Bryan Caplan  

What's Wrong With Fraternalism?

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You share as many genes with your siblings as you do with your parents and your children. Yet not only is there no legal responsibility to help your brothers and sisters; even the perceived moral responsibility is pretty weak. Socialists often lament that society should be more like a family, but if we use fraternal obligations as a benchmark, libertarians could hardly object.

Now suppose someone were to argue in favor of what I'll call fraternalism - the view that that people ought to be legally responsible for their siblings' well-being. What objections could one raise?

1. Moral hazard. If I'm my brother's keeper, he has less incentive to keep himself. Fair enough, but (a) only Non-Bleeding-Heart Libertarians find this is a decisive argument against the welfare state, and (b) you could limit responsibility through e.g. time limits, like "You only have to let your brother sleep on your couch for a year."

2. Desert. Perhaps more successful siblings deserve their success, and less successful siblings deserve their failure. Fair enough, but a lot of success depends upon innate ability, and once again, who besides Non-Bleeding-Heart Libertarians is completely comfortable with the idea that abler people deserve to be richer?

3. Rights. Suppose your sibling tries hard, and you're better off just because you got lucky. Nevertheless, you don't feel like helping him, and don't see why you should have to. Why should he have a claim on you? Who made you his slave?

You can probably see where I'm going with this. Arguments against fraternal duty closely parallel arguments against the welfare state. If you aren't obliged to help your brother or sister, why are you obliged to help strangers (or at least strangers from your own country)?

For that matter, if you aren't forced to practice familial nepotism when your brother asks for a job, why do immigration restrictions force us to practice national nepotism when a countryman competes against a foreigner?

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (15 to date)
Dylan writes:
For that matter, if you aren't forced to practice familial nepotism when your brother asks for a job, why do immigration restrictions force us to practice national nepotism when a countryman competes against a foreigner?

Educated/elite immigration restrictionists don't give a damn about our countrymen's jobs. We want to be able to shun foreigners with other cultures just as we want to be able to shun our brother who has bad taste in music or picks up some other annoying habit. Our range of cultural sensitivity is just larger than some.

Les writes:

What's wrong with Fraternalism? That's easy: it takes away personal choice and brings in government compulsion.

So the Pareto-optimal individual choice is replaced with something that has little chance of being Pareto-optimal. That is what's wrong with Fraternalism.

Lancelot Finn writes:

I'd never thought of legally binding fraternalism. It's probably a bad thing overall, but it might be a bit better than other versions of the welfare state. And certainly as a matter of private morality, as opposed to law, I endorse fraternalism. Families should help each other.

Applying this to immigration, I don't really have a problem with employers who, out of national solidarity, would try to "hire American." But using coercion to keep non-Americans out is wrong.

bob writes:

"If you aren't obliged to help your brother or sister, why are you obliged to help strangers[?]"

Problems with this: (1) The commonly accepted obligations between brothers or sisters seems to be downplayed. How many people do you think would agree that they shouldn't help their siblings when they are in bad situations because of the moral hazard problem? If at all, most would only agree in the extreme cases. Even if your brother has stumbled into your house drunk many times before, and will probably do so many times again, you still help him out: I submit that this is more or less how most people in America feel about their obligations toward their siblings. (2) Familial and sibling obligations vary a great deal between cultures. Does Bryan have in mind contemporary American mores, or does he have some other model in mind? Why?

Bruce G Charlton writes:

What a brillian post! It preys on the mind.

In a biological sense, we do indeed (on average, without compulsion) invest much more resources in our siblings than in strangers.

But considering the whole argument, it makes me feel that the morality of these things - sibling-or national-neoptism, or welfare states, or whatever - is something tagged on afterwards; and that the behaviours arise for quite different, non-moral reasons.

For example, in the case of national nepotism, buying support/ votes from special interests. Then this policy has a moral rationale painted over it.

Max writes:

1. Then the world is full of non-bleeding-hearts Libertarians (well at least humans if not libertarians), because I'd wager that the majority thinks that it decreases incentive to do something!
The thing is, that to help a stranger is easier for those people, because they feel good WITHOUT taking over much responsibility. The true helping will be done by others (social workers etc.)

2. Why would the better brother do anything more than the minimum, if he didn't get the extra ice-cream for his A+?

3. I think this is truly a rare case in a few families who are dysfunctional (although this is only a stomach-brewed guess). In the median, I'd think that families (if not the brother, then the father) would help their own disadvantaged members. At least, I would.

Ak Mike writes:

I'm afraid this line of analysis is based on a fallacy. Duties to parents and children do not rest on the commonality of genes. Duties to children rest on the responsibility one takes on in creating a human life. Duties to parents rest on the enormous debts we owe to those who devoted so much in the way of time, money, and love to our upbringing.

By contrast there is no similar moral basis for duties to siblings. Of course you will typically have close emotional ties to those who share parents with you, grew up with you, and are in many respects like you. But that does not imply any moral duty.

So I think the premise of the post (since we share genes with siblings, why don't we have a duty to take care of them) is vacuous: sharing genes doesn't imply anything about duty to take care.

