Happiness? Itê¢__‘_Ê¢s simply a gift

Happiness? Itê¢__‘_Ê¢s simply a gift

From The TimesOnline

August 6, 2007

Happiness? It’s simply a gift

Terence Kealey: Science Notebook

David Cameron is right and his Conservative critics are wrong. People want to pay taxes. This was established by a team led by Ulrich Mayr, a psychologist at the University of Oregon. Mayr collected a group of subjects, gave them $100 (ê_Ô£50) each, and studied their brains.

He then used a technique known as functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) that allows scientists to monitor the activity of those parts of the brain that signal reward (the bits that light up when we eat, drink, and partake of recreational drugs and sex). And Mayr found, predictably, that people’s brains lit up when the $100 was paid into their accounts.

Less predictably, he discovered that when he transferred some of the money without permission from their accounts to that of a local charity (one that helps the poor), the subjects” brains lit up again. People were pleased to be taxed for a good cause.

More predictably, perhaps, Mayr found that, when he invited his subjects to give money voluntarily to the charity, on so doing they registered even greater levels of brain reward: people like being taxed for charity, but they like giving money to good causes even more.

Few scientific papers deserve to be called important, but this one qualifies because it challenges so many political assumptions. First, it disproves the Left’s belief that only the state will succour the poor: actually, philanthropy is hardwired into our brains and, in the absence of state aid, private giving is biologically determined. As Nietzsche said, “we have a need to give”.

Secondly, of course, it disproves the Right’s belief that taxes are unpopular. Thirdly, it confirms the theologians” doctrine of Original Sin, because the brain scans reveal that some people are innately more greedy and less generous than others – some brains brightened up only after the original gift of $100, whereas others really lit up only on the transfer of money to the charity.

And, finally, the paper addresses some tricky questions. Since the desire to help the poor seems to be hardwired into human beings, to what extent is private philanthropy “crowded out” or displaced by mandatory taxes?

And, since some people are innately mean, to what extent does taxation ensure that even they contribute to helping the needy? Further, since some people are, indeed, tightwads, to what extent do they ensure that tax revenue is simply redistributed back to the middle classes under the guise of philanthropy?

Mayr’s paper, which is entitled Neural Responses to Taxation and Voluntary Giving Reveal Motives for Charitable Donations, was recently published in Science magazine. It shows how the new science of neuroeconomics will soon transform social policy.

Terence Kealey is Vice-Chancellor of Buckingham University