Us, Them and Incentives Again, But Briefly

Remember when Clinton was President and the federal government briefly ran a surplus? The Republican response was: “Cut taxes!” Their justification was: “It’s our money, not the government’s!”. Since then, the surplus having been eliminated, the Republican response has been: “Cut taxes! That will lead to growth and reduce the deficit!” Which isn’t completely relevant to “Us, Them and Incentives”, but I’m getting there. It’s another example of how adherence to a political ideology can lead to inconsistency, especially when you try to justify what you already want to do. 

In writing about the Republican approach to incentives this week (less income for the rich will make them less productive, but less income for the poor will make them more productive), I may have been unfair. Maybe the Republican position makes sense based on the relative economic success of the rich and the poor.

After all, rich people are doing well, you might say, so they must be doing things right. Therefore, let’s reward them. That way they won’t get discouraged and stop doing things right. Poor people, however, aren’t doing well, so they must be doing things wrong. Obviously, we shouldn’t reward them for doing things wrong. And, if we don’t reward them, maybe they’ll start doing things right. In a capitalist nutshell, economic incentives should be given to productive people, and economic disincentives should be given to unproductive people.

This approach sounds an awful lot like social engineering, which the Republicans are supposed to be against. Putting that aside, however, the question is whether it’s a good idea to make life harder for people who are struggling and make it easier for people who aren’t. If you view life as a total morality play, in which good people prosper and bad people don’t, maybe it does makes sense. That is, we all know, the reason for heaven and hell (which St. Thomas Aquinas understood so perfectly).

But people are doing well or badly these days, economically-speaking, for lots of different reasons: skills, health, age, location, connections, work ethic, luck, education, competition and so on. In fact, one major hindrance to doing well economically is being poor to begin with (when you’re poor, it’s harder to get around, harder to fit in, harder to stay healthy, and so on). Once we view our fellow Americans as individuals with actual, often difficult lives, not simply as Us and Them, the reasonable response is to help the ones who are struggling, not the ones who are already getting ahead.

(Coming soon, “A Guide to Reality, Part 11”, I hope.)

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