During electoral periods, politicians multiply their proposals to redistribute income, offering subsidies here and there. Being entrepreneurs of their specialty, if they do it’s because they assume that it sells. And, why does it sell?
First of all, we all have a feeling of sympathy (which today we would call empathy) towards others, starting with the closest people and decreasing as we move away from those that are close to us. This was pointed out by none other than Adam Smith in his other great book, Theory of Moral Sentiments.
However, at that time, there was no welfare state. That didn’t mean that people didn’t care about others, only that they did it directly or through the church.
The ideologies of the nineteenth century introduced the idea that this was now the responsibility of the state and the people left the task in the hands of politicians, with the innocent belief that they were going to redistribute only from rich to poor.
But once they got the power of redistribution, they used it in every possible direction, and in many cases they kept the return. The welfare state became a piñata where we all dive in whether we intend to live on others, or at least fulfill that feeling that we are helping those who need it.
But people do not support all kinds of redistribution. For example, they repudiate the redistribution of bags to convents, and also redistribution that benefits those who have friends in power. Nor do they support politicized social plans or even those that do not generate any responsibility in return, be it for work or training for employment.
All of this is obvious at first glance. But it would seem that these behaviors have a much deeper root.
A group of scientists, among them a couple of Argentines, experts in the new and promising field of evolutionary psychology pose an answer. The Argentines are Daniel Sznycer, from the University of California Santa Bárbara and the University of Arizona, and María Florencia López Seal, from the National University of Córdoba. They investigate and write with the founding fathers of this new discipline, Leda Cosmides and John Tooby, creators of the Center for Evolutionary Psychology.
According to them, support for redistribution is based on emotions, particularly compassion, envy and self-interest, not any general conviction of social justice. These emotions are the result of long evolutionary processes during the thousands of years that we were hunter-gatherers.
The growth of evolutionary psychology has been based on presenting growing evidence that the brain or human mind contains a number of neurocomputing programs that were built by natural selection because they solved problems of adaptation to the ancestral world.
In this environment, two behaviors were developed with respect to the distribution of goods and services and their corresponding emotions to guide them. The hunter-gatherers shared risks in activities subject to chance (for example, the hunting of some large animals) but were less willing to share results from more regular activities that depended on personal effort (hunting of smaller and more abundant animals or harvesting of fruits more common). Even today, the support or rejection for redistribution would be explained by these emotions when considering, for example, if the beneficiaries have not had luck in finding employment or their situation is due to lack of personal effort. They would support the first and reject the second.
In recent years it seems that we had politicians who were guided by emotions …, by their emotions, which generated them to see their bank accounts grow.