Thursday, March 17, 2011

Springtime for Freeloaders

The big problem for humans, indeed all social animals, is freeloading. Whenever you have a society, there is always a temptation for the individual to lie, cheat, or steal. It's the nature of society that the benefits are spread widely and can be enjoyed by all, even those that don't contribute much, or perhaps, anything.

In the society of the great apes, the freeloading problem is solved by the dictatorship of the alpha males. But ancient human society in the hunter-gatherer groups, evolved, we believe, from the great apes, was egalitarian. So how did the hunter gatherers deal with the free-rider problem? The answer is: religion. Instead of a real life alpha male forcing the freeloaders up to the mark, they discovered that the gods were willing to do this job, thus avoiding the need for overbearing alpha males. And, as a special bonus, even if the gods didn't get around to punishing evildoers in this life, they would punish them in the next one.

Every society must deal with freeloaders; the question is how? Clearly, there is a spectrum of response, from a pure this-worldly alpha male model to a pure other-worldly alpha male model.

In our society we seemed to have developed a different approach, and I suspect that it is a consequence of the rise of capitalism.

Capitalism relies upon a network of trust. Capitalist actors, consumers, producers, and middle-men, build up long-term relationships of trust, backed up by a legal system that deals with the egregious defaulters. Science backs up this model with the Prisoners Dilemma concept, where it turns out that the best strategy is to trust people that act in a trustworthy manner towards you, and have nothing to do with people who demonstrate untrustworthiness.

But there has been, since the beginnning of capitalism, an opposing meme, that the capitalist trust network is fundamentally unjust because it creates unequal results. Hard workers, or just lucky workers, make more, and unlucky or less endowed workers make less. This offends the hunter gatherer instinct for equality.

There is a double catch here. On the one hand, some capitalists succeed not by hard work, but by luck. On the other hand, some unlucky workers are not just unlucky, but freeloaders taking advantage of the successful work of others.

In the 19th century, in a spontaneous process, people developed new social structures to ameliorate the luck quotient by developing labor unions and fraternal associations. These social institutions extended the solidarity among blood brothers outwards to non-related people who declared themselves the moral equivalent of brothers. Thus unlucky people could be assisted by their union or Masonic brothers, and nascent freeloaders encouraged to mend their ways, or get expelled from the brotherhood.

We threw the fraternal model away in the early 20th century and replaced it with the welfare state.

But the welfare state is a full-on encouragement to freeloaders. It tells members of society that if they are victims, they deserve help; that is their right. There is no mechanism to encourage social behavior. If you qualify for help, you get help. Obviously there is no limit to this sort of thing. It encourages everyone to discover a "right" and to demand support from the rest of society because of some disability.

We can see, from the recent Wisconsin events, that it is very difficult to tell the benefit recipients that the money is gone. Typically they react with rage. Freeloaders, like most evildoers, are not like Shakespeare's Iago, who delights in his villainy. They justify their evildoing with lies and self-deceit. They persuade themselves that they deserve what they steal; they have a right to it.

But obviously, the Springtime for Freeloaders is coming to an end, the welfare state is running out of money.

The question for reformers, working to restore a society of trust out of the debris of the age of freeloading, is how to proceed? Hawks like radio host Hugh Hewitt are pushing Republicans in Congress to press the pedal to the metal, and set up a showdown with Democrats, replicating the actions of Gov. Scott Walker (R) in Wisconsin.

But I wonder. I think that the freeloaders are going to have to see the bottomless pit opening up under them before they will be willing to give up their "rights," and I don't think we have reached that point. I don't think the average benefit recipient has a clue how close we are to a real financial meltdown.

Against that is the call of conscience, the need to be right with the divine judge. It is all very well to plan strategy and put your opponent in an impossible position. But against that is the moral imperative, to do the right thing.

And the right thing is to repair the government finances, no matter who it benefits today, or who it benefits tomorrow.

Because in the end we all must stand before the divine judge.

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