The global tribe

Ron Paul recently received a lot of criticism for arguing that tax money should not be used to save a sick young man who had decided not to buy health insurance.  Robin Hanson raised a very good point in response to his critics:

But a great many ill, collapsed, etc. folks in the world are largely left to die, at least if curing them costs anything like a US hospital stay. Ezra argues above for “decent” nationalcare, not global care. And even libertarians wouldn’t leave family members to die. So everyone agrees that we heroically help some, and leave others to die. We only disagree on who falls into which category.

I’ve made similar arguments many times, so I am certainly not going to criticize Robin.  Nonetheless, I do support tax funded catastrophic insurance plus mandatory HSAs at the national level.  If Robin is right, how can I do so?

Let’s start with the fact that I am a utilitarian.  We utilitarians believe that everyone’s well-being is of equal value, whether it be Bill Gates or a peasant farmer in Pakistan.  Public policy should maximize aggregate well-being.  So why don’t I favor an international health care program?  Actually, I wouldn’t be opposed to the idea.  But I am also a pragmatist, and for now we are dealing with national governments and voters who are very nationalistic.  I believe that publicly funded health care of the sort I described with boost aggregate well-being, as compared to our current system.  I hope the circle of people’s empathy will continue to shift outward, as it has for the past few centuries.  If the public is eventually willing to make the following shift in health care spending, I’m all for it:

1.  Stop providing publically-funded health care in non-life and death situations.

2.  Use the extra money to fund higher-valued health services in poor countries.

Obviously our culture has not yet reached that degree of empathy, and it seems unlikely that it will in the near future.  Until then I’ll keep advocating the Singapore/Brad DeLong solution.

I do not agree with the following argument by Robin Hanson:

Humans clearly evolved quite different mental modes for thinking about how to treat folks with our our local tribe, vs. how to treat distant strangers. Libertarians largely accept the usual ideas about how to treat both groups. Where they disagree is who counts as a stranger.

Libertarians limit “my tribe” to close family and small chosen communities, much as did our forager ancestors, who were free to change bands at any time. Farmer culture taught farmers to think of distant strangers as “my tribe”, as long as “our elites” said so, or if “we” fought wars together. And nation-states have worked hard over the last few centuries to transfer this feeling to nations. Libertarians mostly just don’t accept this. And though I’m not strictly libertarian, on this I agree – it is far from obvious that nations must be our tribes.

Now people usually try to be nicer to their tribe than to distant strangers. From this one might conclude that libertarians, who see more folks as strangers, are not as nice people. But not only are folks who see their tribe as smaller usually nicer to such insiders, libertarians also tend to be more accepting of mutually beneficial interactions with strangers.

I think the world is a better place if we work to make the “tribe” as large as possible.  Mutually beneficial transactions are great, but only get you so far.  There are many areas of life where unselfish altruism is required to make institutions work effectively, most notably in governance.  If you have a political entity of 5 million people who for deep historical reasons developed a culture of mutual respect, say Denmark, you will end up with more effective governance (and more market-oriented too!) than a political entity of 5 million people who for deep historical reasons lack trust outside the immediate family, such as Sicily.  Indeed even entities of 5 million people who lack a deep historical tradition of trust, but who have worked very hard in recent decades to develop a culture of national solidarity, such as Singapore, will do better than low trust societies.

Self-interest isn’t enough.  If I followed self-interest I would not vote, and I would not blog on important public policy issues.  If I was family-oriented I would spend more time with my daughter.

I don’t doubt that some of the distrust of strangers is hard-wired into us.  But that’s no reason to be defeatist.  If we’ve learned anything from the last 200 years of cultural evolution it’s that technological advances in the narrative arts have gradually made many of the “others” seem much less strange, and thus we’ve gradually increased the size of the circle of races, religions, and lifestyle groups that count as “us.”  There is no reason this process can’t continue until we have a single global tribe by the year 2300.

PS.  Although I favor a global tribe, I also believe governance should be increasing decentralized, except where that is not feasible (say global warming policy.)

PPS.  I should clarify that I’m not predicting that bigotry will completely vanish, as there will continue to be differences between people.  Rather I am arguing that we will become a single tribe for public policy purposes.  For example, there is still racial prejudice in America, but all races now qualify for programs like Social Security and Medicare.



