Saturday, July 28, 2007

Selfishness and Biological Drives

This post from Thinking Girl got me thinking. In it she expresses her annoyance with those who feel the need to procreate so strongly that they seek medical intervention to help. She also expresses her opinion that it is selfish to want to do so for various reasons. She asks why people do it, and includes in that her observation that it can't be about biology or rather, that biology isn't enough, because people overcome biological drives all the time. And that is what got me thinking...

First, I'm not picking on Thinking Girl here in particular, this is just where the thought originated so I give credit where credit is due. I have seen similar sentiments expressed about other biological drives in other contexts as well.

It seems there is often a subtext or unstated assumption that somehow following a biological drive is suspect or wrong and that we should overcome it. But that obviously really is unworkable as a general rule. And really, why should we overcome biological drives? Enjoying a beautiful painting is based on biological drives in our brains. Enjoying a good meal is based on a biological drive. Seeking out a good meal or nice music or pleasant company - those are all in part or almost completely based on biological drives. We are social animals. We eat. We make music and listen to it. We dance. These are the things that make life worth living in the first place. Why should we deny them simply because they are biological?

One could argue it is "selfish" to give in to our biological drive to have good, yummy food because it would be much better if we all ate flavorless bean-curd paste every day because then we'd do less harm to the environment and there'd be more overall food protien available cheaply to feed the people of the world. And after all, the desire for yummy, tasty food is just biological, so we should just suppress it like we suppress other biological urges, right?

And then what is wrong with selfishness? Obviously, it is not a virtue to be spread widely, but in a sense, it is what allows any society to function. To be selfish is to put yourself and your needs first (and thus take care of them) in a given context. But everyone needs taking care of. Society can't possibly take care of everyone. Therefore, the first, best thing you can do for society is actually take care of your own needs so that you don't need to tax society's resources. To be self-sufficient as much as you are able to is a virtue. In a sense, to not be self-sufficient and take care of your own needs is selfish, because then you end up draining the energies of others to take care of YOU. So in that sense, it is actually more selfish not to be selfish in some contexts.

This is what I think is at the core of libertarianism. It is not that we don't care about other people, it is that the most efficient and most moral way to have everyone taken care of is to have everyone take care of themself first. That is usually best for everyone. Think about it. Who knows your needs better than anyone else? You do. Who is the most qualified person to allocate resources to meet your own particular needs? You are. Therefore, the first, best, most efficient person to take care of your own needs is you. You won't need to explain your needs to yourself. You won't need to go fill out paperwork from some government form to show you qualify for some particular need. And collectively, the government or some other body, which by nature would have to operate on a mass scale, would likely get your needs wrong or in the wrong proportion anyway - that is just the nature of a bureaucracy.

Plus, you are the most motivated person to getting your own needs met. Thus, if you decide you have a need (or even just a desire) that is more expensive than society could ever afford to just give you, if you allocate your own resources, then you could give yourself something that you need that society at large never could. (For instance, if you are like me and love ot have a new "toy" in the form of a 5-7K computer every so many years (which are lengthening as I pay for day care and other things...) - well, it is clear that no welfare program would be able to give that much to everyone at that frequency - the government would go bankrupt. But for myself, I can marshall my own personal resources, save, and even seek a better paying job in order to give that to myself. Sure, there are tradeoffs. Perhaps I'll decide I like the quality of life from my current job, so I voluntarily sacrifice getting my computer in order to keep that lifestyle. That is my choice to make. If the computer was just supplied by the government, well, then I'd be demanding it because to get it doesn't cost me anything and requires me to sacrifice nothing.

Obviously, my level of motivation to get that computer (or anything else I need, like money to support my wonderful daughter, which is where all of my money seems to go these days) determines my choice of career and choice of job within that career. For instance, right now, there is an opportunity to work at a new job that would involve working for a very abusive boss. It pays more and could open some doors. So now I have to ask myself if I want to give up my wonderful job I have right now (which is only temporary in any case) in exchange for that. With a new baby on the way, I have to think really hard about that. Is the potential abuse worth the extra money and financial security for my family? Again, providing for myself, I'm in the best position to make that decision. On the other hand, if it were just welfare, I would have no reason not to just keep voting myself more money from the treasury.

Anyone who has read this far who is screaming at the monitor "what about those who can't earn enough to take care of themselves" - well, note that above, I very clearly stated that one should take care of oneself to the best of their ability. Unfortunately, there will be those who cannot do so for whatever reason. Even then, though, I think the first, best line of support is family. That's the way it has always been, in fact. That's the way it still is, primarily. That's a partial answer, even, to TG's original question - why have families? Families are where people find their first line of support. Children would also be in the category of those who cannot take care of themselves - in fact, parents are legally obligated to do so and can be penalized if they do not. That's why I think one should not have children unless you are financially and emotionally able to do that. (Though it is a tricky issue - how can you keep, for instance, someone dirt poor from having a dozen children that he or she cannot possibly support?) That's another reason why I have trouble with welfare, even for children. While it is not their fault, if there is no disincentive to have huge numbers of unsupported children, then that just makes the problem worse. I wonder how TG feels about someone who just goes out and has a lot of kids and then turns around and asks her to pay for them.

