringing, and individual opinion? It matters, because if the variation is large, then we can’t really conclude anything from a handful of people and their “instinctive” assessment of a situation.

          Question, are you:
          a) envious of Kim Jong-un’s power in North Korea; or
          b) morally accepting of his power?; or
          c) smart enough to realise that framing any criticism of power injustice as ‘envy’ is a false equivalence.

          I have no particular desire to be like Kim Jong-un, but if I did have his power I like to think I would do something more useful with it (that’s an assessment of myself, but honestly not based on much because I can’t say I really understand Kim Jong-un’s position in detail). As for “any criticism of power injustice”, I’ll just quote your original point:

          Moral contribution is assessed using a more holistic perspective of personal sacrifice, and is closer to labour theory of value.

          That was supposed to be a criticism of power injustice? OK, you got me, I did not recognize what you were saying. So, let me get this straight… the assessment is done by instinct, and the instinct is sufficiently universal to represent something plausibly close to an absolute reference, and “personal sacrifice” means a lot of hours spent, or devoting oneself to a task, or making a personal commitment to see it through. Am I reading this right?

          Where does Kim Jong-un come into this? Did he make a personal sacrifice or not? Is his morality coming from instinct, or does he have a personal choice in the matter? He does spend a lot of hours in the job (of dictator) so does that count for something?

          You seem to have a focus on violence and violation of property rights as the sole sources of immorality, I would suggest that this is unusually abstract and most people have a far more nuanced sense of morality.

          I think on the whole, identifying violence is a lot more reliable, and less abstract than some of the ideas you are proposing.

        • desipis says:

          Do you think that we have all evolved an identical instinctive sense of morality, or does significant variation exist caused by cultural upbringing, and individual opinion? It matters, because if the variation is large, then we can’t really conclude anything from a handful of people and their “instinctive” assessment of a situation.

          I don’t think that people have identical instincts. I think there’s enough of a pattern across people and cultures that suggests a significant instinctive factor.

          That was supposed to be a criticism of power injustice?

          It’s a perspective on forms of economic inequality, which can be forms of power injustice.

          Am I reading this right?

          More or less, except I wasn’t suggesting it was universal.

          I think on the whole, identifying violence is a lot more reliable, and less abstract than some of the ideas you are proposing.

          Well of course it’s easier to identify violence, but that doesn’t mean other issues become irrelevant.

          Where does Kim Jong-un come into this?

          He’s someone with power, like Gina Rinehart, Rupert Murdoch or Julia Gillard, that many people criticise. It was merely an example of someone with power who people criticise without that criticism being founded envy (or jealousy). Nothing really to do with the rest of my point.

  5. john r walker says:

    Trying to change morality as deep seated as this one , Buckleys.

    Generally the ‘culture wars’ are much more a tedious argument, within social sub groups, as to what aspects of culture they should be looking at -or more exactly not looking at– than anything else. For a example a sub group of mostly Melbourne centric cultural academics have for years maintained that Australia has a ‘provincialism problem’, this position( and the real cultural policies it has resulted in) was/is based entirely in a lack of curiosity.

    • Sancho says:

      The Provincialism Problem was a 1974 essay by Terry Smith about tall poppy syndrome in the Australian art community. I don’t see any great influence on policy from either that or any cabal of Melbourne academics.

      Isn’t this just another riff on the idea that elitist eggheads are undermining the west by letting queers and chicks and darkies wreck the joint?

      • john r walker says:

        T Smith was a variation on a older and more pervasive myth.

        ‘the centrifugal pull of the great cultural metropolises works against us. Above our writers – and other artists – looms the intimidating mass of Anglo-Saxon achievement. Such a situation almost inevitably produces the characteristic Australian Cultural Cringe.’

        And as for undermining anything apart from change ….you have to be kidding.

        • john r walker says:

          BTW cultural cringe theory (or its The Provincialism Problem subset) was definitely not about tall poppies in Australia .

        • Sancho says:

          An essay that begins with a foreword by Rafe Champion is already at a credibility deficit, and it doesn’t exceed expectations.

          The wordiness gives it a gloss of academic rigor, but underneath it’s another pop-conservative pamphlet explaining that revising Australian history is fine if you don’t like the real one, and that indulging in the American style of shrill hand-on-heart patriotism is far superior to any sort of broad reflective view on Australian culture.

          I particularly liked this para:

          The grip of this theoretical approach…explains [latter-day Left intellectuals’] apparently slack treatment of evidence, their neglect of a large body of evidence that seems to contradict their assertions, and their summoning in support of further evidence that turns out to be either spurious or to point towards quite different conclusions.

          Fine words to consider in the age of climate change denialism, led in Australia by the IPA.

  6. Gummo Trotsky says:

    Gruebleen @ 1:

    When you look beyond welfare you’ll find a few other groups and special individuals who are exempted from the norm of reciprocity. Gina Rinehart and her ilk for example.

