Sam Bowles and Herb Gintis want us to face squarely two sets of facts that impose tight limits on what egalitarians can hope for: the moral dispositions shaped by millennia of genetic and cultural evolution, and the moral component of the opposition to the welfare state in the United States and elsewhere. They establish a link between these two sets of facts, and argue that egalitarians ought to take them into account not merely by revising their strategy but by reinterpreting their central goal. “Strong reciprocity” thus becomes what egalitarians should go for, newly cheered by the fact their endeavors no longer clash head-on with inescapable constraints.

There is nothing wrong with heeding constraints, including those that stem from popular moral convictions. But legitimate concern for constraints should not degenerate into a shrinking of the ideal itself: let us not turn necessity into virtue, nor the politically feasible into the ethically optimal. I am not sure that Bowles and Gintis’s essay keeps clear of this danger. Indeed, I believe that their rephrasing of the egalitarian ideal is overreacting to the political climate of the (American) day, while neglecting, within their own intellectual arsenal, a far more potent basis for an egalitarian counteroffensive. To see this, we need to scrutinize the essay’s central notion of “strong reciprocity.”

In one interpretation that fits most of its occurrences, this notion comes very close to the notion of “solidarity,” as commonly invoked, in Europe at any rate, to justify the genuinely redistributive dimension of the welfare state. In contrast to the morally far less demanding notion of insurance (or probabilistic reciprocity), solidarity can be characterized as counterfactual reciprocity. When the insurance motive is at work, those who help others do so because they reckon that they may one day be in the same situation as these others, they would then want to be able to count on similar help, and they can secure this help by helping now. When solidarity is at work, on the other hand, those who help others do so because they reckon they could have been in the same situation as these others, would then have wanted to be helped, and have reason to believe that those they now help would then have helped them if in a position to do so. As Bowles and Gintis persuasively argue, this Homo solidalis is no less active in the world than the self-interested varieties of Homo reciprocans (the direct reciprocity of exchange and the probabilistic reciprocity of insurance). Moreover, precisely because of its departure from self-interest, solidarity has an undeniable normative appeal. However, it raises two serious concerns, one because of its “tribal” nature, the other because of the conditionality it entails.

Solidarity, as characterized, only makes sense on the background of a community, whose borders define both who I identify with (“I could have been in her place”) and who I can trust (“She would have done the same for me”). Solidarity, therefore, can easily justify discrimination: there can be solidarity among the privileged. But this is not a fatal objection. For Bowles and Gintis, I trust, will easily concede–and should perhaps have asserted more forcefully–that egalitarians need not resign themselves to the narrow borders to which spontaneous solidarity often tends to be restricted–however superior they might be for the sake of group selection–and must instead fight to expand the relevant community, to subject larger numbers and greater varieties of people to the obligations of a common solidarity. Facts, even facts about values, are not values. They may of course constrain the achievement of our values. But the sheer fact that they can be shown to make evolutionary sense does not make nonsense of the attempt to alter them.

Thus, the tribal, confined character of solidarity can and should be at least greatly attenuated, if not abolished. But this is not the case for its conditional nature. Whether or not it reaches beyond the borders of “spontaneous” communities, the notion of solidarity, as characterized, seems to commit us to some version of the distinction between deserving and underserving poor. This distinction is commonly made in at least two distinct ways: a poor person can be said to be undeserving of benefits if: a) she does not do anything in exchange despite the fact that she could; or b) her poverty is the consequence of improper conduct on her part. These two conditionalities need not go together. Thus, in the first ever systematic plea for public assistance to the poor (De Subventione Pauperum, 1526), Juan Luis Vives was adamant that the beneficiaries of public aid should do something in exchange: “No poor who, by virtue of his age and health, is able to work, must be allowed to remain idle.” But Vives was equally insistent that aid should be extended to those who owed their destitution to their own objectionable conduct: “One will feed even those who wasted their wealth in wicked and foolish ways, for example on gambling, prostitutes, concubines, luxury or gluttony, for no one should be left to starve.”

