Altruism and Taxpayers

In such conditions, people are prepared, within limits, to help others who suffer through no fault of their own. Thus, they help victims of earthquakes, floods, and all other natural disasters. They help people who cannot help themselves, including those who are stuck in a ditch. But that is not their primary goal or, as a rule, a major goal. It is secondary and rests upon their pursuit of their own happiness.

via Replies to Readers of My Article on the Real Right to Medical Care – Mises Economics Blog.

The above quote is from an excellent article on the ethics of taxpayer provided health care. Unfortunately, the author gets pulled into a long exposition of the Randian view of altruism. Many people will find it off putting – and they should. Nevertheless, it is my view that the conclusions regarding altruism are mostly correct, but the arguments for getting to the conclusion are flawed. Brain science has overtaken Ayn Rand.

Here is, in my opinion, a better argument:

Humans have an innate need for altruism. It’s wired into the brain, along with many other things. But, like other human traits, it is not unlimited. There are limits to our altruism. Up to a point, altruistic behavior contributes to our own happiness and well being. Beyond that point, it has the opposite effect. Our capacity and need for altruism varies from person to person.

Exhortations to be more altruistic have little effect other than to sometimes coerce people to appear more altruistic than they really are in order to avoid social stigma. Obviously, this does not contribute to their happiness. Compelling altruistic behavior  with strong threats for non-compliance is even worse. Such compulsion is the nature of taxpayer funded charity. For some, the tax burden is acceptable because it operates within their altruistic limits. They feel good about the good works funded by their tax dollars. For others, the tax burden itself is acceptable, but they would prefer to pay less in taxes and give more to charities that have different aims or that can perform more efficiently than government. For them, taxpayer funded charity is a weak and unsatisfying response to altruism. For still others, the level of taxation and taxpayer provided charity is simply too much. They have other ways of spending or investing their money which would make them happier and might even benefit other people more than the taxpayer funded charity.

It is not necessary to dismiss altruism in order to argue the correctness of the libertarian view of taxpayer funded charity. One merely has to note that taxpayer funded charity does a poor job of satisfying our needs for altruism in our pursuit of happiness. There are many other arguments against taxpayer funded charity, but there is no need to denigrate altruism in order to make the point.

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