Thursday, April 12, 2007

Robin Who?

Would you sacrifice some of your limited wealth, just to make sure that other people didn't have "too much?" Apparently, some people will actually do that, sacrifice what little they have in order to take something away from the rich--even when no one benefits from the reduction in the rich person's cache--under laboratory conditions, anyway. Roxanne Khamsi, at New Scientist, describes an experiment set up by James Fowler at the University of California in San Diego, in which 120 students were recruited to play a game. Each student played multiple rounds, anonymously, with various combinations of other anonymous participants. In each round, they were assigned tokens, from 12 to 36 of them. They then had some decisions to make:

The students had to indicate what they wanted to do with their tokens. Each token that subjects kept would contribute $0.05 towards the money they kept at the end of the game. So a subject who kept 20 tokens in a round would net $1. They could also use their tokens to reduce or increase the other three players' sums.

The subjects completed five rounds of the game, each time interacting online with three new anonymous players.

About 30% of the time, the richest players generously gave up tokens to help boost the accounts of the poor players. And 12% of the time they used tokens to make the poorer players even more destitute.

By contrast, in 44% of the rounds the poorest players gave up some of their tiny funds to see the rich become less wealthy. But even though these players acted somewhat like the legendary English bandit, Robin Hood, by taking from the rich, the money did not get redistributed to the poor. It simply disappeared.

What kind of small-mindedness does it take to give up something out of the little you have, just so somebody else who has more has to give something up too? As Khamsi indicated, the Robin Hood effect was only a first-stage phenomenon; the tokens were taken from the rich, but nothing went to the poor as a result. No one gained anything by this stealing-from-the-rich.

The scientists conducting the experiment interpreted this to mean that people have a natural tendency to desire "economic equality." I think this makes the situation sound a lot more positive than it is. If "economic equality" means "I don't want others to have more than me, even if that means we all have less than we could" that's just a sad and tragic kind of selfishness that doesn't bode well for society at large. At least Robin Hood had the reputation of stealing for a purpose. What was the point in this game, except for the poorer participants to make themselves feel better about their pitiable condition, by making sure everyone else was in as close to the same boat as possible?

This robbing from the rich was self-defeating in more ways than one. Not only did it cost the poor what they "spent" on bringing the rich down a peg or two, it also cost them because the rich, being less rich, would have had less ability to be generous. (You'll note that the "rich" had enough of a tendency to be generous that the poor might reasonably hope to benefit from their largess.) Did those "equality seekers" find this equality to be a good thing when the situation was reversed in another round? Whatever happened to "do unto others as you would have others do unto you?" This takes the "two Americas" concept made popular by the John Edwards presidential campaign to a whole new extreme, with any kind of economic state being an acceptable goal, as long as nobody else gets more than I do. I sincerely hope that this experiment does not carry forth into the real world with any degree of accuracy, although, to be honest, I fear it does, far more often than it should.