Tom West writes:

I'd say the flaw with the argument (lack of support for fraternalism should lead to lack of support for welfare state) is that the lack of support for fraternalism is due to the unequal burden it places upon those with bad siblings rather than a conviction that bad siblings don't deserve support.

For most, the burden of the welfare state is not so onerous that it outweighs the benefits, namely a feeling of providing for the less fortunate, fewer people forced into crime in order to survive (though not necessarily fewer people in crime), and a reduction in the number of people who would consider themselves better off if current society were destroyed.

Where do the "should" implications really hit the road in all of Bryan's examples? In other words what would the costs of non-compliance be to fraternal norms. In the family setting, ie brothers or sisters failing to look out for one another, one would expect to see the parent step in to dole out punishments or rewards accordingly. The parents goal being a functioning, caring family unit. Well in the welfare example run in society rather than the family the interloper becomes the state. To some extent fucntioning fraternalism requires a third party paternalism.

quadrupole writes:

Tom West

The welfare state also poses a very disproportionate burden. If you look at the skew in percentage of taxes payed by income groups (top 1%, top 5%, top 50%) etc you find that those in the top 1% are hit VERY disproportionaly to pay for the welfare state, paying a much greater share of the burden than they have share of the income.

Steve Sailer writes:


You're onto something important, but your conclusion is 180 degrees backwards. If you would compare cultures around the world empirically, you would see that the ones where "fraternalism" is most powerful -- i.e., where people rely most on their extended families -- are ones where "citizenism" is least powerful -- where people can't rely on their fellow citizens.

In countries where you can trust your fellow citizens, both for justice and for financial help in a crisis, nuclear families can get by with less assistance from their extended families. In contrast, in much of the world, such as the Middle East, you can't rely on your fellow citizens so you rely on your extended family.

Indeed, from Morocco to Pakistan, close to half of all marriages are between first or second cousins. If you marry your daughter to your brother's son, then both you and your brother will have heirs in common, so there is less urge for sibling rivalry.

Of course, where extended families are strong, the state is weak and corrupt. If you are a government official and your nephew is also your son-in-law, how can you resist giving him a job? Nepotism (nephew favoritism) is a moral duty. But if loyalty to your extended family is more important than loyalty to the state, nobody can rely on the state, so everybody has to rely on their extended families. It's a vicious circle.

John S Bolton writes:

Obligation to fellow nationals to take their side, when foreigners attack, is not known to be an instance of nepotism.
When aggression on fellow citizens is increased through immigration, the responsibility to oppose this, is not known to be a case of nepotism.
Patriotism is not known to be corruption or favoritism.
There are no pure workers; it is not known that any such exist, yet the premiss of the post assumes that some immigrants might be just defined as pure workers,and as incapable of increasing the aggression on those to whom we owe loyalty above the foreigner.

Tom West writes:

why do immigration restrictions force us to practice national nepotism when a countryman competes against a foreigner?

I think we've been through this before. It's because the citizens of said country, exercising their sovereignty over their own nation state have chosen legislators who have made the laws that restrict such choices.

If you believe that this is a bad/wrong choice made by your countrymen, this is one thing. If you truly believe that your countrymen should not have the right to enact such laws, you have left democracy behind, and you should make it very clear where your political views stand. And to be honest, your posting on this matter to date heavily imply the latter.

I'll ask a second time straight out. Do you believe that the citizens of a country have the right to enact laws restricting immigration?

Note, this has *nothing* to do with one's belief in whether we should or should not restrict immigration.

Robin Hanson writes:

This comparison is especially striking because income inequality across the families within a nation is less than the income inequality within the siblings of a family. Sharing between siblings would do more to reduce income inequality than sharing betweeen families of a nation.

Matt writes:

Whoever argues that we should favor non-immigrants over immigrants for employment misses the point.

The point is, why are we so motivated to cram thw worlds peoples into compact cities in the U.S.?

The argument that Arnold implies is that we are a temperate zone, hence the regions along the West Coast are ideal for us to work the evolutioary imperative and cram hundereds of millions of people, getting the most human work from limited resources.

If Arnold is correct then we would expect the U.S. to be running a huge trade deficit and government deficit as we invest in the infrastructure to put hundreds of millions into the west coast. We would also expect that citizenss would be demanding flat taxes so we all invest in a vast expansion of government in support of this capital improvement plan.

All of this is true, in a massive sense. Federal ggovernment has grown by 50% in six years, in support of the infrastructuree we need for this massive immigration. Hundreds of millions in China and Mexico and India are toiling to build up capital in expectation of their migration to the U.S. The U.S. Military has deployed far away to support the energy security we need for this massive build up of immigration.

All in all, Republicans have borrowed 6 trillion since 1980 in support of the massive transfer of populations from far off lands to the West Coast of California.

It might just work! I am not being sarcastic here. It may be that in the long term the world is better off by placing most of its population into massive cities along coastal regions of our temperate zones. Remember, our evolutionary imperative is dealing with the imperative of the glacial cycle. We evolved within the glacial cycles, and there may be some biological instinct for us to migrate in harmony with the expected glacial cycles.

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