So families are the first line of support. Don't have kids you can't afford. Support the family you already have. Again, family would be the best way to do this - family members have a personal connection and care about what happens to you. That goes not for just children, but for the disabled. And plan ahead for yourself, so when you are old, you have enough resources saved so you don't burden your children or society.

I don't pretend that everyone will be able to do this. I realize it is hard, particularly for those who don't make much money. But every dollar one manages to take care of for oneself is one less dollar someone else has to spend to do so. And while there are many born into poverty, there are also plenty who have the opportunity to get out or who were born middle class but were never taught how to handle money responsibly or plan ahead and who end up in poverty because of that. Lack of education for birth control also contributes to that. There's an area where I think collective action can work the most good. Education. Education starts at home, but we have a public education system so we have an opportunity to teach real useful skills to everyone, including finances, reproductive health, retirement planning, and so forth. Every person who learns those and takes it to heart is one less person requring outside support - and perhaps even more than one less, if that person does well enough not only to take care of him or herself, but also of his or her family members who cannot take care of themselves.

Does this all sound selfish? Yes, I'm sure it does, but I think it is about sustainability. Think of it in environmental terms. If you have a forest where trees can't take care of themselves because of conditions, and so they die, eventually you run out of forest. If your solution is to keep brining in trees from the outside to replace those that die, then you really aren't solving the problem. On the other hand, if you change conditions so that each tree is responsible for taking care of itself, then pretty soon you have a full forest again and you don't need to do anything to keep it going but leave it alone. Obviously, an oversimplification, but the general idea is that it is easier to keep things going when a given component of a system is self-sustaining. That is true for societies as well. If you kept the dying trees alive by continuously sapping the strength of the healthy trees, eventually the dying trees will still die because the healthy trees could get so sapped that they stop growing as well, and then they have nothing left to give and then all the trees die.

That's a crude description of the problem with things like welfare. Taxing the productive to support the unproductive just discourages production in the productive and makes the unproductive less able to fend for themselves - why even try to work if you get your money for free? It is a tricky issue. I know that family support systems will not suffice for all of those who truly are unable to fend for themselves. The trouble again, though, is how do you differentiate between those who can't and those who simply won't because they are lazy? A bureaucracy won't be able to handle that. Anyone who thinks otherwise has obviously never spent much time dealing with a bureaucracy.

The ideal is to have as many people taking care of themselves and their families so as to minimize the number of people who cannot fend for themselves who also have no family to do so. From there, private charity could then step in. Even if there's no welfare, there's nothing stopping anyone from voluntarily giving their time or their money or anything else they can spare to help those in need, either directly or through an organization. Again, that is also the most efficient way to do it. Some people will have no resources to spare after taking care of themselves and their family. I don't right now - day care is an arm and a leg, for one thing. Then there's the money my wife and I send to her mother every month. And savings for our daughter's college fund, which is still woefully inadequate. So to take money from me through taxes right now to give to someone else, well, that just makes me not fulfill my own needs - not exactly a great trade-off. Robbing Peter to pay Paul I think that is called.

On the other hand, my mother, who is now semi-retired, and my father, who is now semi-retired, they have saved their whole lives for retirement and now have time to spare and so they both do a lot of volunteer work to help others and they also give money. (I guess it helps no longer having to support my sorry ass... ;) ) I know lots of other people who do similar sorts of things, some retired, some still in their working prime, but with more resources of time and money because their kids are older than my daughter and they have been working longer.

As a final note, I want to note that I realize that a lot of people pay lip service to what I mention above, particularly in the GOP, but who in actual practice, are even bigger welfare users than individuals - I'm talking about Corporate Welfare. I'm talking about those who live on the government teat, getting government contracts as political favors or special tax breaks, and who basically have a business model of getting as much taxpayer money as possible rather than actually producing something that would independently support a company. This also happens intra-company, with one large company giving contracts to another so both groups of executives can scratch each others' backs as opposed to doing business with the partner best suited to the endeavor. In that sense, large corporations are no better than big government. So I realize a lot of corporate and government reform is needed beyond just getting rid of individual welfare.

Ok, that was a nice, long, rambling post. Maybe later I'll get to my green grass post I've been itching to do for weeks now. (I'm getting tired of the privilege discussion that never seems to go anywhere, though I think a few interesting little nuggets have come out of it, so I may talk about that as well).


Erin said...