22 Responses to “The global tribe”

  1. Gravatar of Becky Hargrove Becky Hargrove
    18. September 2011 at 07:48

    I agree with you that the tribe should be as large as possible. While I never considered the possibility of an international health collective, that would be the odd sort of win-win race to the “bottom” in monetary terms…I would love to see competition put to the test in a service economy. Family is not in a position to take care of their own as so many imagine, and the local community also needs to step in for wealth creation that echoes what the whole world tries to achieve.

  2. Gravatar of John John
    18. September 2011 at 07:52


    Why do people on both the right and left treat healthcare differently from any other economic good? Even the poorest bums can afford food and clothing through voluntary charity and usually without government help. The fact that the government has stepped in and become so involved has created a situation of rapidly escalating costs just like it would if they stepped in to provide free hair cuts or anything else.

    In a real market for healthcare, none of the nationalization stuff would be necessary as the basic procedures would be very cheap and getting cheaper and there would be a real place for private charity both in terms of donations for people in need of treatment and doctors willing to provide treatment for free. Even your modestly socialistic plans would be unnecessary just like they aren’t necessary for clothing.

  3. Gravatar of Chris Chris
    18. September 2011 at 08:00

    Surely the most relevant point is that the nation-state is a community — ie, a group with highly-developed expectations of reciprocity.

    No one labors under the expectation that there is any transnational risk-pooling. Just as I don’t expect the French to provide me with healthcare if my earning capacity falls, so there’s little reason for the French to expect me to provide them with it now.

  4. Gravatar of Chris Chris
    18. September 2011 at 08:06

    …and, while there’s a justification for a certain degree of risk-pooling under democratically accountable institutions between people who share a culture (and hence values of which behavior entitles people to be “deserving” of assistance), the notion of systematic redistribution across borders and cultures is likely only to engender conflict.

  5. Gravatar of Mike Sandifer Mike Sandifer
    18. September 2011 at 08:13

    Not surprisingly, I agree with this entirely.

  6. Gravatar of Hyena Hyena
    18. September 2011 at 08:58

    Nationalcare presumes the ex ante submission of its beneficiaries to a tax and legal regime; obviously, some people later discover they will pay and others later discover they will not. That’s the general Rawlsian concept underlying liberalism at this point and it is, as a practical matter, actually sructured this way.

    So the counter-move is this: we should have no problem, morally or financially, supporting the extension of nationalcare to internationalcare because it implies the ex ante submission outlined above.

  7. Gravatar of Scott Sumner Scott Sumner
    18. September 2011 at 09:31

    Becky, I agree.

    John, You may be right, but the question is how to get from here to there.

    My proposal, combined with the complete deregulation of health care services, would dramatically lower costs over time. That would make it easier to move to complete laissez-faire, if that’s the way we decide to go (and I’m not sure it is the best solution.) But it would be politically impossible to move to complete laissez-faire from our current position.

    Chris, I agree with your first comment, and assume Robin does as well. Indeed that was my point. I don’t think your second comment follows. I don’t share the same culture as the people of McAllen Texas, and yet I heavily subsidize their health care with my taxes. Indeed I see their culture as being more similar to Mexico than Boston.

    My point is that there is a constantly evolving notion of who is “we,” of who we are willing to share resources with. And I expect that process to continue as technology makes us more and more a “global village.”

    Thanks Mike.

    Hyena, You said;

    “So the counter-move is this: we should have no problem, morally or financially, supporting the extension of nationalcare to internationalcare because it implies the ex ante submission outlined above.”

    Yes, no problem morally and financially, but a big problem politically. The Christian religion says the well being of each person is equally important, but how many Christians actually believe that?

  8. Gravatar of JimP JimP
    18. September 2011 at 09:31

    Off topic – but I do think this article offers a good idea for the European debt problem. Mutualize it:

  9. Gravatar of James in london James in london
    18. September 2011 at 13:10

    Those “deep historical roots” in Sicily that might explain the lack of trust are expressed as great cultural and genetic diversity, especially versus the cultural and genetic homogeneity of the five millions in Denmark and Singapore.

    The US has been quite unique in overcoming genetic diversity amongst its hundreds of millions to create its cultural homogeneity. A strong tradition of self-help and awareness of the need to work hard, aka moral hazard, is always what strikes me about the US. Perhaps this period is now coming to an end and we shall see more Sicily than Denmark or Singapore. The recent data on median household income trends points the way of divided communities and poverty. Sad but true.

