June 19, 2007
Some Feel Pleasure Paying Taxes

Why can't libertarians persuade the majority to support libertarian economic and social policies? Most human brains are wired to give themselves pleasure when they commit altruistic acts including the paying of taxes.

Want to light up the pleasure center in your brain? Just pay your taxes, and then give a little extra voluntarily to your local food bank. University of Oregon scientists have found that doing those deeds can give you the same sort of satisfaction you derive from feeding your own hunger pangs.

A three-member team a cognitive psychologist and two economists published its results in the June 15 issue of the journal Science. The scientists gave 19 women participants $100 and then scanned their brains with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) as they watched their money go to the food bank through mandatory taxation, and as they made choices about whether to give more money voluntarily or keep it for themselves.

The participants lay on their backs in the fMRI scanner for an hour-long session and viewed the financial transfers on a computer screen. The scanner used a super-cooled magnet, carefully tuned radio waves and powerful computers to calculate what parts of the brain were active as subjects saw their money go to the food bank and made yes or no decisions on additional giving.

What I want to know: Who is having more kids? Those who enjoy taxpaying the most or those who get no pleasure from taxpaying? Is taxpaying getting selected for or against?

Libertarians can take small solace that voluntary altruism is more enjoyable than mandatory altruism.

The surprising element for us was that in a situation in which your money is simply given to others where you do not have a free choice you still get reward-center activity, said Ulrich Mayr, a professor of psychology. I dont think that most economists would have suspected that. It reinforces the idea that there is true altruism where its all about how well the common good is doing. Ive heard people claim that they dont mind paying taxes, if its for a good cause and here we showed that you can actually see this going on inside the brain, and even measure it.

I do not find this surprising. Economists need to adopt a much more realistic view of human nature so that this sort of result ceases to surprise.

When offspring genetic engineering becomes commonplace will parents choose to make their kids more or less altruistic? Will some genetic variations make people hate involuntary altruism while still enjoying voluntary altruism? If so, a libertarian society could be genetically engineered.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2007 June 19 10:26 PM  Brain Altruism

Audacious Epigone said at June 20, 2007 12:05 AM:

The scientists gave 19 women participants $100 and then scanned their brains with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) as they watched their money go to the food bank through mandatory taxation, and as they made choices about whether to give more money voluntarily or keep it for themselves.

If I found a winning $1000 lottery ticket in the driveway, I'd probably derive more pleasure (or less anxiety) in giving it to Goodwill than I would if I withdrew that grand from my bank account and doled it out. Giving away money that isn't yours is easier to take pleasure from than coughing up what you've toiled for.

Ork said at June 20, 2007 8:51 AM:

This article picks on economists, but most would answer that freedom of choice is important. If the individual wishes he or she can always give away money. No need for high taxes tha will make life unpleasant for most people.

Brett Bellmore said at June 21, 2007 4:03 AM:

Arguably, this demonstrates that a person can find pleasure in giving away something they didn't earn in the first place... Perhaps the brain treats unearned wealth differently from earned wealth? I suppose you could design a study to distinguish, by making the subjects work for the money you take from them.

But all this misses the most important question: How the heck do I get included in a study that will give me money?

Purenoiz said at June 21, 2007 7:58 AM:

Genetically engineered society of libertarians? How long would that last, you remove altruism and you are left with human greed unchecked, who will feed and clothe babies if they can't see past their own nose?

john pertz said at June 21, 2007 10:36 AM:

Randall, the key to the experiment showing positive brain activity as a result of forced taxation is the part where the subjects view their tax money helping others. I wonder what the results would look like if they saw their tax money going to corporate special interests or to your local crack head junkie who suckles off the dole? Who wouldnt be more supportive of government taxation if it actually solved all of the problems that it was purported to? If people knew the true social cost of government spending Im sure they would be slightly more inclined to arguments for less government.

Dowlan Smith said at June 21, 2007 5:11 PM:

I think that the study involved female college students- probably haven't had to support themselves, or pay significant taxes first. Besides as the old saw goes. "If you aren't liberal before you are thirty, you have no heart. If you arn't conservative after you are thirty, you have no brain."

Also why just females? Perhaps more empathetic. Try 50 year old males. Or say the money is going to oil subsidies.

SpakKadi said at June 23, 2007 10:36 AM:

Purenoiz, libertarians are actually more dependent on human altruism than those who believe in more government because the altruism is left up to the individual rather than the government. Libertarianism tends to break down when individuals act out of pure selfishness rather than enlightened self-interest. There was a good article on BBC's website last year about how Americans take responsibility for things that most people in Europe just assume the government will do for them and end up being more charitable as a whole.

I wonder, did the study account for giving to causes that the person didn't agree with? For instance, if someone refused to donate to Planned Parenthood but their "tax" money went to planned parenthood, did they still get the altruism high?

Hopefully Anonymous said at June 27, 2007 11:19 PM:

I don't think it's (buzzword) libertarianism that we want to encourage. Something more like rational pragmatism, minimally constrained by bias to achieve collective persistence maximization or some such thing.

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