In a previous Health Alert I argued that the real issue in health reform is not health care. It is collectivism. The natural follow-up question is: Why is anybody a collectivist? It’s easy to understand why people are individualists. We’re all the product of selfish genes. But where does collectivism come from? Why does it persist?
To answer that question, I first need to explain the problem that needs to be solved.
In a world of rational, self-interested robots, there would not be what we conventionally think of as a collectivist. There would never arise a Lenin or a Stalin or a Hitler or a Mao Tse Tung. There would not be millions of entities subscribing to their various ideologies. Nor would there be any Franklin Roosevelts or any welfare state liberals.
With God on Our Side
That does not mean there would be anarchy. Social scientists understand that certain decisions are necessarily social, or collective. For example, if we are going to communicate, we need a common language. If we are going to trade with each other, we need a common law. If we are going to incorporate politically to protect ourselves internally we need a common criminal law. In dealing with outsiders we need common foreign and defense policies.
But aside from communicable diseases and common threats, there is no rational reason why health care decisions need to be made collectively. Nor retirement decisions. Nor is there any reason why my choice of how to insure against unemployment, disability or premature death needs to be the same as your choice. And, to state the obvious, there is no rational reason why we need to have the same incomes.
Not only is uniformity in these areas unnecessary, the desire to impose it is irrational. It is the existence and persistence of this irrationality that needs to be explained.
Continuing with our thought experiment, let’s endow our rational robots with sentiment — so that they are not indifferent to the suffering or the needs of fellow robots. The existence of this sentiment creates three immediate problems.
First is the public good problem. If all other robots care about the suffering of I Robot, then all other robots benefit from the relief of that suffering, whether or not they contribute to the effort. Under these circumstances, economists have shown that private, individual decision-making will generate too little relief for I Robot.
The second problem is the free rider problem. If I Robot knows that other robots are not indifferent to his plight, he has an incentive to not save for his retirement, not insure for his health care (robot maintenance), etc., knowing that the other robots will take care of him. In other words, the very existence of sentiment creates perverse incentives to game the system.
To many liberals, problems one and two constitute a prima facie case for coercion, exercised by the state. But that’s because they ignore problem three. Anytime you coerce people you keep them from doing whatever they otherwise want to do. And this runs the risk of making them worse off. Further, Phil Porter and I have shown (most recently here) that there is no known public choice mechanism (certainly not majority voting) that will produce anything close to ideal outcomes. This means that we face the likelihood (especially in certain areas) that coercive government programs will make society worse off than if there had been no intervention at all.
Also, since our robots are both (a) rational and (b) care about the welfare of all other robots, they would never impose uniform behavior on people if better alternatives existed. Better alternatives to a one-size-fits-all welfare state do exist, as it turns out. The Biblical idea of a tithe to the poor is an alternative to TANF and food stamps. At the NCPA we have turned the idea of a compulsory tithe into a taxpayer choice proposal. Of the many policy ideas I have developed, it is the only one that I can claim is truly God-given.
As for gaming the system, forced saving and forced self-insurance and third-party insurance are far superior to the typical welfare state uniformity. Singapore’s mandatory Medisave accounts, Chile’s mandatory private savings alternative to social security and Chile’s innovative approaches to unemployment and disability insurance are all far superior to what we observe in Europe.
Anyway, this gets back to the original question. Why are people irrationally collectivist — wishing to impose far more uniformity and outlaw far more individuality than can ever be justified?
The answer is war. War? Yes, war. Or at least the African plains version of it. One million years ago — drifting down to, say, 100,000 or so years ago (by which time I assume the basic genes were well in place) our ancestors were in continual battles with each other over resources.
The ones who thought like rational robots — calculating cost versus benefit before acting — were at a disadvantage when confronting those who were willing to irrationally risk life and limb out of loyalty to the group. So the former group passed on fewer genes than the latter.
For lack of a better word, I will call the source of the impulse to subordinate self-interest to group goals the “collectivist gene.” It probably has a lot in common with the God gene in that it has evolutionary survival value.
I believe we all have a bit of the collectivist gene in us (although obviously some more than others) and it’s not all bad. The same gene (or set of genes) that produces leftwing nuttiness also produces patriotism, and bravery and heroism in battle.
It also produces such voluntary achievements as the election of Scott Brown in Massachusetts. In general, a rational robot would not vote at all. The reason? The expected benefit from voting is the benefit of the preferred candidate’s win multiplied times the probability that the robot’s vote will determine the outcome of the election. (But for his vote, the election would have ended in a tie.) And since that probability is infinitesimally small, the expected benefit from voting is infinitesimally small. The cost of voting (especially when it’s cold, sleeting and snowing) is not small, however. Hence, purely rational robots would stay home. It is the “irrational” commitment to group goals that spurs humans not only to vote, but also to give money, put up signs, canvass, poll watch, etc.
So the same gene that historically has caused so much harm (170 million plus people killed by their own governments in the 20th century), also has the capacity to produce much good.
Someday I’d like to write a book about this.