Space for Reciprocal Altruism


Around lunchtime, I suggested that we’re moving in the wrong direction to the extent that we seek ways to hide the prices of things (like health care) in order to perpetuate the fiction that our exchanges are mainly a matter of altruism.  The model of “reciprocal altruism” — in which parties transact with a loose exchange of favors — is suitable only between people who know each other relatively well, because family members, neighbors, and so on can keep track of the unacknowledged balance sheet.  (If you don’t think the tally exists, consider the reputation of a neighbor who’s constantly asking for favors but never willing to return them.)

That said, I should specify that not everything should be pushed into the mold of impersonal market exchange, with explicit prices.  Some flexibility helps two neighbors, for example, to get along and work together because they don’t have to be explicit about relative values — when the lawyer doesn’t have to more or less tell the carpenter that his couple of hours doing some research and modifying a template contract has an equal value, say, to the labor on a large new shed.  (Let’s pretend, for this example, that the town would let the carpenter help his neighbor in that way.)

Perhaps more importantly, the flexibility allows other considerations not to be expressed, or even understood consciously, like the value of their relationship.  If something about the lawyer’s life or personality leads him to value his neighbor’s friendship to an exceptional degree, he can treat projects of lower value as if they compensate for more of his own work.  (This works in the negative direction, too.)

There’s a flip side, of course, that emerges when we worry that well-connected and influential people might give themselves a class advantage. What if the example isn’t two neighbors with different occupations, but rather a local clique of highly influential lawyers, marketers, news media types, and politicians?  Jonah Goldberg correctly points out that merely being able to claim access to the Clintons is a valuable thing, whether or not an investigative journalist can draw the dotted line of a quid pro quo between Secretary of State Hillary Clinton decisions and Clinton Foundation donations.  Bring the trades back into it, and we’ve got disgraced former Central Falls Mayor Charles Moreau and his sweet-deal furnace.  Look just a little more subtly, and perhaps you’ll remark, as I have, about the Raimondo-Brookings approach of calling up Ivy League pals to help make economic development decisions.

We’re into complex territory, here, which I don’t intend to explore extensively on a Friday afternoon, but suffice it to say that attempting to route out all potential for favors or favoritism would require a trampling of our freedom and our humanity, both.  Once again, the key is to be conscious of what we’re deciding, as a society, and on what grounds.  If we continue to be ignorant of the factors in play and to react emotionally, we’ll be led by the nose to use either market exchange or reciprocal altruism where it serves the powerful, not where it makes the most moral sense for a community of equals.

The first area of vagueness to clarify is the gauzy impression of government that progressives like to foster.  Because its revenue is coercive, government operates to some degree on the principles of reciprocal altruism.  We each pay in by some metric and take out as needed, expressing our general sense of the system’s equity expressed through periodic elections, not through the submission of invoices.  Thus big-government types have space to pretend that “public service” is practically a charitable vocation.

It therefore irks when the empowered few in government treat their authority and our shared resources as services to be traded in order to settle their own reciprocal altruism balance sheets.  Yet, power and influence are professional politicians’ trade, and it’s simply not possible to lobotomize their humanity.  Moreover, harsh regimes of disclosure inevitably undermine rights of speech and association and cause our political system to select for those (like the Clintons) who are best able to trade in the shadows, rather than be upfront and clear about their transactions.

As always, we wind up with the conclusion that the solution is to give the people with access to public power less authority.  The less they have to trade, the more the rest of us can judge whether government altruism is truly reciprocal.