  10. Gravatar of Philo Philo
    18. September 2011 at 15:12

    “We utilitarians believe that everyone’s well-being is of equal value, whether it be Bill Gates or a peasant farmer in Pakistan.” I consider myself a utilitarian, but this sentence seems dubious to me, because of its ambiguity. In one sense, it should be extended beyond *everyone* to every*thing*. Bill Gates’ welfare, a peasant farmer’s, a monkey’s, an armadillo’s, a fish’s, an ant’s, a bacterium’s, a rock’s welfare, all count the same, because what has value for a utilitarian is *welfare*, regardless of *whose* (or what’s) welfare it is.

    But, of course, Bill Gates is susceptible of much greater variation in welfare than a fish, etc. (Admittedly, since a rock is susceptible of no variation in welfare at all, it can, in practice, be ignored. But in principle variations in its welfare, if there were any, would be just as important as *equal sized* variations in Bill Gates’s welfare.) Raising Gates from the zero-level (supposing he were there) to the highest peak of welfare of which he was capable would be much more valuable than a similar operation performed on a fish. So *in a sense* Bill Gates is more important than a fish.

    *In this same sense*, whether Gates is more important than a peasant farmer depends on which peasant farmer we pick; it might go either way. But, picking two human beings at random, it is very unlikely that their welfare is equally important *in the sense that they are capable of equal maximal levels of welfare*.

    Interpreting your sentence in this latter sense, you are suggesting that all human beings are capable of equal levels of welfare and no non-human is capable of any non-zero degree of welfare. I, and many other utilitarians, would disagree.

  11. Gravatar of Lorenzo from Oz Lorenzo from Oz
    18. September 2011 at 16:35

    James in London: genetics has little or nothing to do with it (read the literature on ethnogenesis). Social capital, on the other hand, very important. Putnam and Turchin have some very revealing things to say about that. Turchin, for example, argues that mass slavery has dire effects on social capital that can last for centuries.

  12. Gravatar of Liberal Roman Liberal Roman
    18. September 2011 at 18:52

    Random fact of the day…I was born in Moldova

  13. Gravatar of Gene Callahan Gene Callahan
    19. September 2011 at 00:26

    “the cultural and genetic homogeneity of the five millions in Denmark and Singapore.”

    Singapore has the sixth highest percentage of foreigners living in the country of any nation in the world. There are large groups of Chinese, Malays, and Indians, and, of course, India and China are very ethnically diverse!

    So this point about Singapore is nonsense.

  14. Gravatar of Gene Callahan Gene Callahan
    19. September 2011 at 00:31

    By way of contrast, Sicily has a minute immigrant population, and although there have been waves of invaders, there have been several centuries for the population to mingle and homogenize. In other words, Sicily is far, far less diverse in population than is Singapore.

  15. Gravatar of johnleemk johnleemk
    19. September 2011 at 04:59


    I used to live in Singapore and I’ve been back quite a few times. I will say that Singapore has been quite successful in integrating its ethnic minorities. But that doesn’t change the fact that it’s still 80% Chinese. And since I left the country 15 years ago, it’s only become even more so. English used to be the lingua franca, but Mandarin has supplanted it, at least among the 80%.

    India is a lot more diverse than people give it credit for. China too, but it is still 90% Han Chinese (although linguistically more diverse than that number might suggest). But Singapore and Malaysia have elided these differences in any event; my Chinese ancestry is Hokkien, but in Singapore and Malaysia, I am just Chinese — not Hokkien. (This wasn’t so 50 or 100 years ago, but that’s how it is today.) Differences are more tangible among the Indian populations, especially because they are also religiously diverse, but again the governments of Malaysia and Singapore still treat them as one homogeneous group (creating an “Indian” ethnicity out of a hodge podge of Tamils, Punjabis, etc.). So I would still regard Singapore as fairly homogeneous — definitely not anywhere as heterogeneous as the US!

    (And as an aside, although national integration is quite strong in Singapore, a consequence is that there is a lot of anti-immigrant sentiment. People are quite upset at how many Chinese nationals are migrating to the country. Although superficially alike, Singaporean Chinese and Chinese nationals speak Mandarin with different accents and are actually quite culturally different. In the last Parliamentary election, immigration and inadequate welfare for the needy were probably the two biggest issues.)

