14 October 2006

The socialist fallacy

[This piece was written in 1979 but is equally relevant today. The assumption, nowadays habitually made, that "caring" translates readily into "state action", relies on a particular theory of human motivation.]

There was in my father's view of human nature an inconsistency which might perhaps be regarded as the basic socialist fallacy.

When I was eleven or twelve I would sometimes see advertisements on the lines of ‘Let me win the pools for you’, or ‘Subscribe to my infallible horse-racing tips’, and would say, ‘Mightn't one at least try it?’ But my father would say, ‘What nonsense. If they really knew how to win anything they would keep the information to themselves, not sell it to you.’

I thought about this. I didn't see that it was entirely impossible that someone might have a generous motive. Perhaps they might feel that they preferred a steady, moderate income for themselves and would let other people have the chance of making more money in a more uncertain sort of way. My father's thesis evidently was that altruism and generosity were forces so feeble in human nature that you could rely on their not entering into any commercial situation even as partial motives.

But my father, I began to discover, was a great taker of advice. He would endeavour to implement the instructions of anyone with the smallest pretensions to a position of social authority even if this meant a complete disregard for his own perceptions about the situation. He was prepared to believe that people who had never met me could tell him how he should treat me. ‘But what does he suppose their motivation is?’ I came to wonder. ‘What incentive do they have to want me or him to be happy or successful?’ It was true that they had no financial interest in ruining my life. They would be made no richer by my failure, any more than by my success. But that merely left it a completely open question what their motivation might be. If altruism and generosity were totally absent in commercial situations we might surely suppose that these motives, at least, were not present in this uncommercial situation either.