DBB, I understand your reasons for supporting a libertarian system. I also understand your references to the natural world, arguments that have been made since the late 1800s, about "sapping the strength of the strong to help the weak eventually hurts a society," and all that. And in nature, that is the way things have gotten to be the way they are. As an athiest, I know that viewing human societies as an extension of the natural world also fits in with your libertarian philosophy.

While allowing natural or biological forces to rule societies has been a great drive in evolutionary development, I have to disagree that it is the moral thing to do for human societies. Allowing self-sufficiency to rule can only cause a widening gap between the haves and the have-nots. In nature, this is a great thing because the fittest species get on the evolutionary fast track, and the others die off. Hell, that's how we got here in the first place.

But I'm not sure this is the most ethical track to take now that we're here. I think there is sometimes a difference between what is natural and what is morally right--not every biological urge, certainly, but at least in this case.

I guess what it comes down to is that I just can't justify writing off an entire section of the world's population just because they are incapable of achieving "self-sufficiency." The natural world can be a cruel place. It doesn't stop to ask why an individual or population isn't self-sufficient. We can, though. And I think that, for the most part, we are obligated to remove some of the obstacles that prevent people from becoming self-sufficient, like race, poverty, corruption, and access to education.

But I think this is the same argument Marxists and libertarians have been having for decades.

DBB said...

I don't advocate just cutting and leaving everyone behind. I advocate getting as many people self-sufficient as possible, with private charity taking care of the rest. That is not writing anyone off - that is make sure everyone is taken care of in the most efficient manner possible.

And as for the world as a whole, I just don't see how that is the responsibility of any one nation. I'm talking about just the United States. To a certain degree, I think it is somewhat arrogant to think we have any say at all in how others in other nations handle their affairs. Iraq is an example of how messing with another nation, even with alleged good intentions, can go horribly wrong. We can't solve other nation's problems - that either comes from within or doesn't come at all. Certainly we can make things worse, and we should avoid doing anything that does so, but I don't think we should be sticking our noses in other nation's business.

I do think we need to remove obstacles to prosperity. I think we have done that to a great degree already - which is why even the poor in our nation do so much better than the average person in so many other nations. Not that they are doing that well, but obviously, every incremental step that improves the lot of even the most worst off is a good one.

And you mentioned the worst problem that one has with socialist/communist systems - corruption. In a system where things are based on confiscation of wealth from the productive to be given to whomever the government wants, that is a recipie for rampant corruption. Then, the money goes to whomever those in power vote for it to go to. And so what invariably happens is that nations where there is large welfare and heavy taxation is that most of that money ends up going into the pockets of the high government officials that run things and the poor stay poor - and they stay far far poorer than the poor in our own nation.

That's one of the central reasons communism simply does not work and never could work - it goes against human nature. So while I don't advocate doing things just because they match biological forces, I still think it is important to pay attention to them because if you don't and if you try to create an economy that ignores them or goes too much against the grain of how people are, it is destined to fail. For instance, if you tried to set up an economic system that required people to give up sex for pleasure (to use an absurd example) well, that just isn't going to work, because people won't, no matter how hard you try.

I advocate libertarinism because I think it is the system that would maximize the number of self-sufficient people, and would give them enough excess that, through private charity, everyone else could be taken care of. Marxism (and variations thereof) have already been experimented with and those experiments all failed, showing that it is something that just sounds good on paper, but is unworkable in reality and not a sustainable economic model.

That's because wealth itself is not a zero sum game - the truly successful people create it and increase it for everyone. Any system that prevents wealth creation ultimately is doomed to stagnate and die.

ballgame said...

dbb, I enjoy your blog and mostly agree with many of your sensible observations, but I believe you are profoundly misguided on the viability of 'libertarianism' as an political/economic model.

First, a specific criticism:

[E]ven the poor in our nation do so much better than the average person in so many other nations.

This is false. The poor in the U.S. fare worse than the poor in virtually any other First World nation (i.e. Canada, Britain, France, Germany, Sweden ... I believe this is also true for Japan and Italy but don't know for sure). This is not an accident, as those nations have positive real-life experiences with Social Democratic/democratic socialist regimes, and their "conservative" parties are closer to our Democratic Party in many regards than they are to the rightwing zealots currently occupying our White House. (Unfortunately, the logic of investment competition will drive those foreign conservative parties to support increasingly exploitive policies the longer neocons are in power here in the U.S.)

More broadly, your theoretical constructs of 'efficiency', 'self sufficiency', 'productivity', and 'corruption' simply don't line up in the real world as your OP implies.

No one is 'self sufficient' in a modern economy; all live at the mercy of others who provide goods and services to them as part of organizations. I would also dispute the notion implied in your OP that income = productivity, as it can be quite reasonably argued that some of those at the very top of the economic heap are in fact society's biggest parasites.

