Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Out of Order Again

I don't seem to be getting around to general comments on Jonathan Haidt's The Righteous Mind, getting rabbit-trailed into interesting side topics instead.  Perhaps that is best.  Many of you are somewhat familiar with Haidt anyway. If I leap right into the main topics some important and interesting items might get missed.

He notes in two separate sections that conservatives are much more focused on the issue of free riders. First, he acknowledges, somewhat surprised, that conservatives are more generous to others, but notes that they like to keep control over who benefits from their generosity.  They are very quick to help those who are clearly innocent victims, or those who are perceived as having been on the short end of luck, such as bystanders or those in extreme weather conditions. But as the causes of the misfortune become more ambiguous, conservatives back off.  In the cases of folks who have caused much of their own misery, conservatives are not only uncaring, but often hostile.  Liberals, he finds, tend to make these distinctions far less often.  Suffering in itself calls out for compassion, and more subtly, we seldom can see cause and desert as clearly as we think we do.

Second, he follows the origin-of-religions idea of those who still hold out the possibility that natural selection can operate at a group level. (Note: though attractive, this has pretty much been eliminated in discussing non-humans, and many popular explanations of group selection occurring among humans have been whittled down to individual selection. It is considered risible by many.  Haidt makes a fair case for it occurring in a few limited areas.) It's an Emil Durkheim-descended idea, with Nicholas Wade probably the most widely-read of the current advocates for the position. The connection is that religions, which require sacrifice and increase group bonding with the same actions, offer some selection advantage by reducing the free-rider problem. I have a few objections to this sort of reductionist view, but let that pass for the moment.  Community is certainly a Jewish and then Christian theme in the Bible, and it is central to my own theology of both OT and NT. *

Contemplating that the free rider problem is an enormous issue to conservatives, I realised that it is an enormous issue to me personally as well.  It may explain nearly entirely my siding with conservatives generally despite my objections to them on many fronts. To not be a free rider is as powerful and animating force for me as I can identify. My children were clubbed by it, sometimes in word, always by example.  One does his bit, however distasteful, and there's an end to it.

I make distinctions that many conservatives, or at least the noisier ones, do not, revolving around my fury at their declaring some to be free riders who have had little or no control over their situations.  It might be technically true that people with Down's Syndrome are free riders, but I don't respond to the helpless that way emotionally, and I certainly can't find Christian justification for it.  You may quote "The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat" as much as you please, but Jesus didn't seem to address beggars in that way, nor did Peter and Paul. Yet you can find Christians who draw the circle very widely of who is a free rider and who is not. I find it infuriating.

Yet at some level, I get it.  I apply a very high standard to myself on such matters (or did until a few years ago; there are lacunae in the fabric now). I have little sympathy for those who ride free off others - and I have known some quite well.  One consequence is that I no longer regard their opinion on any moral issue as having the least weight. If hatred for free riders turns out to be heritable, and a common cause of conservatism, I would put down money that I have plenty of genes that could play out that way.

So, allowing for the usual caveats that this is not an either-or situation, but group tendencies, this is a place where conservative riders who are arguing with liberal elephants would do well to remember that they do not feel quite as strongly as you do about free riders; and liberal riders to keep in mind that conservative elephants care about this a great deal.  It will increase understanding.

* I note again.  Jesus seems focused on building a new tribe that includes both Jews and Greeks.  Whether Jews and Greeks in general, outside of His kingdom, get along better does not seem important to Him.

12 comments:

bs king said...

I always think the free rider problem is a very good one to look at through a stats lens. Any time we assess this, we have four possible outcomes:

1. We correctly give aid to someone who deserves it
2. We correctly deny aid to someone who does not deserve it
3. We incorrectly give aid to someone who doesn't deserve it (Type 1 error)
4. We incorrectly deny aid to someone who deserves it (Type 2 error)

Liberals like to focus on points 1 and 4, while conservatives like to point to point 3 and occasionally 2.

The place liberals lose me is how they respond to point 3. Almost invariably they say this won't be a "real" problem, and that the real problem is #4. Some conservatives let themselves get bogged down in defending point 4, but the best response is always "if we let #3 go unchecked, we have nothing left to help anyone and #4 goes up anyway".

