"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.