Paying Taxes makes you feel good

Very interesting new research about the science of altruism.  In short:

Knowing your money is going to a good cause
can activate some of the same pleasure centers in your brain as food
and sex, U.S. researchers said on Thursday.

People
who participated in a study got a charge knowing that their money went
to a charity ? even when the contribution was mandatory, like a tax.
They felt even better when they voluntarily made a donation,
researchers found.

As John Tierney discusses in his essay on the research in The New York Times, this rebuts much of the conventional wisdom that there is no “pure altruism,” because all seemingly altruistic actions are taken either a) to make the doer feel good about him/her self; or b) to make the doer more likely to be the recipient of altruistic action.  A brief summary:

We are so convinced of our goodness that we recoil at the
philosophers and social scientists who have come up with less uplifting
explanations for our behavior. (What is it with these nasty academics?)

Kant considered acts motivated by sympathy as not praiseworthy,
because they make the do-gooder feel better. Psychologists have
similarly argued that ?empathy altruism? is ultimately selfish, because
of the emotional benefits it provides to the giver.

The
sociobiologist Robert Trivers worked out the mathematics of ?reciprocal
altruism,? whereby our urge to be nice ultimately serves to propagate
our genes by inducing others to cooperate with us. If you know that
even Simon Cowell cannot help being altruistic, you are more inclined
to give him help when he desperately needs it.

Some economists
have attributed altruism to the ?warm glow? effect ? the pleasurable
feeling of playing Lady Bountiful and basking in public admiration.
They?ve argued that there is no such thing as ?pure altruism.? But now
the pure variety has been spotted in the brains of students, at least
according to the new paper by a psychologist, Ulrich Mayr, and two
economists, William T. Harbaugh and Daniel R. Burghart, all at the
University of Oregon.

Tierney, formerly an conservative columnist on the Times op-ed page, does make one comment that I just cannot let go…

There were almost equal numbers of egoists and altruists, and their
brain scans correlated with their altruistic behavior. The altruists
chose to donate $20 on average, while the egoists gave just $11.
Unfortunately, the researchers did not ask the students in either group
for their political preferences, so we cannot even begin to speculate
who is stingier, Democrats or Republicans.

Cannot even begin to speculate…”  Oh, I think we can definitely speculate and I think we all know what the answer would be.

Ends vs. Means and Ideology

I think one of the central problems with modern conservative politics is their slavish devotion to “free market” solutions to everything.  Generally speaking, I think free markets are good and I, like most liberals, am a fan of capitalism, when appropriately regulated by government to avoid its worst excesses, e.g., monopolies, abusive labor practices, etc.  The obvious truth is, though, that sometimes a free market solution is very suboptimal for a particular policy area (i.e., health care).  Seems to me, that liberals are most interested in the ends– that is, a good policy whether it is achieved through government action or free market mechanisms.  Conservatives are so hung up on free markets being the means, that they don't even care if it leads to poor ends.  Case in point, student loans (as related by Jonathan Chait in The New Republic):

But, in the real world, conservative
ideology has less to do with the size of government than with the way
government operates. And the conservative style, I'd argue, actually
makes corruption more likely. As Exhibit A of my indictment, I present the college-loan scandal.

You may have heard about this episode, in which numerous
college-loan administrators took kickbacks from lenders. Everybody
agrees it's sleazy. What everybody doesn't realize is that it's a
direct result of anti-government mania.

When Bill Clinton entered office, he
tried to reform the inefficient
student-loan program. The system he inherited was this: Students who
wanted a college loan would go to a private lender; the lenders, in
turn, would get paid a government-set interest rate by Washington; and,
if the student defaulted on the loan, Washington would pay it back for
them.

Clinton proposed to replace the guaranteed loans with direct
loans–which meant having the federal government cut out the middleman
and make the loans itself. Every independent agency that has calculated
the cost–the Congressional Budget Office, Clinton's Office of
Management and Budget, even George W. Bush's Office of Management and
Budget–has concluded that direct lending would save the government
billions of dollars each year.

Naturally, the middlemen did not take kindly to being cut out of the
deal. They launched a fierce counterattack, and they were embraced by
conservatives inside Congress and out. Their main line of argument was
that direct lending amounted to Big Government…

It now turns out that the private lenders' success came
not through superior efficiency but through superior graft. The
emerging college-loan kickback scandal is a vast scheme by private
lenders to bribe colleges into foisting their services onto students.
Lenders plied college-loan officers with meals, cruises, and other
gifts. Some loan officers were given lucrative stock offers.

….The very thing that drove conservatives to oppose Clinton's
reform ? the vast private profits made available by guaranteed loans ?
is what enabled the scandal. Almost any government program creates at
least some potential for cheating. The hallmark of the
conservative approach is that the scale of the profits is so huge.
Sallie Mae, the largest student lender, was recently sold for $25
billion.

Kevin Drum has some nice commentary on the column, so I'll let him get the last word in:

As a result, a toxic combination of conservative true believer-itis in
free markets (the stated reason) and old-fashioned corruption (the real
reason) costs the taxpayers about $3 billion per year. For just this
one program. Welcome to right wing America.

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