It baffles me that this discussion almost always gets framed as a debate over what "deserve" means, as opposed to being framed as a debate between what type of error we are willing to accept. In my mind, conservative plans are almost always the ones attempting to manage both types of errors, and liberals only want to manage #4. This is why conservative plans frequently don't sound as appealing, but I support them more. I think they take more unfortunate realities in to account.

Earl Wajenberg said...

Is there an issue that bothers liberals as much as free riders bother conservatives, and which conservatives dismiss the way liberals dismiss free riders?

terri said...

The problem is that there is no way to foolproof any organizational or societal system from crafty free-riders. Any system can be manipulated by someone determined to get something for nothing. The question is not whether there will be "free riders" but whether they make up enough of those receiving aid to worry about. My guess is that intentional "free riders" are a relatively small percentage of the people that conservatives don't like to give aid to.

I would venture to say that conservatives who get upset about these types of things cast a much wider net that includes people whom they believe have made poor life choices and deserve to lie in the beds that they have made. There are a lot of judgements made about people who "should have known better."

The problem is that there is no end of people who "should have known better." What do we do with people who made poor choices and now require help? Do we rub their faces in it and then give them aid? Do we simply give aid and say nothing. Do we try to educate them, knowing that most of them will let what is said to them go in one ear and out the other?

I would say we help people not only for their own sakes, but for our own. We do what we can do and if it isn't put to good use by the person who is helped, then that is on them. It doesn't make us foolish for giving or helping in whatever way we could.

Two random observations:

1. It is ironic to me that the many religious conservatives who tend to be outraged by "FREE RIDERS" also come from the stripe of Christian who would claim a theology that salvation is a free gift given to those who don't deserve it and can never earn it.

2. I personally find it difficult to hand out money to young, relatively healthy-looking pan handlers. I live in a large, urban area in which there are pan-handlers everywhere. I occasionally will hand over a few dollars, and sometimes not. This is largely based on a judgement call on my part and how I am feeling that day. I will almost never give money to a younger person, because in my mind they have youth and health and should be able to find some way to manage without living on the streets. I am much less sympathetic to them.

On the other hand, the older, unhealthy people I do occasionally give to probably started out just as young and healthy.

james said...

So conservatives are more alive to the risks from moral hazard?

Assistant Village Idiot said...

earl - Granting that neither the free rider problem nor my suggestions below are either-or, but represent tendencies on a continuum, I would say off the top of my head that many environmental issues, especially those that are speculative rather than clean water, clean air arouse liberal passion but are somewhat dismissed by conservatives. PC speech issues would fall into the same category.

terri - I don't know the answer, but I get worried about assumptions like "relatively small percentage." I will say that I know a great many free riders, but they are a relatively small percentage of my patients. However, becoming one of my patients is a pretty high bar of dysfunction. One has to convince mental health professionals in an ER that you have a mental illness and you are dangerous, and then convince our admission people of the same thing. Certainly, people game that system, and there are ER's who just want crazy people gone and misrepresent the data. Still, to get to my unit you have to show some serious evidence of illness, yet I still know folks who I believe are gaming the system. Also, I believe Northern New England used to be very low on the number of such free riders, however such things are measured.

The people who get angriest at the free riders here are our own unit staff, the single moms and recovering alcoholics working the units, who can often match the patients in life difficulty and resent people making excuses for them.

The next category, of "you made your bed now lie in it," is problematic in both directions. I think the points you raise are exactly the right ones, but i don't have complete answers, certainly not here.

As for who we give to, your short cuts are as good as any and probably better. Intuition is subject to the caprice of our circumstances as much as the needy person's, yet still functions at an evolutionarily high level. And youth/health versus age/infirmity is certainly a good first cut.

As for the theology, I have observed a world of difference among evangelicals when charities announce up front that they give to everyone and don't ask many questions, versus those charities who keep insisting that their recipients are "deserving." Your culture may be different, but evangelicals here will give to the former with only minor grumbling, but push back hard against the latter. If you are giving because giving is what you do, fine. But if you try and tell me that the undeserving are actually deserving, we're through. Begone.

Grim said...

I always thought the free rider problem wasn't that free riders exist, but that you need to draw the lines in a way that allows the justified ones while excluding as many as possible of the malingerers. You have to accept some malingerers, or you'll draw the line in the wrong place and exclude people who genuinely need help.

