Today’s WSJ Science Journal has a piece by Robert Lee Hotz called “Revenge of the Freeloaders — Study Finds Culture Influences Reaction To Reward, Rebuke.” Naturally, I was fascinated, and I was even more fascinated by some of the unexamined premises raised in both the study and the piece.

We all bristle at people who put themselves ahead of the common good, whether it is by evading taxes, shirking military service, cheating on bus fares or littering. Many of us will go out of our way to shame, shun or otherwise punish them, researchers have shown. That’s how we foster a community that benefits everyone, even at some cost to ourselves.

Sorry, but that first sentence contains too many premises for comfort. While most fair-minded people bristle at tax evaders, I’m not entirely sure it’s because they’re placing themselves ahead of the common good, because increasing numbers of people are inclined to see the government as wasteful, and see those who’d fall into the category of “undeserving tax eaters” as at least as morally egregious as those who evade taxes. Thus, the objection to tax evaders is often more rooted in the fact that the tax evader got an unfair advantage (and broke the law) than in the quaint and antiquated idea that tax revenues necessarily go to the common good. In fact the more the government is seen as a freeloader (if not a thief), the less immoral the tax evader becomes. However, his evasion remains fundamentally unfair, especially to the rest of us who complied with the law, so we resent him. What is being forgotten is that in many parts of the world, governments are seen as little more than robber barons, and tax evasion is considered about as immoral as going in excess of a posted 55 MPH speed limit would be on a eight lane superhighway.
As to shirking military service, what about so many of the Vietnam generation draft evaders who spent years in college avoid military service by way of student deferments and the like? We elected one president, and Bill Clinton was followed by George W. Bush, who did reserve duty. It strikes me that while there are many people who bristle at those who avoided service in Vietnam, their reasons differ. For those on the left, draft evasion in the form of deferments was the right and moral thing to do only if you were opposed to the war; if you supported the war, you became a hypocrite for not serving. If we apply this standard to taxation, “principled” tax evasion by those who oppose taxation would be justified, while those who believe in the system but evade for selfish reasons would be immoral.
But how is anyone supposed to ascertain whether both claims of principle might not be driven by selfishness? It is not just as selfish to not want to risk dying in a war as it is to not want to hand over your money to the government? I honestly don’t know, but I don’t think we all feel the same way about these things.
As to cheating on bus fares and littering (assuming the fare cheater can afford the fare), it’s very tough to come up with any moral justification at all for such sleazy behaviors, so the vast majority of us would properly bristle at such behavior, and for the same reasons. To my mind, littering is especially animalistic behavior, and I suspect most litterers would benefit from being imprisoned in dumpsters for a weekend or forced to scrub sidewalks with toothbrushes, except that would violate the 8th Amendment. I saw a guy throw a coffee cup on the ground over the weekend, and as he glanced glaringly at the people around him it occurred to me that he might consider putting the cup in a nearby trashcan to be beneath his “dignity” — or even “sissy” behavior. (An unfortunate truth is that society once had the whipping post precisely to deal with miscreants like that.)
But I’m afraid I’ve strayed dramatically from the scientific study of freeloaders, retaliation, and cooperation. Not surprisingly, results varied by countries.

To explore cooperation across cultures, Dr. Herrmann and his colleagues recruited 1,120 college students in 16 cities around the globe for a public-good game. The exercise is one of several devised by economists in recent years to distill the complex variables of human behavior into transactions simple enough to be studied under controlled laboratory conditions.
The volunteers played in anonymous groups of four. Each player started with 20 tokens that could be redeemed for cash after 10 rounds. Players could contribute tokens to a common account or keep them all to themselves.
After each round, the pooled funds paid a dividend shared equally by all, even those who didn’t contribute. Previous research shows that a single selfish individual riding on the generosity of others can so irritate other players that contributions soon drop to nothing.
That changes when players can identify and punish those who don’t contribute (in this case, by deducting points that can quickly add up to serious money). Once such peer pressure comes into play, everyone — including the shamed freeloader — starts to chip in.
“Freeloaders are disliked everywhere,” said study co-author Simon Gachter, who studies economic decision-making at Nottingham. “Cooperation always breaks down if people can’t punish.”
The students behaved the same way in all 16 cities until given the chance to punish those taking a free ride on the shared investment. Punishment was done anonymously, and it cost one token to discipline another player.
Among those punished, differences emerged immediately. Students in Seoul, Istanbul, Minsk in Belarus, Samara in Russia, Riyadh in Saudi Arabia, Athens, and Muscat in Oman were most likely to take revenge by deducting points from other players — and to give up a token themselves to do it.
“They didn’t believe they did anything wrong,” said economist Herbert Gintis at New Mexico’s Santa Fe Institute. And because the spiteful freeloaders had no way of knowing who had punished them, they often took out their ire on those who helped others most, suspecting they must be to blame.
Such a readiness to retaliate, researchers said, reflected relatively lower levels of trust, civic cooperation and the rule of law as measured by social scientists in the World Values Survey, which periodically assesses basic values and beliefs in more than 80 societies. In countries with democratic market economies, peer pressure goaded people to cooperate. Among authoritarian societies or those dominated more by ties of kinship, freeloaders instead lashed out at those who censured them, the researchers found.
“The question is why?” said Harvard political economist Richard Zeckhauser.
No one is sure. The freeloaders might be angry at being trumped by strangers, or be unwilling to share with people they don’t know. They also might believe they are being treated unfairly.

