Four Principles of Human Action
By Arnold Kling
A stands for Altruism.
B stands for Business.
C stands for Command and Control
D stands for Deity and Disgust
Think of these as principles that people use to rationally justify (or rationalize) their conduct. Principles differ from motives, in that motives, such as status-seeking, can be unconscious. Some more remarks follow.A given action or closely-related set of actions may be based on more than one principle. I could give a talk because I am paid (the business principle), because I want to share what I know (the altruism principle), because I expect others to listen and obey (the command and control principle), or because I think I am spreading the gospel and battling evil (the deity and disgust principle).
Altruism is doing things with the intention of benefiting others, at some cost to ourselves. Ayn Rand is one of the few thinkers that comes to mind who actually opposes the altruism principle. I feel more positively about altruism, but I would say to beware of the tendency of some people to glorify altruism in order to manipulate others into being altruistic.
Not every action undertaken on the basis of the altruism principle is a success. Following the principle of altruism works well for families and other small groups. As we get farther away from people, our ability to actually benefit others through altruistic action tends to decline quite a bit.
The business principle is doing something with the intention of mutual benefit. I would claim that, over the course of history, most of the improvement in the quality of life has come from people operating according to the business principle. I would also claim that most transactions undertaken according to the business principle do in fact serve to benefit both parties. However, this is certainly not true all the time. Everyone feels ripped off every now and then, but that is not the typical outcome.
In the market, one side can try to take advantage of the other. Depending on the norms for the particular situation, this may even be expected (think of negotiating to buy a car or a house). There are market mechanisms that help to limit one-sided exploitation. Competition is one mechanism. Reputation is another. Neither works perfectly. When flaws emerge, some people believe that government regulation is necessary and sufficient to correct the problem. I tend to be more skeptical, but I do not deny that ripoffs exist, nor do I oppose regulation if indeed it does correct the problem.
When it comes to government action to curb exploitation, I would prefer a more common-law approach to a strict rule-based approach. If Goldman Sachs outwits a professional money manager, then good for them. If they rip off an ordinary civilian with a below-average IQ, then not so good for them. If someone makes a profit from following the industry’s usual and customary practices, then that should be presumed ok. If they do something that catches the other party totally off guard, then that presumption goes away.
The command and control principle is that some people should command and others ought to obey. The principle sees some people as strong and superior, while other people are weak and inferior. Within a firm, we accept that principle to some extent, but it is not so difficult to leave one firm and choose a different way to earn a livelihood. As citizens we accept that principle with respect to government. It is much more difficult to exercise “exit” as a citizen. Also, whenever the exit option is weak, the “voice” option tends to be pretty ineffective as well.
From a libertarian point of view, government commands too much and we accept too many of its commands. I believe that our rulers and some of their intellectual allies have much more confidence in the morality and practical effectiveness of command and control than is truly justified.
The deity or disgust principle represents our moral sense. Often, it is our conscience telling us to curb our appetites. It used to be that many people took their deity and disgust principles from organized religion. Today, we take them from secular religions. (Another issue, which Daniel Klein raises in something he sent me, is the extent to which some in the academy play the role of clerics within our secular religions. That is an idea to chew on, perhaps in another post.)
People have often wanted to combine C and D–that is, to have their religious principles enforced by government. When organized religion held sway, government was supposed to make and enforce laws against sexual conduct that people considered disgusting. Today, the behavior that people find disgusting is more likely to be eating high-calorie foods or using carbon-based fuels. Some people also are disgusted by inequalities of wealth.
I think that some combination of C and D has produced many of the dramatically evil episodes of history. Religious wars have been brutal. The religion of Communism has been extremely brutal,
The old idea of the Divine Right of Kings was a way to combine C and D. Today, that has been replaced by the Divine Right of Electoral Victory. This doctrine is that once elected, leaders can do whatever they please, and we must obey. The way I see it, our rulers get away with combining C and D. I view those who appeal to the Divine Right of Electoral Victory as offering support for the too-powerful against the nearly-powerless.
I also object when people treat government redistribution as altruism. When you contribute to charity, that is altruism. When leaders take your money to give to what they claim is a good cause, that is not altruism. That is command and control, perhaps buttressed by a D-type justification.
When President Obama claims to have the authority of “us,” he is claiming a D justification for his command and control. The Divine Right of Electoral Victory is so firmly ensonced in people’s minds that to challenge his claim is considered shocking. What is the alternative? Anarchy? Dictatorship?
The alternative is a set of norms that places limits on the actions of the rulers. Instead of a religion that honors command and control, I prefer a religion that reviles it. Citizens need as much power as they can possibly obtain to check the command and control of their rulers. The last thing that citizens need is more excuses for their rulers to exercise command and control.