Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Economizing on Altruistic Effort

An excellent passage from James M. Buchanan and Gordon Tullock, The Calculus of Consent, University of Michigan Press, 1974 [1962], p.27:
Self-interest, broadly conceived, is recognized to be a strong motivating force in all human activity; and human action, if not bounded by ethical or moral restraints, is assumed more naturally to be directed toward the furtherance of individual or private interest. ... From this, it follows directly that the individual human being must undergo some effort in restraining his "passions" and that he must act in accordance with ethical or moral principles whenever social institutions and mores dictate some departure from the pursuit of private interests. Such effort, as with all effort, is scarce: that is to say, it is economic. Therefore, it should be economized upon in its employment. Insofar as possible, institutions and legal constraints should be developed which will order the pursuit of private gain in such a way as to make it consistent with, rather than contrary to, the attainment of the objectives of the group as a whole.
In short, altruistic effort is a scarce resource, and therefore wise social institutions will ration its use.


Blar said...

Might altruism, like will power, be something that atrophies with lack of use?

Tim Kowal said...

Indeed, there is no such thing as altruism. But SHHH!! It is a secret that must not escape. The idea of altruism is important to the human engine. If we stop believing that we can do good for its own sake, who knows down what dark path we will head.

On the same token, some government encouragement of "altruism" is a fine thing. It lets us know that our government (and therefore, we) value good for its own sake (even if we taint this by throwing money at it!) Which is why compensation for altruism must not be made to go too far, such that the secret that altruism does not exist gets out to the masses, and ruins the whole enterprise of seeking out good for its own sake.