Well, that last realization is nothing new. Mark Twain noticed it over a century ago, when he famously observed,

If you pick up a starving dog and make him prosperous, he will not bite you. This is the principal difference between a dog and a man.

If we put aside the issue of why some cultures are more retaliatory than others, the biggest problem I see with the above experiment is that it relies on “free” money as opposed to earned money.
Naturally, this distorts a very primal question: whose money is whose? It’s a lot easier to consider unearned money to be other than your own, and thus, to give an extreme example, a lottery winner is less likely to feel resentful about forking over his winnings than the owner of a store who has built it from scratch.
And an independent contractor who builds fences for a living is likely to be far more resentful about writing the government a check out of his earnings than the same man would if he worked as an hourly employees for a large fence company and had the taxes deducted — even if the work was identical, and even if the net after-tax income was the same. The question of whose money is it? so strikes at the core of what motivates people that if the tax withholding laws were abolished, the income tax system would become unsustainable.
Several years ago, I looked at a work situation a left-wing writer saw as an experiment in socialism — by waiters at a New York restaurant who shared their tips. Like the experiment Hotz describes in today’s journal, there was also a common pot. Unlike that experiment, the money that went into the common pot was not exactly “free” but was earned. Waiters who worked harder earned larger tips, and, as the author admitted, these harder workers tended to resent the waiters who didn’t:

….which means that tips–no matter how much an individual brings in individually–were split equally. On nights that I sold our most expensive wines and entrees to the best Big Apple tippers, I divided what I’ve earned with the rest of the house.
Needless to say, this is an experiment in the successes and pitfalls of a socialist society. The good parts are plentiful; when a server gets weeded (waitspeak for “too busy to function”), it is the responsibility of the entire house to pick up the slack. The house does this out of respect for the concept of teamwork and, more importantly, out of a selfish desire to protect the common monetary interest.
Conceptually, this inspires in my coworkers different reactions. One particularly obnoxious workmate of mine constantly complained that some servers didn’t hold up their end of the bargain. They’re lazy, he says, or they don’t sell the same amount of food as he does. (Emphasis added.)

Right there, the author touches on an fascinating resentment — not of the harder workers for working harder and having more money to contribute, but a resentment of their resentment. There is a war with the idea that there should be any more entitlement to earned money than to unearned money.
And it needs to be resolved by getting rid of that typically American mindset of ownership — and above all, of responsibility.

…. that’s an American mindset. We are possessionists, obsessed with belongings and ownership. We are a nation of deeds and titles, a nation mired in proving what we have. In the end, if we have shelter and freedom and family, that should be enough to sate any of us.
The fact that the fulfillment of these needs isn’t enough is disconcerting, because if a pooled house is a microcosm of that elusive Communist society that has never entirely worked, the one truth is that success is a (distant?) possibility. But we need to divorce ourselves from the idea that each of us is directly responsible for certain things and take a more proactive role in living life. As the environment, economy, and government continue to suffer varying degrees of trauma, it feels increasingly important that we leave our individual bubbles and join a community. Call it a manifesto, or call it a practical approach to changing the world, but it seems to me that we could all be better people if we learned what our teachers tried to impart in kindergarten: sharing is good.

In a kindergarten setting, such lessons in altruism are much easier to impart, and easier to justify, because after all, whatever possessions or money children have is generally given to them by adult authority figures, and is thus “free.”
The bottom line is that it’s not only a lot easier to share free money, it’s a lot easier to become morally indignant with those who don’t. But those who didn’t earn their fair share are much more likely to be “generous” with what they didn’t earn, and less tolerant of the reluctance of those who earned their money to share it.
Carried to an extreme, this leads the freeloading classes to paradoxically accuse those on whose hard work they depend — their benefactors — of being greedy. Of being “freeloaders” for not wanting to pay “their fair share.”
Which makes about as much sense as parasites accusing their host of parasitism.
AFTERTHOUGHT: I’m thinking that there may be a direct relationship between resentment and greed. Think about it this way: if the more productive classes are resented for having more, and if they are also resented even if they pay more, it begs the question of whether the resentment of them stems from a poorly understood aspect of human nature which touches on the Twain distinction between man and dog. Suppose for the sake of argument that there is some natural, biologically based resentment of the “helping” classes by the classes who are “helped.” (Hence the quotes.) The result is that the productive are in a no-win situation; they are resented for having earned more, and also resented for helping the non-productive classes. OK, it being a given that humans dislike being resented, if they’re going to be resented either way, what’s in it for them by being helpers? Other than not wanting to go to prison, I don’t know.
But I strongly suspect that the more the productive classes are resented for being “greedy,” the greedier they’ll actually become.
UPDATE: My thanks to Glenn Reynolds for linking this post, and a warm welcome to all!
Comments appreciated.