    • GrueBleen says:

      In reply to my comment, Desipis brought up the damaged and/or incapacitated who simply aren’t capable of reciprocity.

      And now you add, rightfully I do believe, the looters and takers (aka ‘job creators’) as well.

      To quote somebody responsible for a considerable amount of Anglo-Saxon Achievement, it seems this ‘reciprocity’ thing is “honoured more in the breach than in the observance”.

      • john r walker says:

        Yes , house training the clever, the selfserving and the ruthless is the real point of reciprocity . Ditching it because you think it will end in better treatment of the the damaged and/or incapacitated is insanity.

    • Tel says:

      Gina Rinehart and her ilk for example.

      What property did she take from you without a payment at least equal to the amount you voluntarily offered?

      • FDB says:

        What property did she take from you without a payment at least equal to the amount you voluntarily offered?

        This question could be reframed as “what did she contribute to society in return for her income?”. But of course you know this, and you have your answer ready. “JAAAAAHRBS”.

        Do me a favour Tel.

        • Tel says:

          This question could be reframed as “what did she contribute to society in return for her income?”.

          This question is useless unless you can explain how I go about getting an answer from “society”, but anyhow it’s not the question I asked, any you aren’t the person I was asking anyhow. So I’ll do you a favour if you do me one.

        • murph the surf. says:

          Is there any justification offered for the idea that there isn’t enough work to go around?
          Does this then devolve down to the argument about suitable work where I live and at the skill level I have and with a better than living wage?

      • Gummo Trotsky says:

        Tel,

        How does Gina pay you for your blog commenting on her behalf? Is it by the word, or are you on a retainer?

        • Tel says:

          I was rather hoping for one of these, http://www.theatlanticwire.com/politics/2013/03/matt-yglesias-12-million-house-stokes-class-envy-conservatives/63440/

          So far, she hasn’t come though with Jack. I think maybe a rational evaluation would lead me to believe that the Sorros camp pays better. This does point to the contrary conclusion that the most rational people are pretending not to be, but I’m not much good at pretending.

          As an aside, if Wayne Swan was so upset with the anti-ALP advertising (paid for by BHP and Xstrata) why do you think he put his effort into trashing Gina and Clive instead? Any theories on that one?

          So. Having got that out the way, are you going to answer a simple question, or what? What property did she take from you without a payment at least equal to the amount you voluntarily offered?

        • Sancho says:

          The Rhinehart stuff is a category error – she’s a rent-seeking hereditary aristocrat, not a welfare recipient in the OP sense – but it’s impressive that Tel managed to respond by invoking one of the nuttier right wing conspiracy theories available (and god knows it’s a competitive field).

          After all, if the western conservative project has devolved to being a simple propaganda front for the interests of the right-wing rich, the same must be true of the progressive movement and wealthy leftists.

        • Tel says:

          After all, if the western conservative project has devolved to being a simple propaganda front for the interests of the right-wing rich, the same must be true of the progressive movement and wealthy leftists.

          Errr, you know I can tolerate a lot of abuse, but misrepresentation does get annoying. If you care to read, it was Gummo who invoked the conspiracy theory. I was perhaps better off ignoring him, but anyhow my reply was more cheek than serious.

        • Sancho says:

          Gummo went off topic. The shadowy George Soros puppet master allusion is all Tel.

  7. john r walker says:

    sancho

    It is not just the right that thinks that cultural cringe theory (and provincial cultural theory) are nonsense intended to oppress. It is after all a representation of australian culture as irretrievably unoriginal -doomed to eternal dependency.

    And historically speaking it looks exactly like climate denial syntax ; ahistorical and very colored in its sampling methods.

    The paradox about these theories is that they achieved a wide , still going and largely unexamined uptake into higher cultural education at the exact time (1970s & 80s) that the top down , center/margin, model of culture- a critical assumption of cringe/provincial theory- became untenable.

  8. FDB says:

    Tel, you asked a borderline retarded question of GT about whether GR had personally ripped him off.

    Given that the topic of this thread is whether norms of reciprocity from a small tribal/communal setting are still applicable to modern society, that you would invoke a strictly individual transaction just shows how little you have to contribute.

    • Tel says:

      So if someone makes a claim of injury, then asking them to justify how in fact they were injured is “borderline retarded”. Is that the story now?

      • desipis says:

        No, framing the question in a way to exclude the types of “injuries” most related to the topic is “borderline retarded”.

        • Gummo Trotsky says:

          And mistaking my tongue in cheek question in response to your demand that I demonstrate that GR had caused me personal financial loss for the invocation of a ‘conspiracy theory’ took you right across the border.

  9. john r walker says:

    @ Murph
    “Is there any justification offered for the idea that there isn’t enough work to go around?” You have identified just one of the unexamined assumptions of the post and much of the commentary. The topic of this thread is definitions.

  10. nottrampis says:

    This has made it.

    Best read of the week bar none!!

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