Sunday, January 4, 2015

Have an altruistic new year!

Oh, no! Not another essay about altruism! But I have a couple of ideas to share with you about what might be the most important evolutionary adaptation of the human species.

The first regards radio interview I heard recently. The interviewee was a man who had published a major article about how our economic system saps the middle class and oppresses the poor while making the rich richer. He made specific reference to raising the minimum wage. Almost all recent economic growth has gone to the now famous top one percent; if that growth had, instead, gone to the average worker in the form of a higher minimum wage, each worker would earn $20,000 a year more—and this would bring back a healthy middle class.

A caller then made a point about altruism (he didn’t use the term) as a resource. He said that for him to pay his workers higher wages than other companies was a good investment: he gets the better workers, who are more productive, and keeps them longer, lowering the costs of training, etc. But then he said he was opposed to raising the minimum wage because then employers would be forced to treat their employees right—something that he saw as his special niche.

Leave it to an American businessman (who sounds like he is nicer than most) to turn altruism into something entirely selfish, the purpose of which is to make him rich. But this is better than no altruism at all.

The second point is that you can’t legislate altruism.

In recent years in Oklahoma, new road signs have appeared. When there are lane closures on turnpikes and interstates, orange signs proclaim “State law merge now” almost a half mile back from the place where the lanes merge. The reason it became necessary for such a state law is that some altruistic and courteous drivers would merge early, while the demonic and selfish ones would wait until the last few meters and crowd in, not only gaining them a direct advantage but pushing the courteous drivers even further back. Simple common-sense courtesy would have made such a law unnecessary.

Oklahoma does not have big mountains, but Idaho does. When I drove through Idaho last summer, I saw road signs on steep portions of two-lane highways: “State law slow vehicles pull over when three vehicles following.” For most drivers this is common sense, but a few selfish drivers will hold up huge lines of traffic as they chug slowly along the mountain roads. This is a new twist on the old “Keep right except to pass” policy for four-lane highways. Hundreds of times during my travels I have had to put on my brakes uphill as a truck going 51 miles per hour pulls out immediately and dangerously in front of me to pass another truck going 50 in a 75 mile per hour zone. Many truckers consider the interstate highways to be theirs, not the property of the American people.

It is impossible to translate all the common sense principles of courtesy and altruism into laws. Altruism is an instinct. We all know its subconscious dictates. But it is impossible to codify them into laws that cover every detail. And it is not merely a matter of writing laws. Selfish people can ignore a law that dictates some minor component of altruism unless the penalty is sufficiently steep.

Trusting altruism in society seems hopelessly naïve but there is no realistic alternative.

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