I am a wealthy American who supports higher taxes on wealthy people. I realize that agitating to pay more taxes is unusual. When I appeared on Fox News recently, the host, Neil Cavuto, opposed my position but also called me an altruist with a good heart, because I favored a policy against my own self-interest. I thank Neil for his kind words, but I disagree with him. I believe higher taxes on myself are in my own self-interest. Although repealing the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy will cost me a lot, I think doing so is necessary to address a looming national debt crisis that could severely harm me and my family. In the face of this threat, I consider it perfectly self-interested to worry more about the state of the overall national economic pie than about my own particular slice.
I’m hardly alone. According to a recent poll, 64% of high-income Americans who would be affected support repealing the tax cuts. But even if you agree with me that the deficit represents a serious threat to our collective well-being, I bet you’re surprised and even a bit skeptical that so many rich folks would favor taxing themselves more.
Consider research conducted by two psychologists, Dale Miller and Rebecca Ratner. They told a group of Princeton students that the Red Cross would be coming to campus for a blood drive. Because blood supplies were dangerously low, the organization was considering paying $15 for donations, and it wanted to get a sense of how much difference that would make. The students estimated that 63% of their classmates would donate if they got paid, almost double the 33% they predicted would donate without pay. But when asked whether they themselves would donate, those students were only slightly more likely to donate for $15 than for nothing: 73% vs. 63%. In other words, they thought their classmates would be more influenced by money than they actually were.
I believe this error reflects a powerful tendency in American culture to falsely equate self-interest with selfishness. Heirs to a long Western tradition of individualism, we view our lives as our own personal creations, and we think it both natural and morally appropriate to put our own individual goals first. Other cultures, however, have emphasized an alternative view of human nature that stresses the centrality of the group. A growing body of research suggests that human behavior cannot be understood without both perspectives. We don’t behave as if we were lone athletes in the game of survival but rather as team players who care as much about collective success as about our own performance.
Opponents of higher taxes offer a wholly individualistic view of motivation when they claim that people won’t work hard unless they themselves directly benefit. As a psychologist, I consider that claim dubious but also potentially self-reinforcing: If people think other people act selfishly, they’ll be likelier to do so themselves. A number of researchers have found, for example, that undergraduates who major in economics, which proclaims the primacy of self-interest, behave more selfishly than other students. That might happen just because selfish people choose to major in economics, but one study has found that the gap in behavior is larger for upperclassmen than for underclassmen, suggesting that economics majorslearn to behave more selfishly.
Some Americans seem to make a virtue of selfishness. For them individualism describes not merely the way humans are but also the way they should be. I disagree. I enjoy the luxuries my money can buy, but I also want public goods that can only be created collectively: a strong national defense, clean air and water, quality schools. To me, rational self-interest requires caring about the social groups to which we belong. We will all suffer if our national government can’t pay its bills.
This is why I think that with the threat of national insolvency looming, it is particularly important for as many people as possible to proclaim loud and clear that we don’t think selfishness is in anyone’s self-interest. And I am willing to put my money where my mouth is. Closing our budget deficits will require sacrifice by everyone, so I think it only fair to start by raising taxes on the group that has benefited most directly from the policies that lead to those deficits: wealthy people like me.
Eric J. Schoenberg is a former investment banker who now teaches behavioral economics at Columbia Business School. He is a member of Responsible Wealth, which brings together high-wealth and high-income individuals in support of progressive tax policy.