The 20th century is littered with nations avowedly embracing "free market" policies whose political arenas have choked on the corruption of appeasing the super-rich, with disastrous results for anyone not a part of this benighted class (Mexico, Chile, Argentina, Brazil, etc., to name just a few). Given the suspension of habeas corpus and the recent Executive Order authorizing the Treasury Dept. to freeze all assets of anyone they deem to be a "significant risk" to interfere with the "stabilization" efforts in Iraq, it is legitimate to ask whether we still live in a functioning democracy here in the U.S., or whether once again "free marketeers" have corrupted the body politic at its very core.

DBB said...

Ballgame - those at the top of the heap who currently control our government are not free marketeers, they are socialists who vote funds for a minority instead of for the population at large. They are not interested in a free market. Halliburton doesn't get all those billion dollar contracts because they are the best company in the market for them, they get them because of corruption in the government where tax dollars are sent to the friends of those in power.

So in that case, income is redistributed from the middle class to the rich by taxing the middle class and then using those tax dollars to pay the friends of the elite. That is not a free market. And it is a concern. The libertarian solution is to shrink the tax base and the power of government so that there is not much money available for the powerful to redistribute to their friends. And to shrink the power of government as well - rather than expand it as has happened for the last six years.

I wouldn't say the poor are better off in Europe - there is a large group of young people now who cannot get jobs because socialist policies make firing so hard - employers don't want to get stuck so they just stop hiring. And there are huge swaths of the economy where unproductive companies continue, eating up lots of tax revenue to keep them afloat, when it would have been better to let the companies die and new companies form that would be productive. Europe's tax base is in trouble because an ever larger percentage of taxes must be taken to support a population of decreasing production. That can't go on forever.

Note that I am libertarian leaning - I don't advocate eliminating government, simply minimizing it. And truly, what would be wrong with a voluntary system for helping those who can't support themselves?

I agree the tax system is messed up where the rich pay less than they should proportionately. I favor a graduated, but mostly flat, tax rate - like set a flat tax rate of 25% but exempt the first 50K (per person) or something like that. Then the poor and most of the middle class would pay little to no taxes (and no payroll taxes - talk about regressive) and the rich would still pay an appropriate amount.

antiprincess said...

Don't have kids you can't afford.

what's your definition of "afford"?

DBB said...

A-P - that's a good question. I think, at a minimum, it would include being able to pay for a child's food, clothing, and shelter. Perhaps some form of health coverage as well, though that gets into the general health insurance boondoggle in our nation right now.

But at the very minimum, I consider it irresponsible to have children one can't afford to feed, clothe, and shelter. Both because of the societal drain and because it is unfair to a child to be brought into that situation. My wife and I waited until we were into our thirties to have children because until then, we simply did not have the resources - time as well as money, to support having children.

What would you consider to be the meaning of "afford"?

antiprincess said...

ask me again in february... ;)

seriously, this whole "afford" thing has me tied up in knots.

can anyone really "afford" children?

food clothes home toys stuff doctor more food bigger clothes more toys more stuff doctor dentist school school school lots more food much bigger clothes even more toys doctor dentist therapist lessons college - who affords it really, and who just goes deeper in debt, or scrapes by, or goes without something they used to think was a vital necessity?

should only folks who can really afford it have kids?

and how long can they really afford it until the price of life is jacked up AGAIN, and they're left with kids they can't afford?

AND, looking at it worldwide, if only people who could "afford" it, as we in the US conceive "affording" it, were allowed to reproduce, there'd be a hell of a lot of ghost towns around the world.

to answer your question (sorry for the delay) - I'd like to think that "affording it" consists of three more-or-less square meals a day and someplace to sleep out of the rain.

it's what my husband and I got as kids. and it's all we have now.

Little Mary Wolfgang (as we've termed the fetus) will be a secondhand rose, you bet. I'm not sure how I feel about that, but I couldn't really have an abortion just on accounta we're not rich.

the attribute "poor" was not an automatic dealbreaker for either of us growing up.

antiprincess said...

oh - and we're old. we'll be in the delivery room (god willing) three months AFTER my fortieth birthday. (yes my first, no not planned - we thought I was infertile.)

But I don't have a self-concept that we're "have-nots". we're more like "have-enoughs".

I worry that won't be okay with the kid, frankly.

DBB said...

I think with a child, love matters more than money, but money obviously matters too.

I didn't even include all of the other costs in 'afford' - like toys, day care (or stay home?), car seats, strollers, ugh ugh ugh. Kids are a huge money pit. But it is worth it.

I don't think you need to be rich or well off to be able to take care of a child - but if you aren't then sacrifices have to be made.

And congratulations - February - when in February? My wife is due right now March 3rd. We waited a bit as well, though not as long as you. But then we may want as many as three, so I may be over 40 for the third at this rate.

antiprincess said...

Valentine's day.