The Urge to Do Something

By Michael Munger

There is a problem in public affairs. If there is a state, with the capacity to do good, the temptation to do something is irresistible. If someone objects, the response is always “Well, we have to do something. What would you do?”

It’s not obvious we should do something. In arenas as diverse as “public” housing, nationally funded foreign aid, poverty programs, and nation-building exercises such as El Salvador and Iraq, the U.S. has shown itself to be terribly incompetent (at best).

But this impulse to “do something” is fundamental to being human, because it arises out of sympathy and fellow feeling. We have an impulse to act when something is upsetting or seems unfair. And, of course, that impulse is largely a good thing, an evolved sympathy or (as Adam Smith put it) “impartial spectator” that would judge us as bad people if we failed to act.

A while back, I noted that F.A. Hayek had invoked the evolutionary-biology concept of an “atavism” as an explanation of this tension between the sympathetic desire to do something and to treat other people as family or clan members, and the necessity of using institutions such as markets to create emergent orders.

I want to cite three famous authors, each often cited by classical liberals, who noted this impulse, approved of this impulse, and yet warned that this impulse would come a cropper when applied indiscriminately on a large scale to big public problems. In each case, the author notes the importance of fellow feeling, family obligations, or the desire to cooperate in small groups. And in each case the author offers an important “however.”

Adam Smith

A superior may, indeed, sometimes, with universal approbation, oblige those under his jurisdiction to behave, in this respect, with a certain degree of propriety to one another. The laws of all civilized nations oblige parents to maintain their children, and children to maintain their parents, and impose upon men many other duties of beneficence. The civil magistrate is entrusted with the power not only of preserving the public peace by restraining injustice, but of promoting the prosperity of the commonwealth, by establishing good discipline, and by discouraging every sort of vice and impropriety; he may prescribe rules, therefore, which not only prohibit mutual injuries among fellow-citizens, but command mutual good offices to a certain degree.

However,

Of all the duties of a law-giver, however, this, perhaps, is that which it requires the greatest delicacy and reserve to execute with propriety and judgment. To neglect it altogether exposes the commonwealth to many gross disorders and shocking enormities, and to push it too far is destructive of all liberty, security, and justice. (Theory of Moral Sentiments, Section II, Chapter 1)

Notice that Smith notes the importance and universality of the impulse, and makes the comparison between sentiments that have been evolved, both by selection and by convention, to “do something” and the problems this innate impulse creates when it is acted on by the state, the lawgiver, or by centralized authorities. But this impulse, when given free rein, creates “gross disorders and shocking enormities,” because it is not suited to making public policy, and it can be misused by the unscrupulous.

Alexis de Tocqueville

Tocqueville was famously of two minds about voluntary associations and democracy. On one hand, people associating together is useful, and in fact indispensable, for the functioning of democracy. But large-scale state action can “enfeeble” the associative impulse, because it displaces our sense of moral responsibility. Many people, when they see a family struggling, or an association such as a school or hospital struggling, will make contributions to help. Having a state, with forced “helping out,” enfeebles this impulse. Instead, people distance themselves and blame the incompetence or indifference of the state.

As Tocqueville put it:

When citizens can associate only in certain cases, they regard association as a rare and singular process, and they hardly think of it, [depending on the state for everything].
When you allow them to associate freely in everything, they end up seeing in association the universal and, so to speak, unique means that men can use to attain the various ends that they propose. Each new need immediately awakens the idea of association. The art of association then becomes, as I said above, the mother science; everyone studies it and applies it. (Democracy in America, Volume III, Part 2, Chapter 7)

However,

Our contemporaries are incessantly tormented by two hostile passions: they feel the need to be led and the desire to remain free. Unable to destroy either the one or the other of these opposite instincts, they work hard to satisfy both at the same time. They imagine a unique, tutelary, omnipotent power, but elected by the citizens. They combine centralization and sovereignty of the people. That gives them some relief. They console themselves about being in tutelage by thinking that they have chosen their tutors themselves. Each individual endures being bound, because he sees that it is not a man or a class, but the people itself that holds the end of the chain.
In this system, the citizens emerge for a moment from dependency in order to indicate their master, and return to it. There are many men today who accommodate themselves very easily to this type of compromise between administrative despotism and sovereignty of the people, and who think they have guaranteed the liberty of individuals when it is to the national power that they deliver that liberty. (Democracy in America, Volume II, Part 4, Chapter 6)

Friedrich A. Hayek

Many people think of Hayek as disregarding “social” concerns and focusing only on people as anomic atoms. But that is far from true. In fact, Hayek recognized, as did the other two authors, that immediate and intimate concerns about those near to us are indispensable. The problem that Hayek identified, again like the other authors, is that this impulse is likely to extend outside its appropriate domain, and the consequences are destructive.

The structures of the extended order are made up not only of individuals but also of many, often overlapping, sub-orders within which old instinctual responses, such as solidarity and altruism, continue to retain some importance by assisting voluntary collaboration, even though they are incapable, by themselves, of creating a basis for the more extended order. Part of our present difficulty is that we must constantly adjust our lives, our thoughts and our emotions, in order to live simultaneously within different kinds of orders according to different rules. If we were to apply the unmodified, uncurbed, rules of the micro-cosmos (i.e., of the small band or troop, or of, say, our families) to the macro-cosmos (our wider civilisation), as our instincts and sentimental yearnings often make us wish to do, we would destroy it. Yet if we were always to apply the rules of the extended order to our more intimate groupings, we would crush them.

However…

So we must learn to live in two sorts of world at once. To apply the name `society' to both, or even to either, is hardly of any use, and can be most misleading...Yet despite the advantages attending our limited ability to live simultaneously within two orders of rules, and to distinguish between them, it is anything but easy to do either. Indeed, our instincts often threaten to topple the whole edifice. (Fatal Conceit, p. 18)

I worry that the debate over public policy has come to ignore the rather nuanced and careful view of thinkers such as Smith, Tocqueville, and Hayek. Some people seem to caricature liberal thinkers as caring only about self-interest; others seem to embrace, and selectively quote, only those aspects of these thinkers that emphasize decentralized emergent orders. But both kinds of association and cooperation operate in parallel, and we must respect the impulse behind fellow feeling and pay due respect to the “however.”

Sign up here to be notified of new articles from Michael Munger and AIER.

Michael Munger

Michael Munger is Professor of Economics at Duke University and Senior Fellow of the American Institute for Economic Research. His degrees are from Davidson College, Washingon University in St. Louis, and Washington University.