Everyday Economics

Sex, Sin, and Streetlights

Parsing hypocrisy, courtesy of Bob Allen.

Florida Rep. Bob Allen

God’s latest gift to columnists and standup comedians is Florida legislator Bob Allen, arrested this summer in a public restroom for offering an undercover cop $20 and a blow job (yes, that’s $20 and a blow job, not $20 for a blow job). This story has everything. First, there’s Allen’s risible defense —that as the only white guy in the men’s room, he got scared and needed a way to fit in. Then there are the exquisite details, like Allen’s Web page, which lists his sole recreational interest as “water sports.” And the crowning glory: Allen’s long history as a staunch defender of family values, including an attempt to outlaw masturbation in the presence of a consenting adult. Oh, the hypocrisy!

Or maybe not. Why, exactly, do we call Mr. Allen a hypocrite? Answer: because he wants to impose standards on others that he’s not willing to impose on himself. But you could say the same thing about a lot of other politicians. Consider, for example, a U.S. Senator who seeks to raise income taxes on people in her own income bracket yet neglects to make voluntary overpayments to the government each April 15. Is she equally a hypocrite?

Hypocrisy is not an economic concept, so economic theory can’t answer that question. But it can go a long way toward clarifying the issues and sorting out good analogies from bad ones.

Start with an example from Economics 101: Ten neighbors are willing to pay $20 each to install a streetlight that costs $100. But when you take up a voluntary collection, nobody contributes. Instead, each neighbor figures (perfectly rationally) that if the other neighbors want to build a streetlight, he might as well let them build a streetlight and ride along for free. The result? Darkness. On the other hand, if everyone is taxed $10, the streetlight gets built and everyone is happy. And if you take a vote, everyone votes for the tax.

Each neighbor’s first choice is to have a light that other people pay for. Second choice is to be taxed, and last choice is to go without the light. That’s a rational ordering of preference, from free-riding to paying equal shares to making do without a service. And while it’s selfish, certainly, I don’t know anyone who would label it hypocritical.

Now let’s tweak the example: Instead of being asked to contribute $10 toward a streetlight, let’s ask the same neighbors to contribute that amount toward feeding the homeless. And let’s suppose once again that nobody contributes voluntarily, though everyone happily votes to be taxed.

That’s nothing at all like the streetlight problem, and here’s why: In most cases, one neighbor’s contribution toward the streetlight does no good—the light gets built or it doesn’t depending on what the neighbors do as a group. By contrast, one $10 contribution to the homeless does exactly $10 worth of good regardless of whether the other neighbors contribute or not.

It makes perfect sense to say “let the neighbors build the light.” But it makes no sense at all to say “let the neighbors feed the homeless.” If they do, there are still plenty more homeless to feed, and if they don’t do their part, I can still do (or not do) mine.

It’s perfectly rational—if a little ugly—to say: “I care enough about the homeless that I’d like to force my neighbors to feed them, but not enough that I’m willing to feed them myself.” And it’s therefore perfectly rational to say, “My first choice is that everyone but me feeds the homeless, my second choice is that everyone including me feeds the homeless, and my third choice is that nobody feeds the homeless.” But now you edge a lot closer to what might reasonably be called hypocrisy. Because now you’re imposing a standard that you’re not willing to meet voluntarily—even though the free-rider problem does not apply.

What does all this mean for family-values crusaders who solicit sex in public restrooms? It depends, I suppose, on the nuances of their positions. Suppose you’re Bob Allen: You believe that America is veering off course, and you expect that God will smite us unless 10,000,000 people all change their sinful ways. That’s like a streetlight. Either 10,000,000 others will change their ways or they won’t, and your own behavior is extremely unlikely to make a difference. Might as well go for the blow job. On the other hand, if you’re Bob Allen and you believe that each individual sinner brings marginally more divine displeasure on all of us, that’s like feeding the homeless. Your own behavior matters regardless of what everyone else does. In the first case, I might call you cold and calculating. In the second case, I might call you a hypocrite. 

And ditto for the senator who calls for higher taxes but doesn’t pay them voluntarily. If those taxes are meant to pay for streetlights—or for police protection, or public parks, or the military—then I’ll give her a clear pass on the hypocrisy question. But if those taxes are meant to feed the poor, we’re entitled to ask why she doesn’t go ahead and pay them without waiting for the rest of us.