By recasting social welfare polices to tap the sentiments of Homo reciprocans, it is possible to build an egalitarian society, according to Bowles and Gintis. But far from solving the problems of policy-makers, Homo reciprocans presents a real conundrum for those who wish to reduce inequality.

Homo reciprocans is generous. But that generosity is rooted in reciprocity not altruism. Homo reciprocans seeks fair terms for social cooperation and is vindictive to free riders. In addition, because it is easier to strike a deal and enforce it with someone who shares your idea of fairness than with someone who may or may not share it, Homo reciprocans is more generous with others in close social proximity than with others at a great social distance. Thus families, religious communities, and local government jurisdictions historically provided an economic safety net for their own members. However, when help is available only from a small homogeneous group, the vulnerable must accept the definition of fairness set by the strong members of the group even when doing so reinforces their own vulnerability. This is why modern welfare state policies have consistently tried to break the link between economic well-being and individuals’ dependence on small social groups.

At the turn of the century mother’s pensions provided aid to widowed or abandoned mothers so long as local social workers certified that they lived in a “suitable home.” Local supervision of such mothers was a central rationale for the existence of mother’s pensions, because it seemed to overcome the free rider problem. Suitable home rules varied a lot but local communities disqualified mothers for not providing religious training, being poor disciplinarians, and living in bad neighborhoods. In many southern communities black mothers were disqualified altogether and in others they were disqualified during the summer, when local leaders thought it fair to require black but not white mothers to work in the fields. In the 1960s the Supreme Court struck down “man in the house” rules because they violated another strongly held value, the right to privacy. We now have legislation preventing religious organizations from using government funds to require adherence to religious rules in exchange for government-funded aid. Egalitarian policy often means reducing the influence of exactly the kind of small groups that promote reciprocity.

When this happens citizens can come to feel that they have no control over the behavior of recipients of their generosity, and hence that recipients are free-riding. Two responses are then common. One is to reduce monitoring costs by encouraging more local definition and enforcement of norms. Attempts to strengthen the family and promote community are part of this response. The second response is to reduce generosity and instead encourage self-sufficiency. Although these approaches might not seem mutually exclusive, encouraging one undermines the other.

In the United States the new welfare law promotes self-sufficiency by requiring work. Liberals like the policy because they believe that the middle class will be more generous with the poor if they work. Conservatives like it because they think that work is virtuous. But increasing self-sufficiency may weaken not strengthen reciprocity. Self-sufficiency is at odds with community.

When families had one earner they also had a stronger sense of reciprocity within the family than there seems to be today. When women can (or de facto must) enter the labor market, their independence reduces the sense of economic and non-economic reciprocity within families. Women who work do not need to rely on the government for economic support. But they do not need to rely on anyone else either. The increase in the number of women who work and the decline in marriage suggests that many women prefer the independence provided by labor market work to the “fair” reciprocal arrangement they had in marriage. When children spend too many hours in child-care centers, schools and after-school programs, we run the risk that their dependence on and commitment to their parents may diminish, reducing reciprocity across generations. Neighborhoods that are empty during the day and populated by tired workers at night may produce little sense of community.

Self-sufficiency reduces the need for reciprocity, but reciprocity is in large part what creates community. Egalitarian policies that serve one characteristic of Homo reiprocans (the sense of fairness) can undermine another (the need for community). Like Homo sapiensHomo reciprocans is never satisfied. Thus the debate over egalitarian policies has lasted for centuries and shows no sign of abating. Bowles and Gintis are surely right that egalitarianism is based on sentiments deeply rooted in culture and perhaps even biology. But like most evolutionary aspects of humans, not all the kinks have been worked out. Hence we hold sentiments that are, in the context of the modern world, in conflict with one another. Our social polices then vacillate between an attempt to satisfy first one sentiment and then another.