Arnold Kling  

Four Principles of Human Action

Amartya Sen vs. Dan Klein on A... Self-Correction: How It Works,...

I stretched to make them fit into a framework of A, B, C, and D. Think of this post as a follow-up to both the government menace post and the Ropke post.

A stands for Altruism.

B stands for Business.

C stands for Command and Control

D stands for Deity and Disgust

Think of these as principles that people use to rationally justify (or rationalize) their conduct. Principles differ from motives, in that motives, such as status-seeking, can be unconscious. Some more remarks follow.

A given action or closely-related set of actions may be based on more than one principle. I could give a talk because I am paid (the business principle), because I want to share what I know (the altruism principle), because I expect others to listen and obey (the command and control principle), or because I think I am spreading the gospel and battling evil (the deity and disgust principle).

Altruism is doing things with the intention of benefiting others, at some cost to ourselves. Ayn Rand is one of the few thinkers that comes to mind who actually opposes the altruism principle. I feel more positively about altruism, but I would say to beware of the tendency of some people to glorify altruism in order to manipulate others into being altruistic.

Not every action undertaken on the basis of the altruism principle is a success. Following the principle of altruism works well for families and other small groups. As we get farther away from people, our ability to actually benefit others through altruistic action tends to decline quite a bit.

The business principle is doing something with the intention of mutual benefit. I would claim that, over the course of history, most of the improvement in the quality of life has come from people operating according to the business principle. I would also claim that most transactions undertaken according to the business principle do in fact serve to benefit both parties. However, this is certainly not true all the time. Everyone feels ripped off every now and then, but that is not the typical outcome.

In the market, one side can try to take advantage of the other. Depending on the norms for the particular situation, this may even be expected (think of negotiating to buy a car or a house). There are market mechanisms that help to limit one-sided exploitation. Competition is one mechanism. Reputation is another. Neither works perfectly. When flaws emerge, some people believe that government regulation is necessary and sufficient to correct the problem. I tend to be more skeptical, but I do not deny that ripoffs exist, nor do I oppose regulation if indeed it does correct the problem.

When it comes to government action to curb exploitation, I would prefer a more common-law approach to a strict rule-based approach. If Goldman Sachs outwits a professional money manager, then good for them. If they rip off an ordinary civilian with a below-average IQ, then not so good for them. If someone makes a profit from following the industry's usual and customary practices, then that should be presumed ok. If they do something that catches the other party totally off guard, then that presumption goes away.

The command and control principle is that some people should command and others ought to obey. The principle sees some people as strong and superior, while other people are weak and inferior. Within a firm, we accept that principle to some extent, but it is not so difficult to leave one firm and choose a different way to earn a livelihood. As citizens we accept that principle with respect to government. It is much more difficult to exercise "exit" as a citizen. Also, whenever the exit option is weak, the "voice" option tends to be pretty ineffective as well.

From a libertarian point of view, government commands too much and we accept too many of its commands. I believe that our rulers and some of their intellectual allies have much more confidence in the morality and practical effectiveness of command and control than is truly justified.

The deity or disgust principle represents our moral sense. Often, it is our conscience telling us to curb our appetites. It used to be that many people took their deity and disgust principles from organized religion. Today, we take them from secular religions. (Another issue, which Daniel Klein raises in something he sent me, is the extent to which some in the academy play the role of clerics within our secular religions. That is an idea to chew on, perhaps in another post.)

People have often wanted to combine C and D--that is, to have their religious principles enforced by government. When organized religion held sway, government was supposed to make and enforce laws against sexual conduct that people considered disgusting. Today, the behavior that people find disgusting is more likely to be eating high-calorie foods or using carbon-based fuels. Some people also are disgusted by inequalities of wealth.

I think that some combination of C and D has produced many of the dramatically evil episodes of history. Religious wars have been brutal. The religion of Communism has been extremely brutal,

The old idea of the Divine Right of Kings was a way to combine C and D. Today, that has been replaced by the Divine Right of Electoral Victory. This doctrine is that once elected, leaders can do whatever they please, and we must obey. The way I see it, our rulers get away with combining C and D. I view those who appeal to the Divine Right of Electoral Victory as offering support for the too-powerful against the nearly-powerless.

