Altruism, Politics, and Class War

“Man is wolf to man,” the saying goes. It’s true, but far from the whole truth. There is another side to human nature which, in our everyday interactions, overwhelmingly predominates.

That is empathy, cooperativeness, and even altruism. Some skeptics query how such traits could have emerged through “selfish gene” evolution where individual survival to reproduce was the only thing that counted. This idea feeds the pessimistic, misanthropic view that people really serve only themselves.

But it’s incorrect. In our evolutionary past, individual survival was not all that counted. An “every man for himself” tribe would have fared worse than one with an ethos of cooperation and even self-sacrifice. More individuals in the latter tribe would survive to reproduce, so the genetic disposition for altruism would have spread throughout our gene pool.

This resulting deeply embedded altruistic instinct is so obvious in so many aspects of human life that enumeration would be banal. But the question arises: why don’t we see it in politics?

Of course, we do see it in political activity: people cooperating to organize, and selflessly giving time and money to causes — including advocacy of sacrifices for the common good. But what we don’t see is much willingness to actually make sacrifices for the common good. Millions volunteer in campaigns and contribute to candidates, and thousands demonstrate against Wall Street. But nobody seems willing to pay a cent more in tax or give up one iota of government-conferred benefit. (Indeed, the anti-Wall Street protesters call for sacrifice by others, but more benefits and subsidies for themselves.)

Why, for all the rhetoric about sacrifice, are so few willing to actually do it? A simple answer may be because they aren’t asked to, or aren’t properly asked. Instead, politics seems to proceed according to George Bernard Shaw’s dictum that “a government robbing Peter to pay Paul will always have the support of Paul.” So we become a nation of Pauls.

In other words, politics is dominated by appeals to selfishness rather than generosity, on the cynical assumption that, human nature being essentially selfish, that’s what works best. The assumption may not in fact be true; but nevertheless the proposition is so widely asserted that most people think it’s true, with the resulting baneful effect in politics. A candidate trying to buck it is dismissed as suicidally foolish.* This is what we get from the fundamentally pessimistic viewpoint I’ve tried so hard to combat.

But I believe there is a very deep well of altruism in the human heart that politics could tap, if only more people would actually believe it, and more political advocacy were targeted toward generosity rather than selfishness.

One might think that lefty politics, at least, would be steeped in altruism, with all the talk of social justice, compassion, and concern for the needy and downtrodden. But unfortunately this is undermined by admixture with large dollops of envy, resentment, and hostility. The talk of “social solidarity” applies to only a segment of society, not the whole, with a part being not only disincluded but denounced. They scoff at charges of class warfare, but what can you call it when one group is virtually deemed criminal enemies of the rest? It might be less consequential if the 1% demonized on behalf of the 99% were some insignificant population segment, like numismatists, who could be abused with impunity; but when it’s a 1% that holds a sizeable chunk of the nation’s wealth (and, inevitably, of power and influence) why, it’s practically a call for civil war.

We are told: “The rich are greedy bastards who got their lucre by ripping us off, so we are justified in demanding more from them.” The premise is basically untrue**; the conclusion reeks of rapacity***; and this attitude of contentiousness helps us not at all.

What if instead: “We have a problem, all of us, and we all must make sacrifices to solve it. We ask the rich to do what they can. If we all do this, we’ll all be better off in the end.”

Which approach is more likely conducive to the kind of politics we need?

Postscript: I note in New York recently a state worker union voted two-to-one for a contract imposing concessions, as a condition for averting layoffs of a small designated minority. The great majority voting yes were in no personal danger of layoff, but accepted the sacrifice for the benefit of others.

* We remember Mondale promising to raise taxes, and being crushed in 1984. But a) he failed to make a good case for higher taxes; b) as a “tax-and-spend” liberal poster boy, he had no credibility on the issue; and c) he lost for other reasons.

** Inequality is not a problem of the success of the rich; by and large, they don’t get wealth at the expense of the rest. The real problem is lack of success at the bottom – all the people who don’t even finish high school. Of course their incomes are low! That’s where we should work to reduce inequality – not by tearing down those who are successful.

*** I never understand how taking the earnings of some people and giving them to others constitutes social “justice” or any other kind.

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3 Responses to “Altruism, Politics, and Class War”

  1. PaulH from Barcelona Says:

    On a broadly similar vein, of brain research note…

    http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2011/11/does-inequality-make-us-unhappy/

    Interesting.

    [FSR comment: Thanks. It’s well known that one’s happiness depends not only on absolute wealth level but also comparative wealth in relation to others. And we compare ourselves to typical Americans — not Zimbabweans. Ceteris paribus I’d prefer greater equality; but how it’s achieved matters. Grabbing from the successful is not the way. We need to make more people successful.]

  2. Lee Says:

    Thank you for the keen observation that the altruism present through humanity is decidedly less so in politics! I do wonder why that is so.

    Perhaps fear sells better in politics, and thus political parties that don’t employ it are less likely to survive? But if so, why? Is it that we are so overwhelmed with messages that we have time only for those that convey “life threatening” information?

  3. Lee Says:

    Much as our US justice system has prosecutors and defenders, whose jobs are to represent extreme viewpoints rather than to seek the middle ground, perhaps the fault for extreme viewpoints in politics is the belief that representatives are supposed to represent primarily their constituents, by geography and/or party. If instead they were elected “at large,” perhaps they would instead represent the middle ground, at least with regard to geographical differences. Or perhaps there are other (better) ways to achieve the goal of getting them to seek the middle rather than the extreme. The fact that one needs 51% to be elected doesn’t seem to be enough. Thoughts?

    [FSR: In many cases one doesn’t need 51% of the electorate to win but, rather, 51% in the party primary, due to increasingly sophisticated partisan gerrymandering. That’s a major reason why moderates have been driven out of both parties.]

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