Strictly speaking, a transfer system based on solidarity does not entail restricting benefits to the deserving poor in either of these two senses. One unfairly claims a benefit provided out of solidarity, by definition, if one would not be (sincerely) prepared to offer the help one now receives if positions were swapped. Being unwilling to accept a job one is assigned and owing one’s present situation to the “wickedness” or “foolishness” of one’s conduct are at best proxies for the deservingness a solidarity-based transfer system is meant to track. Nonetheless, there is a strong case for a combination of workfare and a punitive approach to irresponsible behavior as the best pragmatic way of preventing free-riders from exploiting the solidarity of contributors. Strong reciprocity is calling for a strong state, indeed an ever-stronger state as the earning power of a growing proportion of the population falls below the threshold at which institutionalized solidarity is triggered.

This is not a very attractive prospect for anyone who believes that egalitarianism can and must go hand in hand with emancipation, not with liberticide for the poor. Nor does it seem to be an altogether welcome implication for Bowles and Gintis either, judging by the fact that they feel they have to soften their “strong reciprocity” by combining it with “basic needs generosity.” Next to the justice of whatever transfers are commanded by strong reciprocity, however, the transfers granted to the poor out of basic needs generosity unavoidably sound feebly grounded and pretty demeaning: a charity conceded, on conditions they must feel free to specify, by the generous tax-paying donors, and only a minor softening, therefore, of the harsh transfer policy which strong reciprocity would seem to condone.

There is, however, consistent with Bowles and Gintis’s basic premises, a far more attractive way forward for egalitarians. It rests on a different, broader interpretation of the “strong reciprocity” whose positive and normative importance their article emphasizes. Remember the dictator and ultimatum bargaining games Bowles and Gintis discuss as illustrations of strong reciprocity. These display some moral motive at work that cannot be reduced to self-interest. But it is not an instance of solidarity, understood in terms of helping others as much as we would expect others to help us. Indeed, it is not an instance of helping at all, but rather of not taking (much) more than one’s fair share. This suggests that Bowles and Gintis, at the most fundamental level, are like the rest of us really committed not to solidarity, but to fairness. A fair benefit can but need not be a benefit justified by the counterfactual reciprocity of solidarity-which may warrant a workfare-type set-up in order to verify the relevant dispositions. It can also consist in a fair share in a pool of resources to which we are all equally entitled.

This idea was at the core of Thomas Paine’s claim (in his Agrarian Justice, 1796) that, as a matter of “Justice, not Charity,” we should all be given an unconditional endowment when coming of age, in recognition of our equal ownership of the Earth. Whatever force this line of argument might have had in Paine’s time, it is bound to have far more in our own. “If we agree that today’s technological progress is akin to a pebble resting on a mountain of previous achievements,” Gar Alperovitz notes, “then a substantial portion of society’s current income should go as a matter of equal right to each individual, apart from the amount he or she earns from current work or risk, or to the entire community” (Technology Review, October 1994). Similarly, against “those who think they have a solid moral right to retain all the wealth they ‘earn’,” Herbert A. Simon observes “any causal analysis explaining why American GDP is about $25,000 per capita would show that at least 2/3 is due to the happy accident that the income recipient was born in the US” (Basic Income 29, Spring 1998). Thus “strong reciprocity,” understood more broadly as “fairness,” justifies transfers that require neither (restrictive) solidarity nor (demeaning) generosity. Solidarity and generosity with the fruits of our labor are not thereby made redundant, but they must operate on the background of a fair distribution of what we receive.

To prevent equality from becoming passé, Bowles and Gintis–and all egalitarians along with them–can do far better than take over the moral premises that justify switching from welfare to workfare and further structuring the welfare state around the deserving/undeserving divide. To regain the moral high ground, to be back on the offensive, the first thing they need to do is make people realize how much we are given, and how unequally. Thomas Paine and James Meade can then become or remain their guides, rather than Lawrence Mead and Charles Murray. And freedom, no less than equality, can be reinstated at the core of the left’s agenda.