I also object when people treat government redistribution as altruism. When you contribute to charity, that is altruism. When leaders take your money to give to what they claim is a good cause, that is not altruism. That is command and control, perhaps buttressed by a D-type justification.

When President Obama claims to have the authority of "us," he is claiming a D justification for his command and control. The Divine Right of Electoral Victory is so firmly ensonced in people's minds that to challenge his claim is considered shocking. What is the alternative? Anarchy? Dictatorship?

The alternative is a set of norms that places limits on the actions of the rulers. Instead of a religion that honors command and control, I prefer a religion that reviles it. Citizens need as much power as they can possibly obtain to check the command and control of their rulers. The last thing that citizens need is more excuses for their rulers to exercise command and control.

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CATEGORIES: Political Economy

COMMENTS (14 to date)
Doc Merlin writes:

Interesting point.

C and D being combined was the default state of humans for much of history. It was pared back after the industrial revolution, but its coming back again, through a re-interpretation of language. Secular religions claim very hard that they are not religions, then sidestep the whole separation between religion and state.

N. writes:

> I also object when people treat government redistribution as altruism.

Here in NYC, I frequently hear the argument made that, in essence, government redistribution is actually /better/ than altruism because it not only elevates the poor but it also punishes those who have too much in the same action.

Kind of like cheering for Robin Hood. Consider. Nobody would call him an altruist. They would call him a hero.

...only Ayn Rand would like to see him dead, and she gets a lot of flack for that.

jc writes:

Yes, C and D may simply be in our blood. As a species, we seem to like to pressure others to think and believe the same things we do, or at the very least, to act like they believe.

And if that fails, due to stupid or selfish refusal to submit to proper thought and/or behavior, we seem more than willing to physically coerce them to obey. (In some sense, this is actually the preferable option, as it signals superiority on the part of the coercers.)

And, yes, we seem to be compelled (perhaps by evolution, ironically enough) to believe in a higher, wiser, moral, perhaps event omnipotent entity that is above the failings of normal men, an entity who will mete out judgment when heathen act in ways we personally disapprove of, and force them to behave. For the right, this is often their version of an Old Testament God of fire and brimstone, and for the left it's often government, a specific form of government, or a charismatic political leader.

Either way, it's just the same old C + D formula... (Of course, libertarians have been accused of having their own god, liberty. "Market fundamentalists, all of them!" By definition, though, this god limits the "C" part of the C + D equation to the point that, relatively speaking, it's simply "D".)

Thankfully, A and B may be in our blood too, to a certain extent, e.g., Ridley's Origin of Virtue

Jayson Virissimo writes:

"Kind of like cheering for Robin Hood. Consider. Nobody would call him an altruist. They would call him a hero."

Yeah, but...didn't Robin Hood steal from the government and return to the tax payers?

Doc Merlin writes:

well, yes, no one is richer than the government.

MernaMoose writes:


You noticed that little irony too. :) Robin Hood isn't so clear cut a character as he's usually made out to be.

We might be needing one of his reincarnations sometime soon.

I'd love to see a bandit shake down some of our currently elected leaders. He'd be my hero in a heart beat.

MernaMoose writes:


I like these kinds of exercises because it gets people thinking. In the For What It's Worth department --

I feel more positively about altruism, but I would say to beware of the tendency of some people to glorify altruism in order to manipulate others into being altruistic.

I tend to agree.

But, Rand was making a point that I've yet to see anyone resolve. If you concede that altruism is Good in principle, how then do you prevent people from enshrining it in law? Which may turn it into C&C as you say. But tell me, if it's a Good, how do you argue against enshrining it in law?

I think Rand was right, that a big part of why the Left so often prevails over the Right, is that the Right concedes altruism and so has no clear moral basis for opposing huge swaths of the Left's agenda. Because after all, some of us would not do The Good that we've all agreed on, if we were not compelled by law.

From a libertarian point of view, government commands too much and we accept too many of its commands.

As Machiavelli said, getting people to obey government probably, usually, has more to do with habit than anything else.

That and the fact that people would usually rather avoid war. And they usually don't have loads of free time to run around opposing it, when the government gets out of line. And besides, it's not often that you'll get a numerical majority that agrees on what "out of line" is.

The religion of Communism has been extremely brutal,

Our Religious Left is just getting started. Unlike the Communists, Euro Socialists (which the American Left largely is) have figured out how to kill the masses in spirit rather than in body. And they use all the dis-spirited bodies to keep their system going, kind of like people were batteries.

