Sunday, May 17, 2020

social good and individual good

I recently became involved in yet another online discussion on demographics and it occurred to me why such discussions are ultimately futile. If you’re trying to change people’s behaviour (for example by trying to persuade them to have more children) you have very little chance of success if the only arguments you can provide are that the change in behaviour will benefit society rather than benefit them as individuals. If the change in behaviour would actually be to the detriment of the individual, you have even less chance. And if the social good is a long-term good the chances of success fall to something very close to zero.

For the most part people accept social responsibilities only when they see a direct benefit to themselves. People don’t like paying taxes but they pay them anyway because they can see that they themselves are very likely to one day benefit from the things the taxes pay for - roads, schools, refuse collection, major infrastructure, police, firefighting services and the welfare state are all things that the average person can easily imagine deriving some personal benefit from.

People dislike rules and regulations but they will accept them if they see that they personally might benefit. When the wearing of seat belts and later the wearing of motorcycle helmets became mandatory people accepted this infringement on their personal freedom because they figured that the life that might be saved might be their own life, or their son’s life or their husband’s life.

People don’t like lining up for customs inspections at the airport but they believe that the importation of contraband might impact their own lives. People accept the existence of laws and police because it could be their house that gets burgled or their daughter that gets raped.

But it’s much harder to persuade people to accept limitations on their freedom if they don’t see any personal benefit. That’s largely why censorship collapsed back in the 60s. People might not have liked girlie magazines and sex films but they could not see how it would have any effect on them personally if other people wanted to buy such things. The Sexual Revolution happened not because people necessarily wanted to be promiscuous themselves but they could not see how it would affect them if other people wanted to be promiscuous.

I want to make it clear that I am not arguing that there’s no such thing as social good (or the public good if you like). I am merely arguing that any social policy that relies solely on such arguments is going to be a hard sell. A very hard sell. It’s too abstract, too long-term and people cannot see how it will impact their own lives.

Which brings us back to birth rates. It might well be a very good thing indeed for society in the long term if people had more children. But can you actually provide a convincing argument that for a couple to have more children will provide a real concrete benefit to that couple? In fact at best most couples might believe that there would be no benefit at all for them. At worst most couples might very well believe that it would make their own lives worse.

In such cases appealing to people’s public spirit, persuading them that society might benefit in the long term, is just not going to work. If you provide lavish financial incentives for having lots of kids those incentives will have to be paid for. The money will come out of the pockets of people who do not want more kids. They are, understandably, going to resent that a great deal. And obviously any drastic measures to increase birth rates (such as restricting the availability of contraception) will cause extreme resentment and even anger.

The problem is that when people make decisions based on their own personal interests they are behaving rationally. You might not like their decisions but they are rational. And, from an individual perspective, doing things for society’s long-term benefit is irrational. It might be necessary for the good of society to persuade people to have more children but persuading them to do so when they are convinced that it will be to their own detriment is going to be very very hard. Maybe even impossible.

Again I stress that I’m not arguing in favour of putting personal interests ahead of society’s, but that is a perfectly natural thing for people to do.


  1. I wonder what is there to discuss when it comes to demographics. People who want to have children should do their best to do so, and, at a certain point, get some help from the state, because it is in the state's interest. People who genuinely believe they do not want to have children, whatever their reasons might be, should not be forced into having children. That's pretty much all there is to it, I suppose. If everything else in the state (economy, housing prices, migration laws, culture, religion, education, etc.) is more or less sane and tolerable, there won't be any problem with demographics.

    1. If everything else in the state (economy, housing prices, migration laws, culture, religion, education, etc.) is more or less sane and tolerable, there won't be any problem with demographics.

      Probably, although getting those things sane and tolerable will be the tricky part.