Every Friday my syndicated newspaper column appears in a bunch of different newspapers. Here's today's Reality Check:
Our society works when we all agree on certain rules and goals. When we all try to be polite, pay our taxes, earn our living, be good to our kids, and care for our aging parents, we’ll all do fine together.
At one point, this wasn’t such a difficult thing to achieve. In the not too distant past, welfare programs or unemployment insurance didn’t exist, so if you didn’t want to starve, you had to work. It was a scary existence, but a rather hard-working one nonetheless. Religion provided an awfully effective constraint on our behaviour, too. People wanted to do what was right to please God, or, at the very least, they didn’t want to face Him in the afterlife if they messed up, so they acted responsibly on their own accord.
Today far fewer people are scared of the Almighty, and none of us is going to starve, so the pressures people faced to behave for the social good have largely disappeared. Why work hard if I don’t have to? Why try hard in school if I’m guaranteed a living of some sort anyway? Why go to all the bother of checking my kids’ homework, or taking them to the doctor, if nothing’s in it for me?
Now we’re left shaking our heads, trying to figure out how to get the unproductive among us to behave appropriately. And there seems only one option left to us: bribery.
We use it with children, when we pay them to get good grades, or pay them to read books. We use it when we bribe them to be quiet in the checkout line by handing them a chocolate bar. But governments have recently latched on to this idea of bribery in a big way, too. Manchester, in Britain, started a pilot project to pay obese people to lose weight. They win points for buying healthy foods, walking their children to school, or joining a gym, which can then be redeemed for other healthy foods, gym memberships, or equipment. If you’re already slim and trim, though, you’re out of luck.
In another pilot project in Georgia, marginal students were paid $8/hour to attend after school remedial courses, and were offered bonuses if their grades improved. Poor students who were already on the honor roll got nothing.
Not to be outdone, New York’s mayor Mike Bloomberg launched his “cash for responsibility” program last year, which pays failing students for attending class or improving their scores on standardized tests. Students, though, aren’t the only ones benefiting. He’s also giving money to low income parents for acting like, well, parents. They receive $25 for attending a parent-teacher interview, $25 for perusing their child’s report card, and $100 for taking their child to their annual dental or medical appointment (which is already paid for by the government). What I can’t figure out is why parents who don’t take their children to annual doctor’s appointments aren’t visited by the children’s welfare services, rather than by the mayor with a cheque, but perhaps I’m missing something.
The rationale for these bribery programs is that if you can just get people to behave appropriately, they’ll realize how beneficial it is, and they’ll keep doing it. I’m not sure that premise is right. Bribing people may change action for a time, but it doesn’t change attitude. If anything, it cements an attitude of entitlement and helplessness. It teaches people, “I’m not capable of getting over this hurdle myself. I need help.” And besides that, it also breeds resentment among those who do act responsibly.
But the problem doesn’t stop there. When you pay people to act responsibly, you acknowledge that many won’t without an incentive. Acting responsibly, then, is no longer expected in our society at all. And then what are we left with?
Work needs to be its own reward. The only way to keep society together is for people to be internally motivated to do the right thing. They won’t be so motivated if we are forever rescuing everybody from their bad decisions. That sounds harsh, I know, but where does this road of bribing people end? At some point, people need to learn to stand on their own two feet. Is bribery really the way to accomplish that?
I think in a future column I want to return to this theme, but look at it in the parenting context: is it right to pay for good grades? For reading books? For practising piano? But I'm not sure what I think. What do you think? I'd love your thoughts in the comments!
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About Me: I'm a Christian author of a bunch of books, and a frequent speaker to women's groups and marriage conferences. Best of all, I love homeschooling my daughters, Rebecca and Katie. And I love to knit. Preferably simultaneously.