I suppose in a real sense, the Euro Socialists are justified in considering themselves superior to the Communists. Just for this.


From reading much history, I believe that what the majority of people want, most of the time, is to be treated (by their government) with a measure of justice and otherwise left alone. They don't really want wars or revolutions. They don't even really want to have to worry about government. They'll get alone fine without a welfare state too, until someone in government starts dangling it in front of them.

But when a nation becomes wealthy, it would seem it's only a matter of time until someone (who is not in power but wants to be) starts beating the welfare state drums. Because relatively, there are always more poorer people than richer people. Dangle the Free Carrot in front of the masses, and sooner or later they'll bite. We know how the story ends from there.

So tell me how to create a system of government that stays properly constrained over the long haul, and I'll pronounce you a genius. Because historically, no system invented yet has been immune to long term corrosion and rot.

MernaMoose writes:

Of course you realize, one of the great ironies of libertarian ideals is that government, at the end of the day, is a Command and Control proposition.

I'm more of a classical liberal, but there are those who do not shy away from the logical consistency this implies. They call themselves anarchists.

Kurbla writes:

Well, I could agree that there are A, B, C, D, but the problem is, we'll not agree what is B and what is C.

If you find me sleeping in your backyards, you'll say I must go away. At best, you'll offer me to stay - if I pay some money. You'll say you offer me B - business.

From my point of view, I'm trying to sleep, and you are disturbing me - its C - Command & Control. You explain me that backyard is "yours." I ask you whether we have a contract that it is yours - you have nothing like contract with me. If anything, you can offer some theory. Its D - Deity and Disgust. C & D.

mdb writes:

Kurbla writes:

Rothbard: "Anyone who truly believes in the “voluntary” nature of taxation is invited to refuse to pay taxes and to see what then happens to him."

Paying taxes is like paying hotel bill for services you got. If you do not like it, leave the hotel/state, and you'll not have to pay it...

Just wondering why you pay hotel bills, but think you have a right to sleep anywhere you want?

George X writes:

Arnold wrote: Following the principle of altruism works well for families and other small groups. As we get farther away from people, our ability to actually benefit others through altruistic action tends to decline quite a bit.

So altruism is like the strong nuclear force (powerful at short distances), while the business principle is like gravity (pretty much the only force that matters at large distances). I wonder if there are analogs to shielding and screening effects.

Maybe the modern nuclear-family-minus-dad is an ion (nucleus minus electron), and a whole neighborhood of those is a plasma. I'm not sure what the analog of electromagnetism is, but I can think of some things this plasma conducts.

Nathan Smith writes:

No mention of D+A.

Without D+A, there would be no Western civilization.

Without D+A, Western civilization won't last long.

Kurbla writes:

Yes, mdb. The hotel is meant as argument of the form:

    "if you believe that private property is justifed, then you should believe in state property because it is justified on same way."

And this one is

    "if you believe that private property is justifed and I do not we'll agree that there are A, B, C, D, but we'll not agree what is B and what is C. "

But really, I do not think I have the right to sleep wherever I want. I think that I must find reasonable solution, and under some circumstances, that reasonable solution might respect property rights, and under other circumstances, it doesn't. For example, I accept homesteading as practical but not as just principle. If there are a lot of sources of water on island, and you came first and privatized one, fine, I'll take another. It is practical (because of homesteading,) and it is just (because we have equal rights.) But if there is only one source of water, and you privatized that one, it is still practical, but it is not just any more.

Its nice that you remember that hotel.

BZ writes:

Forgive me if this is too obvious, but don't people also, perhaps usually, justify their conduct on purely self-interested grounds? "I was out of bread, and I like eating it, so I went and got bread." That might be shoehorned into B, but I don't think so, lest people say "I was out of bread, and I like eating it, so I went to trade with the grocer so that he can have money, and I can have bread."

RE: Kurbla
On another matter, the backyard example, at first glance, sounds perfectly Lockean, with qualifications. After all, what steps did you take to find a place to sleep that would not impose externalities? Locke would grant that, under extreme conditions, a man will assert his primary natural rights over derived rights like Property, but this hardly sounds like an extreme condition. I might have just seeded that ground, or spent all day straightening the grass blades, and you just ruined it. ;)

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