Out of Control Policy Blog

Why people love government

Dan Klein's work is getting lots of much-deserved attention from the NYT's John Tierney. Here's the latest example:

    [Adam] Smith knew that some people professed love for all humanity, but he realized that a man's love for "the members of his own family" is "more precise and determinate, than it can be with the greater part of other people." Hence his famous warning not to rely on the kindness of strangers outside your family: if you want bread, it's better to count on the baker's self-interest rather than his generosity.

    This has never been a popular bit of advice because selfishness is not admired in human societies ... We know it exists, but it feels wrong. We are born with an instinct for altruism because we evolved in clans of hunter-gatherers who would not have survived if they hadn't helped one another through hard times.

    The result is an enduring political paradox: we no longer live in clans small enough for altruism to be practical, but we still respond to politicians who promise to make us all part of one big selfless community. We want everyone to be bound together with a shared set of values, a yearning that Daniel Klein, an economist, dubs the People's Romance in the summer issue of The Independent Review.

    The People's Romance is his explanation for why so many Americans have come to love bigger government over the past century. Their specific objectives in Washington differed - liberals stressed charity and social programs for all, while conservatives promoted patriotism and spending on national security - but they both expanded the government in their quest for a national sense of shared purpose.

    The result, though, has not been one happy community because America is not a clan with shared values. It is a huge group of strangers with leaders who are hardly altruists - they have their own families and needs.

Here's the whole article.

Here's Klein's working paper.

Here's a shorter article by Klein on the same topic.

Ted Balaker is Producer


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