On the other hand, I don't have a natural home in either party anymore. So mine is, as always in American politics, very much a minority understanding of what right looks like.

Texan99 said...

There seems to me to be a huge difference between acknowledging that grace is a free gift even to the undeserving, vs. exhausting the available material charitable resources by not restricting them to people who aren't busy destroying their lives as fast as they can be expensively helped. God isn't going to run out of grace, but if we feed the idle in Pittsburgh we won't be able to help as much with the famine in Haiti or Somalia.

I'd also say I'm very skeptical of the idea that liberals worry less about whether charity goes to the undeserving. When they're giving away their own money they seem as focused on the problem as any conservative is. When they're wishing for public money funded by others is when they get visibly nervous about whether it's mean to think about whether some unlucky people are more deserving than others. Having said that, I'd also acknowledge that it's often a good idea to get a lot less priggish about believing I can be absolutely sure who's "deserving" and who's not. We can all get caught short, no matter how prudent and hard-working we think we are, and there's nothing wrong with one's society being a bit merciful.

But I still keep coming back to this: there are people you can help and people who just get worse if you support them in their behavior. If I'm doing the giving with my own money, I can and will make that distinction as best I can. If a government agency is going to do it with my money, count me skeptical, particularly since it seems to me that the corrosive power of charity is greater the more impersonal and distant its source is.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

T99 - I can give the liberal response to your last paragraph, and it isn't a bad argument, though I don't find it fully convincing. We will tend to be charitable to those like ourselves and those who are charming, which is not always the most accurate measure of need or desert. This is true.

My answer is that government makes a different set of errors.

Texan99 said...

Agreed. There's an inherent tension between the need for intimate human contact and the need to be coolly dispassionate.

djolds 1 said...

One point - you're sort of contradicting yourself in your analysis here.

"First, he acknowledges, somewhat surprised, that conservatives are more generous to others, but notes that they like to keep control over who benefits from their generosity. They are very quick to help those who are clearly innocent victims, or those who are perceived as having been on the short end of luck, such as bystanders or those in extreme weather conditions. But as the causes of the misfortune become more ambiguous, conservatives back off."

"I make distinctions that many conservatives, or at least the noisier ones, do not, revolving around my fury at their declaring some to be free riders who have had little or no control over their situations. It might be technically true that people with Down's Syndrome are free riders, but I don't respond to the helpless that way emotionally..."

The Down's Syndrome case is the "clearly innocent victim" you note early in your essay that Haidt identifies as an essential case of conservative generosity. So trying to single such a case out as one to be on the receiving end of conservative concern over free riders does not track. The "cause of misfortune" in the Down's Syndrome case is in no way ambiguous.

Now if you're reacting off of libertarian extremes wrt free riders, that's fine, but Haidt is relatively clear at distinguishing the conservative from the libertarian.

Texan99 said...

Are there conservatives--or libertarians--who declare people with Down's Syndrome or the like to be "free riders," or at any rate problematic free riders? Infants are free riders, as are people in comas, but I haven't run across libertarians who consider that a social problem. You refer to your fury, so I assume you've encountered arguments that got your goat on the subject of helpless victims. And yet I also assume it must have been most often in the context of a heated argument over which life dilemmas were really beyond someone's control, something like drug addiction being a common battleground in that respect.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

djolds 1 and T99 - you provided an excellent opportunity for me to clarify my own thought, as there is great merit in what you say.

I work in mental health, where there are some people who are clearly abusing the system or making excuses for themselves; in fact, I know way more of them than the complainers and accusers do. Yet also, people who are as innocent as the Down's Syndrome folks but not perceived that way by the general public (never mind libertarians and conservatives). Conservative/libertarian sites have posts and comments - including trained professionals who are years removed from treating people with a serious disability - who pooh-pooh legitimate suffering as people who just aren't trying or are milking the system. In responding to that attitude, which I encounter all the time, I used the rhetorical device of finding the heaviest cinder block I could drop on them to make them scatter. Because, as T99 points out, even extreme libertarian sites make allowance for Down's Syndrome. PTSD is dismissed as illegitimate, autism minimised, and depression in general is regarded as something that people could just get over if they had a better attitude or got more exercise. Quarter-truths disguised as wisdom. I'm not sure that was my best choice, but that was my thinking.