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?

Anonymous said...

Perhaps the government has suppressed altruism. Government does so much for all of us that we see no point in doing anything ourselves. Heck, sometimes the government even prevents us from helping others when it steps in and takes over our altruistic projects. But don't go thinking that there are no altruists alive in the world. They all work for the government. Every tim I hear an elected official say that he is going to help some group of people, I know that he does this for altruistic reasons. But I also know that all he is personally going to do is vote to pass a law. What really is going to happen is that he is going to tax me more and spend my money on his altruistic projects so that he can look good to the voters.

Actually, I doubt true altruism really exists. Just because people do what seems like altruistic things, does not mean that they have done it for no reason at all except to help others. If these "altruists" get any self-satisfaction, or any stroking of their own ego, then their actions are not truly altruistic.

Altruists scare me every time they open their mouth, because I know it's going to cost me. An altrist, especially one in government, is a person who will pass laws to do "good" with my money!

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.

Anonymous said...

I can't tell if you're being sarcastic, or not?

Anyway, you state that government encouragement of altruism is a fine thing. Well, that depends on the point of view all sides of the "good" deed. One man's good is another mans evil. For example, the govt forcefully takes my money (they call this taxation in order to disguise the evil act) and gives it to, say ..., the Taliban so that they can fight the Russians in Afghanistan. Of course, everybody but the Russians see this as a "good" thing. Until, of course, ten years later the Taliban turn on us, the altruists. There are thousands of these kind of examples.

My point is, one persons altruism, or good deed, is most often at the expense of another person. I can't view any altruistic act as good, if the means to this end used bad actions.

Perhaps Mother Theresa was the last altruist I know about. But then again, I have read stories about her too.