Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Profile of a Liberal

This Reason Magazine article talks about an experiment designed to gauge people's altruism. It comes up with some not so surprising results -- which reveal a lot about why people vote liberal:

Here's one of Smith's experiments: Two total strangers are placed in separate rooms. They never meet, they never learn each others' names, and they come and go by separate entrances. One of them is selected randomly to receive 10 one-dollar bills and an envelope. He can put any number of bills in the envelope and send it by messenger to the other subject. Then everyone takes his money and goes home.
Simple economics predicts that no money ever goes in the envelope. And that prediction is borne out about two-thirds of the time. The remainder of the time, the prediction is still not far off. When there's anything in the envelope, it's most often a single dollar bill.
Now we come to the dark and unsettling part. James Cox, one of Smith's colleagues at the University of Arizona, has been running a variant of this experiment where subjects know that everything they put in the envelope will get tripled by the experimenter before it's sent to the other room. If they give up a dollar; the other guy gets three. If they give up 10, he gets 30.

In the Cox experiment, even with elaborate anonymity procedures, subjects gave up a lot more money. In fact, virtually all of the subjects put at least a dollar in the envelope, and instead of $1.08, the average envelope contained $3.63 (so the other guy got $10.89 on average). In other words, subjects give more generously when they can get a bigger bang for their buck.

Altruism means personally paying for the privilege of enriching a total stranger. That's not what these people are doing at all. Instead, they're paying for the privilege of taking money away from one total stranger -- namely the taxpayer who's funding the experiment (through the University of Arizona and the National Science Foundation) -- and giving it to another total stranger who happens to be in the next room. There's no sense in which that makes the world a richer place. And the subjects do all this without knowing anything at all about either stranger or having any reason to believe that one is more deserving than the other.
It makes them feel better to have done so; they feel as if they're doing good. They get the "feel good" factor of $9 bucks for spending (on average) $3, while with the non-matching scenario they either get the feel good factor of $3 for spending three.

And they're right: it is scary. If anything, its an indictment of our tax-the-rich system that liberals love so much.