Friday, May 21, 2010

Is Rewarding Work Really What This Is About?

I seem to be finding the NY Times unusually interesting this morning. Brooks has a column that can be basically summed up as the reason for the votes for extremists from the center is that politicians are rewarding those who don't deserve it rather than those that worked hard and do. This is fine as far as it goes, rewarding work is about as controversial as saying that everyone should have food.

However, there's a flip side to this that I think is more relevant. People don't just want to reward work, they want to see idleness punished. This raises two issues. First, government's job is to solve problems, not give gold stars for good behavior. So the guy who works hard shouldn't get anything from government, his reward is that it stays off his back (leaving aside other duties of the state). When you have too big to fail banks collapsing however, government has to step in to try to isolate the problem to those banks rather than let their issues spread to those not immediately involved. This will inevitably result in rewarding some people who don't deserve it. Tough cookies. Though government does have a bit of a moral responsibility to make life inconvenient for those bailed out after the fact, say with a strong consumer protection board and perhaps a bank tax, on the whole though, this is a different topic.

Part two of this is at the more individual level. It's the resentment many people have of welfare and other programs that seek to make life's failures easier to get through. I understand why the hardworking example of Brook's column is likely to resent it, a lot of people get assistance from the government he never got despite working hard.

Here's the thing though, despite a lot of bleeding heart after the fact reasoning for these programs, they didn't originate in anyone wanting to be nice. The welfare state orginated with Bismark in Germany, one of the more conservative and reactionary politicians in modern history. They are meant to forestall revolution and to solve social problems. One of the differences that strike me whenever I read history is how remarkable it is that I can travel virtually anywhere in the world unarmed and alone. This was not the case until very recently and the existence of all of these programs for the idle seem to be a key part of what allows this.

In short, all these programs that upset the hard working individual for not rewarding work but instead helping the irresponsible are there not to reward idleness and incompetence but to isolate the effects of these things as much as possible to the individuals involved. The reward for hard work is that the state stays off your back, the punishment for idleness is that it steps in. Of course, it is also desirable for the state to help the idle lift themselves out of this state to become productive members of society but this is something of a special case of a more general rule.

1 comment:

  1. "So the guy who works hard shouldn't get anything from government, his reward is that it stays off his back." Nice line and very true.

    "they want to see idleness punished." Nice line and maybe not true. I think people want to see joblessness punished. Chatting over the water cooler for an hour and then posting photos of your cat and some weight-loss tips, people want to see rewarded.

    I actually think that's the nub of our politics at the moment. It explains hostility to China, hostility to immigrants, hostility to free-markets and hostility to social programs. People want to be rewarded for the fact of legal job, not for productivity, or even effort.