Not Just a Failure, The Very Epitome of Pathological Altruism

Pathological Altruism?

It sounds oxymoronic, or at the very least perverse. And it is.

Oakley defines pathological altruism as “altruism in which attempts to promote the welfare of others instead result in unanticipated harm.” A crucial qualification is that while the altruistic actor fails to anticipate the harm, “an external observer would conclude [that it] was reasonably foreseeable.” Thus, she explains, if you offer to help a friend move, then accidentally break an expensive item, your altruism probably isn’t pathological; whereas if your brother is addicted to painkillers and you help him obtain them, it is.

The key, which makes the altruism perversely oxymoronic, is the reasonably foreseeable negative outcome.

So what failure would rise to the level of the Epitome of Pathological Altruism?

The Democrat’s “War on Poverty” which they had reason to know was doomed to failure.

Why We Lost the War on Poverty

By John C. Goodman | The Independent Institute

Take a look at the graph below. From the end of World War II until 1964 the poverty rate in this country was cut in half. Further, 94% of the change in the poverty rate over this period can be explained by changes in per capita income alone. Economic growth is clearly the most effective antipoverty weapon ever devised by man.

The dotted line shows what would have happened had this trend continued. Economic growth would have reduced the number in poverty to a mere 1.4% of the population today ? a number so low that private charity could probably have taken care of any unmet needs.

But we didn’t continue the trend. In 1965 we launched a War on Poverty. And as the graph shows, in the years that followed the portion of Americans living in poverty barely budged. In 1965, 18% of the population lived in poverty. Today we are at 15%, or 50 million Americans. That’s after spending $15 trillion on antipoverty programs and continuing to spend $1 trillion a year.

Certainly a sheer and utter Failure.  Certainly predictable on the basis of that most un-common of modern virtues, Common Sense.  But does it really rise (or fall) to the level of Pathological Altruism?

Now here is something you may not know. Early on[,] in the first decade of our 50-year experiment with an expanded welfare state[,] carefully controlled experiments funded by the federal government established without question that welfare changes behavior. It leads to the very behavioral changes that keep people in a state of poverty and dependency. Think about that. Any serious social science debate about the effects of welfare on the behavior of the recipients was resolved four decades ago!

And yet we persisted, for the very best of reasons we’re assured, on a path we knew led to disaster.

Where’s the proof, you cry?

So how does welfare affect behavior? In the late 1960s the federal government sought to find that out in what Charles Murray calls “the most ambitious social science experiment in history.”

The experiments were all conducted by social scientists who believed in the welfare state and had no doubt about its capacity to be successful. In other words, they were confident of the answers before the experiments ever began. Their goal was to prove that popular wisdom was all wrong, that welfare would not cause people to reduce their work effort, to get married less often, divorce more quickly or engage in other dysfunctional behavior.

The experiments were all controlled. Randomly selected people were assigned to a “control group” and an “experimental group.” The latter received a guaranteed income, and the program even used Milton Friedman’s term for it: a negative income tax. The largest, longest and best-evaluated of these experiments was SIME/DIME (Seattle Income Maintenance Experiment/Denver Income Maintenance Experiment) in Seattle and Denver. And the results were not pretty. To the dismay of the researchers, they largely confirmed what conventional wisdom had thought all along. As I reported in “Privatizing the Welfare State”:

  • The number of hours worked dropped 9% for husbands and 20% for wives, relative to the control group. For young male adults it dropped 43% more.
  • The length of unemployment increased 27% among husbands and 42% for wives, relative to the control group. For single female heads of households it increased 60% more.
  • Divorce increased 36% more among whites and 42% more among blacks. (In a New Jersey experiment, the divorce rate was 84% higher among Hispanics.)

BTW, these results have been studied and studied over and over again and there is a large literature on them ? almost all of it written by researchers who detested the outcomes. Good summaries are provided byCharles Murray and Martin Anderson.

Both authors point out that the results are even worse than they at first appear. For one thing, the “control group” had access to conventional welfare available in the 60s and 70s. So this was by no means a pure (welfare free) control group. Also the enrollees were given different instructions about how long they could expect their guaranteed income to last. It turns out that the longer the guarantee, the worse the negative effects.

Decline is a choice, let us choose to succeed instead.

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  • Hank_M

    Looking back on this, I can’t help but think that not only did the “social scientists” believe in the welfare state, ie more govt control of peoples lives, but that the politicians of the day, especially LBJ, had another thought in mind.
    That being, to paraphase LBJ and his famous private remark on the civil rights legislation he was intrumental in passing, “We’ll have these [people] voting for us for the next 200 years.

    • Intent matters less than outcome. They should have known the projected outcome that has since been realized. Time to change to something that has at least a chance of working.

  • GarandFan

    New buzz word Rodney. They avoid ‘poverty’, it’s now “income inequality” or “opportunity inequality” aka ‘social justice’.

  • Constitution First

    You pay people not to work and you’re shocked, SHOCKED! when they choose not to work?
    The price American society has to pay to continue to buy Progressive votes will be/is the death of the Republic.
    Whether you open your eyes or not, the reality is we’re a dying nation because of blind Altruism, just as Ayn Rand and Fredric Hayek predicted decades ago.

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