Hard Work and Handouts

One of the first things I did as a kid to make money was mow the lawn for my dad. Being a kid, I didn't appreciate the political implications. Like many middle class parents, my dad thought he should teach us kids (me and my two brothers) about money, how to earn it, how to hold on to it, how to spend it wisely. Like many middle class parents, my dad also wanted to get out of mowing the lawn. While my dad was busy killing his two birds, I was busy pushing along and fantasizing about the He-Man and Thundercats action figures I would buy, completely oblivious that any lesson was being imparted.

As an adult, I think about that first lawn-mowing gig (many would follow) whenever I'm discussing politics and someone refers to the danger supposedly inherent in government programs to benefit the poor. For instance, one of my friends recently expressed his dual concerns that reforming insurance so that more people were covered poses a threat to his own policy and that by simply giving a service to people who hadn't paid for it, as he has been paying for his for years, "it will make the slugs sluggier," as he put it.

The issue of fairness comes up frequently in these discussions, and is usually expressed in terms like, "Why should I get taxed on money I earned so that the government can turn around and give my money to people who don't even work." (Of course, the actual terms are seldom this polite.) The other issue, making the slugs sluggier, is what brings to my mind what my dad was trying to trying do for me by having me work for my allowance--he was making sure I wasn't spoiled. The interesting thing is that the fairness issue cannot logically fit with the spoiling issue, and yet conservatives habitually trot them out in tandem.

My dad, I like to think, succeeded in his efforts to raise me with a strong work ethic, and it is that very fact that forces to me wonder what I'd be like if I didn't have a guy like my dad around while I was growing up (or a guy like my dad to contribute half my genes). I was taught that you work, you get paid, you spend your money however you want, and you deserve whatever you so acquire. Of course, this is assuming that you have the option to work. When jobs are scarce, getting hired is itself something you have to work to acheive. And if you have a friend or a relative who hooks you up with a job, even if you go on to earn money at it, are we still talking about fairness when the issue of tax money to help the unemployed comes up?

The issue of fairness presupposes self-determination, that at least for the most part everyone has the same opportunities to work and earn money. You can say self-determination is in fact something you can teach, but then it's not really self determination--it's determined by the teacher. I was lucky to have a dad to teach me the value of hard work, and I can't say that it's not fair if I have to help someone else who wasn't so fortunate. I didn't earn my dad.

While at the heart of the fairness issue is free will, the issue of spoiling rests on determinism. (Full disclosure: I am a determinist.) We, as a society, the argument goes, shouldn't give anyone--especially people who don't work--handouts because that will make them dependent on us. I find this argument much more compelling than the fairness argument, because more than in almost any other industrialized country starting off with more in America means ending up with more (this is measured by what's called the Social Mobility Index). Plus, it seems to me that what social psychologists call the self-serving bias, according to which we attribute our successes to our own hardwork and skillfullness but our failures to forces beyond our control, virtually guarantees poor judgment regarding who deserves what. Witness banking and investment executives. (The flipside of the self-serving bias, the fundamental attribution error, has us attributing negative behavior in others to their character and dismissing the importance of factors beyond their control--together, it seems to me, these two in-built prejudices go a long way toward accounting for the whole of conservative thought.)

If we recognize that arguments for fairness cannot be reconciled with those against spoiling, and that fairness in regard to income is too hard to assess to be the basis of public policies (I'm sure a lot of you have disagreements, but for the sake of argument...) isn't the fact that there must be an incentive to work for the economy to function enough to suggest that social welfare is a bad idea? I think it depends on how the welfare is administered. If it goes, say, to health care, I'd say we don't much have to worry about people being spoiled--you have to be healthy to go to work. Likewise, if it goes to education, which actually requires a work ethic of its own. I suppose you could argue that some people go to school instead of working--I'm probably guilty of that--but most see school as a stepping stone to a better job.

Finally there's the fact that my dad only paid me five bucks a pop--that's serious exploitation.