Pathological Altruism and Pathological Regulation

CATO JOURNAL 34.1 (2014): 171-183

A concept recently developed by scholars in psychology and biology is “pathological altruism.” (Oakley 2013, Oakley et al. 2012). A pathological altruist is defined as “a person who sincerely engages in what he or she intends to be altruistic acts, but who harms the very person or group he or she is trying to help, often in unanticipated fashion; or harms others; or irrationally becomes a victim of his or her own altruistic actions.” While Oakley et al. (2012) present many examples of pathological altruism for individuals in their day-to-day lives, it is argued that one would expect the notion to be highly relevant for policy analysis. This is because of the standard notion of “rational ignorance.” If a policy can present a plausible altruistic justification, it generally does not pay for voters to further examine this basis. Moreover, policies are extremely difficult to analyze and even if voters desired to determine their effects, they would have a good deal of difficulty doing so. Knowledge of the effects of policies is not direct, but must be teased out of the data using statistical or econometric tools, and even then there is often disagreement among experts about the effects of policies. This disagreement is fueled by the incentives of participants in political debates to find or fund experts who will espouse their views. As a result, it would not be surprising if voters erroneously support counterproductive or pathologically altruistic policies. The point is that policies need not actually benefit the purported beneficiaries. As long as a convincing story can be told about beneficiaries, the political process may adopt the policies. This paper argues that the notion of pathological altruism can be added to the public choice economist’s standard notion of rational ignorance to create a powerful new tool for analysis.