  16. Gravatar of Scott Sumner Scott Sumner
    19. September 2011 at 09:08

    JimP, Maybe, but wouldn’t that be viewed as a sort of default?

    James in London, You said;

    “Those “deep historical roots” in Sicily that might explain the lack of trust are expressed as great cultural and genetic diversity, especially versus the cultural and genetic homogeneity of the five millions in Denmark and Singapore.”

    I’m not an expert on Sicily (I presume some Greeks and Arabs settled there) but if you go that far back you can probably find migration into Denmark. And Singapore is composed of Chinese, Malays and Indians, so there’s substantial diversity there as well.

    I think it’s too soon to say on the US, it depends how the economy does over the next few decades.

    Philo, Imagine there is something called “utils,” units of well-being. In that case a utilitarian would argue for maximizing aggregate utils, which implicitly means each person’s well being of of equal importance. It doesn’t mean, of course, that you try to equalize utils between people, or that you necessarily redistribute money.

    I don’t have strong views either way on animals. I simply don’t know what’s going on in their minds. You could argue either way regarding the implication of utilitarianism for animals.

    Liberal Roman, I’m very sorry to hear that; I seem to recall Moldova was among the least happy societies on Earth. I hope you have been able to overcome that handicap.

    Gene, That was my reaction too.

    Johnleemk, Thanks for that info. Hong Kong just introduced a minimum wage–I wonder if Singapore is also becoming more statist because of the worry about inequality.

  17. Gravatar of Gene Callahan Gene Callahan
    19. September 2011 at 15:15

    johnleemk: Singapore is 74% Chinese.(I just looked it up.) Sicily is 98% Sicilian.

    Case closed as to which is more diverse!

  18. Gravatar of James in London James in London
    20. September 2011 at 06:45

    “98% Sicilian” is meaningless when we are trying to establish genetic diversity. Case definitely not closed.

    Although Sicily has not seen much immigration in recent years, so that your datasource would notice, the genetic origins linger for far longer than a century or so. The work of modern genetics supports this. I can’t find a good internet link, but this might help you:
    and this:
    suggesting a much larger variety of yDNA Haplogroups versus those found amongst Chinese males, where the range is 50% to 80% as stated in:

  19. Gravatar of Robin Hanson Robin Hanson
    20. September 2011 at 11:18

    I see a tradeoff – the more generous are benefits to national citizens, the less they are willing to allow trade with and immigration from foreign lands.

  20. Gravatar of Scott Sumner Scott Sumner
    20. September 2011 at 11:36

    James, I’m dubious of the diversity argument in this particular case. But it’s hard to disprove because history (and genetics) are so complex.

    Robin, Maybe, but the Nordic countries are among the most generous with benefits, and yet they are very open to trade, and somewhat open to immigration (compared to other developed countries.) But of course that doesn’t mean you aren’t right if we hold culture constant.

    Another argument would envision some sort of convergence in global living standards in the long run (similar to what we’ve seen in Western Europe) which allows for open trade and immigration. Then I’d insist that in that sort of world having solidarity with society at large, and not just one’s family and friends, would be a huge advantage for generating good governance.

  21. Gravatar of Chris Chris
    20. September 2011 at 12:13

    “I don’t share the same culture as the people of McAllen Texas, and yet I heavily subsidize their health care with my taxes. Indeed I see their culture as being more similar to Mexico than Boston.”

    And yet through policy you have the power to require a certain degree of cultural compliance in return for subsidizing their healthcare (ie: school system with liberal values, protestant ethic inherent in TANF, compliance with anglo-saxon legal system, etc…). Whereas, if you subsidize care abroad, you’re affirming a set of totally different sociopolitical values.

    Obviously this is harder to sustain in McAllen than Montana, but that’s an argument for restricting immigration into a community and being more pronounced in asserting its values, not one for neglecting the rest of the community.

  22. Gravatar of Scott Sumner Scott Sumner
    26. September 2011 at 11:46

    Chris, I don’t completely reject your argument, and of course I favor some social welfare expenditures by the government. But I also think the libertarians have a valid argument that if we can only have one–greatly enlarged immigration does more for the poor than welfare spending. I favor some welfare spending because i don’t expect open immigration in either case.

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