The Limits of Self-Interest

The Samaritan's Dilemma: Should Government Help Your Neighbor?, by Deborah Stone, Nation Books, 327 pages, $27.95

On a warm summer evening several years ago, I was strolling through Midtown Manhattan on my way to meet friends for a drink. I paused outside the windows of Saks Fifth Avenue, and in that absentminded moment, someone grabbed my purse and took off. As I started after him, yelling, "Stop, thief!" a jogger suddenly raced passed me and rounded the next corner in hot pursuit. Within minutes the runner reappeared, my purse in hand. Dashing past me, he silently handed it off like a baton and kept going without ever breaking stride.

Until I read Deborah Stone's The Samaritan's Dilemma, I had thought of this incident only as an amusing New York City story. Now I see it as an example of what Stone calls "everyday altruism." It's her premise that people do things to help other people all the time and that altruism is a powerful but invisible force in our lives. We have a deep need to be of use to others and to be part of something larger than ourselves. The tragedy for Americans is that this native selflessness is underrated in our culture, and our leaders have not had the wisdom to harness it for the common good.

Americans do hear the message of altruism in their churches, for every major religion teaches us to help others. I remember one sermon on Mother's Day, when our pastor reminded us that "we are defined by our responsibilities": We are never more aware of self-definition through service to others than when we have young children. Countless mothers and fathers dedicate their lives to their children, and more than one-fifth of adults are caregivers to other adults. The problem, Stone argues, is that the natural human tendency to give of yourself to a greater good has effectively been "privatized" in America. Our institutions, politics, and public discourse ignore, when they do not actively discourage, our better natures. We Americans are social animals who nonetheless teach ourselves to be selfish in the public sphere.

Stone, a professor of political science at Dartmouth College, saw this perverse dynamic while researching the lives of home health-care aides. These low-paid workers, she found, are actively discouraged from becoming emotionally "involved" with their clients. They are instructed to feed, bathe, dress, and otherwise tend to their charges, but bringing a little warmth and cheer and plain old TLC to their days is not part of the job description. Not surprisingly, the aides' job satisfaction -- and their deepest value -- lies in this intangible caring arena. They "cheat" to become friends and intimates of their patients.

The suppression of caring impulses is buttressed by an impressive ideological structure assuring us that "help is harmful" when it comes to government assistance. Ronald Reagan and the conservatives who have dominated public policy for almost 30 years have convinced Americans of the "perversity argument" that a government that helps people only hurts them by making them lazy and dependent.

Of course, Reagan wasn't the only voice in this choir. Neoclassical economists preach that unsentimental, unfettered markets produce more wealth and well-being than well-intentioned regulations or social programs. Libertarians tout the freedom to be "left alone" by a meddling government. Employers define the ideal worker as an atom with no responsibilities for any other living thing, available to work 24/7. The result is a tough unfeeling system that scorns the weak and dependent and labels protests to the contrary as "whining" by losers. Never mind that perhaps 40 percent of the population--most of those under 20 and over 65 years old -- are dependent, one way or another, on others.

Stone worries that the denial of legitimate help to citizens undermines democracy. A constant emphasis on the self-interested self destroys our ability to imagine an "us," that is, an empowered democratic community. Political science textbooks used to tell us that citizens making demands of their government was an essential aspect of democracy. Today, only powerful lobbies expect the government to be their friend. While individual citizens expect little from Washington, organized financial and other powerful interests expect more and are used to getting it. When they run into trouble, they know where to run: Government help won't harm them.

This book was written before the financial crisis, but Stone misses an opportunity to analyze the corporate socialism that has long been lurking behind the "help is harmful" smokescreen. The book disappoints in other ways as well. It is overly anecdotal and vague. "Altruism" is loosely defined, variously referring to good deeds, social programs, family caregiving, or community activism. I found myself yearning for a more rigorous critique of the ethic of self-interest.

Maybe Stone is just too nice. She writes as if the 1980s attack on social programs had no basis whatever in reality. In her telling, no one ever cheated on welfare, no doctor ever overcharged Medicare, no social worker or home health-care aide ever suffered burnout, no teacher ever shortchanged her students. In effect, she asks us to believe that the anti-government rhetoric of the past decades was successful not because it contained a grain of truth but because of brilliant conservative propaganda. I wouldn't give conservatives that much credit. There are problems of moral hazard, and they affect social programs just as they affect financial bailouts. All that's different is the scale. And boy, we ain't seen nothing yet!

But The Samaritan's Dilemma does well to remind us that altruism is indeed a huge untapped national resource that could be used to revitalize our democracy. She suggests how future social-insurance programs may be better designed to permit people to do more to help themselves and have more control over their lives. Above all, she is dead right that progressives need to reclaim a moral language by appealing to our better selves, rather than our isolated selves.

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