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Bribing for Good Behaviour
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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6 Comments:

At 9:22 AM , Blogger Terry @ Breathing Grace said…

You touched on akey point: What of those who are doing the right thing WITHOUT being compensated for it? And let's face it: the governement doesn't have any money except that which they take from us.

So in essence, you have the people who are working hard, sacrificing, playing by the rules and doing what's right simply because it's right, paying for those who won't do what's right without compensation. And then we wonder why there is resentment.

 

At 9:32 AM , Blogger Tara said…

In my nephew's school they started a new program. The students who were failing attend after school tutoring. If their grades come up, they get a laptop computer.

Didn't take long for the good students to start failing.

Dum, da dum dum DUMB!!!!

 

At 9:40 AM , Blogger Sheila said…

Terry--

Exactly. I didn't have room in the word count to dwell on that point too much, but it does just build resentment in people who are playing by the rules.

It's like with welfare: you get free medical care and dental, etc., if you're on welfare. Get a job and you lose it. So why get a job?

And Tara: That is absolutely hilarious in a hideous kind of way. Why can't people see the logical consequences of their actions?

 

At 6:03 PM , Blogger Storm said…

Amen.

 

At 3:28 PM , Anonymous Bruce said…

There's a saying I've heard that seems to apply perfectly to this scenario: Subsidizing something will cause it to increase. As Tara saw, if you subsidize failure, you will get more of it. If you subsidize poor people, more people will find ways to fit into your definition of poor. It's not a particularly comforting thought, as there are people who could and would genuinely use a help up, but it is still reality.

As to the questions in the bottom of the post, I have two general thoughts. First, paying people is one form of rewarding them, but not the only one. Some people can almost literally live off of a good word said at the right time. For others, of course, gifts (money, etc) are more valuable, and I'm sure there are other ways.

Second, I find nothing immoral in rewarding accomplishments. Working people get it all the time in the form of raises and/or promotions. Rewarding behavior that is either moral (like respecting others when in a checkout line) or just an expected part of life (like doing chores) is not helpful, though. So, with your examples, I would consider it wrong to reward practicing, but good to reward achieving the next skill level in whatever they are practicing. Rewarding practicing will lead to busy work. Rewarding accomplishments leads to more accomplishments.

 

At 11:06 AM , Blogger Sheila said…

Bruce,

Thanks for your comment! That was very helpful, and I like the distinctions you made at the end. That's given me a new framework to use for my next column!

I really do love my readers....

 
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About Me

Name: Sheila

Home: Belleville, Ontario, Canada

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.

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