Thursday, 18 August 2016

Altruism, reciprocity, fairness and the Left

One of the things that troubles me about Labour at the moment is the apparent retreat into "worthy" politics. It's typified a bit by that slogan "Standing Up, Not Standing By" and most of all by that godawful meme where Jeremy Corbyn says that socialism is sensible because it's all about caring for each other.

Let me state from the outset the altruistic aspect of the Left has always appealed to me personally (though I do find that "caring" meme nauseating), and I think it must be part of any successful Left in the future. But I also believe that when the labour movement was strong in the past it appealed to a wider range of values, and motives.

Let's start with unions. The large majority of normal people don't join unions as an expression of altruism. I hope this isn't too shocking, but really I don't think most people are 'proud' union members and they don't have a lump in their throat when they set up their direct debit to Unite or whoever. They join because they think there is a benefit - be it a sort of "insurance" against anything bad happening at work, or because they think they can earn more through being a member or whatever.

Most people don't join unions because they are attracted to the idea of solidarity either. They learn solidarity as co-operative tactic that pays off. In time they may get the same rosy glow from the idea and experienced reality of solidarity that altruists are probably naturally attracted to, but first and foremost it's a tactic, not a virtue, and it's none the worse for it.

I hope most people will find this relatively uncontroversial. Unions were formed to advance the material interests of their members, so it's not surprising that self-interest is important. What is worth registering is that for a very long time millions of people thought their self-interest was served by joining unions, and by showing solidarity with other workers. When we look back, in the past unions obviously appealed to the idea that we help each other. But the way this was expressed was very different - through solidarity working people primarily projected strength and self-determination more than being virtuous and altruistic.

This makes a lot of sense now we know a lot more about how people behave. In behavioural economics there have been hundreds of experiments that seek to understand competitive versus co-operative behaviour, and the factors that affect it. A very rough picture emerges of the make up of society. About one in five of us are altruistic by nature, so we'll always tend towards co-operation just because that's who we are and what we like. A quarter of us are the opposite - inherently competitive, and so will always default to the self-interested option. But the biggest chunk of us are in the middle. We will play nicely, but on the basis that it's reciprocated. And if it isn't reciprocated we will punish those that infringe.

This is also important because it gets into the territory of "fairness". Now a lot of Righties these days argue that because fairness is hard to define we should forgot the concept when looking at economic rewards. Probably a fair chunk of them are in the quarter of us who are simply competitive and self-interested. But equally most people aren't into unreciprocated fairness. Altruists think about what is fair on you, most people in the middle primarily think about what is fair on them. They don't mind collective solutions if everyone is in, but they hate getting ripped off.

This says a lot about why the Left has such a problem with welfare reform. Most of us hate the idea that people cheat the system, or take out more than they deserve. Some of us (many of us on the Left) feel very passionately to any attempt to take away welfare provision which we feel should be provided as a right, but those of us are in a minority, probably even amongst Left voters. Most people feel that reciprocity must be part of the mix. Obviously people's knowledge of the true extent of benefit fraud etc is typically miles off target, not helped by media who stoke the fire. But the fact those stories generate such anger, and can be used so effectively by the Right, is perhaps a good indication of how strong the pull of reciprocal fairness is.

So to come back to Labour, I think we need to be aware that trying to appeal to altruism, being virtuous, or caring about each other is going to resonate with a small minority of people. Much as I hate the term "virtue signalling" I do think there is a point in there somewhere. Most people are not going to be won over to the Left by appeals to treat others fairly, and appeals of this nature can come across as pious or simply out of touch (leaving yourself open to being ripped off).  

A successful Left will have to appeal to self-interest, and should not be afraid of this. When we have been at our strongest it was when millions of people felt that they and their families benefitted from being part of the movement. It was not through an upsurge in caring. In practice, working together collectively, expressing solidarity, delivered and so it both showed strength and felt good. And collective solutions were durable when people felt "this is fair on me" not "this is fair on you". If we can reformulate these things we can win again.

Like the man said: the meek ain't gonna inherit shit.

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