Is equality passé? Strong reciprocity as a foundation for the ‘third way’

“Is equality passé” by Bowles and Gintis is a terrific essay which I thoroughly recommend to all who’ve not read it. It’s a much stronger foundation for what has often been the flailing around of the ‘third way’ than some of the more widely acknowledged high priests like the turgid Anthony Giddens.

But it’s the beginning or at least a progress report from a very interesting research project. Since it’s dated 1995 there’s a lot more where that came from. I’m reading a book edited by Bowles and Gintis in 2005 titled promisingly from my point of view Moral Sentiments and Material Interests. Adam Smith’s sociology from his ‘Theory of Moral Sentiments’ is working its way back into relevance again after all these years. TMS was pretty much a curiosity as recently as the 1980s and has enjoyed rising acclaim and perceived relevance ever since. We have even found the neurological microfoundations of those moral sentiments that Smith anatomised so well in his Theory of Moral Sentiments. A big call I know – but follow the link and see what you think.

And expect another post from me on strong reciprocity and regulation – a link I should have made when Lateral Economics was writing “Regulating for innovation” (pdf).

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9 Responses to Is equality passé? Strong reciprocity as a foundation for the ‘third way’

  1. Peter Whiteford says:


    A few comments.

    I’m not entirely sure that they have written much since, but if you can find follow-up articles it would be useful.

    There are obviously broader issues involved, but one perspective on this is that back in 1995 what they were really writing about was American welfare reform – “ending welfare as we know it” aka replacing AFDC with TANF. This was then being debated but had not been implemented. As I read this article, the welfare reform debate is what they were really writing about here.

    Given the context what B&G were saying was that the American population were willing to pay for welfare but they wanted to be convinced that poor people were trying to help themselves.

    My reading of the literature on the outcomes of US welfare reform is that it worked for more than half of the population involved, but some of the people affected were definitely worse-off, and for about 25-33% of the population affected nobody knows what happened.

    The Australian equivalent – but with really significant differences – is “work for the dole”, and then the Howard government changes to disability pensions and parenting payment.

  2. conrad says:

    I know the general public love it, but as far as I’m concerned, almost all the stuff on the neurological foundations of complex behavior is not much better than 20th and 21 st century phrenology in my books (and I’ll include my own stuff in that, just to be fair) — the behavioral stuff has got much further, but then the general public don’t love that. That’s no reason not to look at it — you need to start somewhere — but I wouldn’t bet my house on any of the results.

  3. Bill Posters says:

    A better question: is wacky psuedo-science passe?

    Apparently, never.

  4. Fred Argy says:

    Thanks Nicholas. The notion of compassion with reciprocity in public policy touches a chord in the Australian community, where there is sympathy for the poor but a cultural hostility to passive welfare and an insistence that people “have a go” (make an individual effort and take personal responsibility).

    This cultural attitude explains why Hawke and Keating introduced the mutual obligation concept and why Howard extended it much further. It is also why many economists like myself have shifted ground and come to support the increasing work conditionality of welfare – provided it is also matched with some of the more effective Nordic active labour market programs. We need genuine not one-sided mutuality.

  5. wilful says:

    Gosh there’s a lot to get into in Gintas’ main website: downloadable papers. There goes my recreational academic reading quota.

  6. Thanks for the comment Peter. Yes, I guess you’re right, that’s the context for the article. But the other context was the more broadsided attack by the right on welfare.

    I’m not sure what you mean about them not having done much since – they’ve done plenty but broadening out their agenda to include behavioural economics and policy areas other than welfare – as in the book linked to. I don’t know if they’ve done any more directly on welfare.

    Conrad, I guess I share with you an irritation with the way in which neuroscientists and others claim to provide great insights when they’ve uncovered something that suggests something we’ve always known. But I’m happy to know that the kind of world of social interaction that Smith portrayed has direct neurological underpinnings. What’s the problem with that?

  7. conrad says:

    I think there’s nothing wrong knowing that. It’s just that neither the data nor the theory is there to tell you that accurately (or perhaps remotely), despite claims to the contrary (although its worthwhile noting that these claims often occur (a) to generate publicity; (b) so people can get published in general science rather than specific journals; and (c) as poor science journalism that gets fed to the mainstream science media — so you can hardly blame people for doing it). A good example of this is the mirror neurons that were alluded too. People know lots about these types of neurons, as they do lots of funky things. But going from some behavior we saw a few neurons do to how we learnt language or why we co-operate really has almost zero to do with neuroscience. I might note too that there are also fundamental limitations of the current technology that are not going to allow questions like you probably want to be answered answered — simply identifying bits of brain where a bit more blood flows through than normal or where a bit more firing occurs (or even how the neurons fire in monkey brains) under certain conditions can only tell you so much.

  8. Conrad I agree with you.

  9. derrida derider says:

    Gintis’ textbook on dynamic game theory is really stimulating and thorough (though characteristically opinionated). It’s a great way to self-tutor, so if you want some “recreational academic reading” you can do a lot worse. Think “Godel, Escher, Bach” with more maths but on a more limited subject.

    And Bill Posters, I’d agree that sheer enthusiasm often lead Bowles and Gintis to overstimate the significance of their ideas, but there’s no way you can just dismiss all their work as “wacky pseudo-science”. In fact they are quite concerned with getting and assessing hard evidence.

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