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Sally's Journal
May 30th, 2005
03:31 pm


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Being good...

Well, I haven't written any random wibblings for quite some time, and it's bank holiday monday, so I deserve an hour of navel gazing :-)

I have a close cousin. I don't have any siblings, so cousins are as close as it gets, and this particular cousin was the same age, same gender, and in the same school year as me. We were bought matching christmas presents by most of our extended family. She would be forced to play the violin to impress my parents, and I would be dragged to the piano to retaliate. Close cousins.

She now has a baby. The baby wasn't particularly planned, and once she'd spurned her parents by refusing to get said baby christened, or marry the father, she managed to persuade them to give her the money they were saving up for the wedding-she-doesn't-want as a house deposit. Lots of people have babies. This occasionally leads to me making comments like this.

Anyway, this isn't a post just about babies, they just happen to be the example that started me thinking about the whole thing. It's a post about why bother being good. And once again we hit the problem of defining good, almost straight away... but the idea I'm vaguely trying to get at is the mindset that you work for the things you have and don't just expect the state to provide them for you. So "good people" don't just get pregnant and get given a council house, don't hang around on the dole, scrounge off the state etc.

Anyway, a few ideas...

1) The intellectual reasons. If you're bright and demand universality of your moral code, it's blindingly obvious that the state couldn't provide for everyone if we all sat around and tried to scrounge off the state. Someone has to earn the money to provide for the needy. The country would work if everyone tried their best to work, but at the moment it wouldn't if noone did. So you have to be good, until such a time as robots can provide us all with food and housing and we can all scrounge off the robots. Still, while this is blindingly true, the human mind is very good at making exceptions and special cases so it can do the things it wants to do most of the time, and pure logic isn't a very good motivator. And it has overtones of prisoners dilemma, and everyone knows what people do in prisoners dilemma situations.

2 Things not being as nice. I'm hazarding a guess that this is the main motivator for most people. If you're a "good person", then once you get your house and your baby, you can buy the house you want to buy, in the place you want to live, and not have to live on miserable council estates with bad neighbours because that's the only place the government will put you. And you can send your baby to nice private schools, and not have to put up with the only education the government will give you. And you probably (although this isn't clear cut, looking at home much large families get in benifits) get more money from working than from being on the dole. In the system at the moment, life that "good people" have worked for is much nicer than the life that "bad people" get.

Sadly, this sits kind of uneasilly with my nice fluffy socialism. Because as a society I'd like to think that we should actually look after the people at the bottom of the ladder. After all, some of them are genuinely "good people" who have been unlucky. And the children of "bad people" should have as many, if not more, opportunities to see a better way of life and change. Even what to do with genuinely "bad people" (assuming for a moment that this wasn't a huge fuzzy continuum and we had a magic machine that could point out whether someone was unlucky and deserving or just lazy and wanting a free ride) confuses me. In fact, I tend to conclude that it's wrong to make the lives of the people dependant on the state significantly less nice than the lives of the people who arn't. Which if I impliment it in my utopia kind of destroys reason number 2 :-(

3 Independance. I'm not sure if this is just a subsection of reason number 2 or not. I think it's different, because even if everything was superficially "as nice" for the people living on handouts and the people in work, it would still be true. In that, if you're dependant on the state to give you benifits, or other people to buy you a house, not only do you loose the sense of acheivement, but you also loose any control. This isn't a hugely convincing reason though, as it doesn't hold a lot of water - "good people" are just as dependant on the people who they work for not going bankrupt, or the government not deciding to up income tax to 70% etc etc etc.

4 Job Satisfaction. One could argue that people working are happier than people not working. That man needs a reason to get out of bed in the morning, and the "good people" are getting constant reinforcement of their own usefulness, making them happier people. I'm not sure this holds water. On an individual level, I find my life just as full and productive over the long summer holidays as when I'm working, if not more so. I do lots of charity work, read lots, do maths, walk, socialise, and generally keep myself busy. There are lots of unpaid worthwhile things to do. Also, for the general population, I'm not sure what percentage have rich engaging and fufilling jobs, but I doubt it's very high. If I could stack shelves, or not stack shelves, for the same income, would stacking shelves make me feel happier or more useful than if I could spend 8 hours a day doing interesting stuff? People meeting other people and doing fun stuff are happier than people not meeting other people, but that's not the same as having a job.

5 Respect. This is the idea that I wrote most of this LJ post to play with. It's also a word that the government keep shouting about an awful lot at the moment, although I'm not sure if they're talking about the same thing as me or not. It's something I worry we don't have any more, although like most young naive people talking about the Good Old Days I'm probably wrong, and it may be that we never had it.

Basically, if, in my utopia, the main difference between the standards of living of the workers and the not workers is that the workers go to work, then the "good people" are worse off in lots of ways (less leasure time, less time with their children, having to work harder to get the same stuff as the scroungers etc etc etc) And the vague idea I have scratching around at the back of my mind, that I'm finding very hard to put into words that don't have too many negative connotations, is that they know this makes them "good people" and the scroungers know it makes them "good people" and look up to them accordingly. It's very hard to write this without the idea of victorian workhouses being visited by rich women, with people in rags going "god bless you ma'am for making this life possible" seeping in round the edges. Or without making it sound like the flip side of the suggestion, that the people on benifits should feel sorry and ashamed for not having managed to be one of the "good people". Which is a) very un PC, and b) kind of a dubious idea, especially if they're not actually the "bad people" and non of it is their fault.

But the idea of a kind of gratitude, of appreciating that other people have to work hard to help them out in their hardship is interesting... No-one likes their hard work to be taken forgranted. People are far happier to go out of their way to do favours if they know that they'll be appreciated, (and if that at some point reciprocated) And the professions that were often the hardest work - doctors, teachers - traditionally commended high respect and gratitude. "Thankyou for saving my life... thankyou for teaching Johnny to pass his 11 plus...." Now (see disclaimer at the top about how young people taking about the good old days is a bit meaningless really) this is slipping away. Doctors and first aiders are at risk of being sued all the time, teachers get parents coming in to tell them off for daring to give Johnny detention. It's as though things we used to be greatful for are now seen as rights, and once seen as rights are being taken forgranted.

I seem to have backed myself into a paradox here. On one side I feel very clearly that good education, good healthcare, and money to pay for food and housing *are* basic human rights. And on the other hand I feel annoyed that people are taking them for granted, as though they're something they deserve without having to do anything.

Maybe what I'm trying to conclude is that basic human rights need a lot of money and a lot of time to continue to exist. They're *not* basic in a "you can do nothing and expect them all to be there because you have a right to them" way. If noone did anything then there wouldn't be food, healthcare, schools, housing etc. And so if you're not contributing enough to support "basic human rights" in the world, whether or not through any fault of your own, you should be happy and glad that there are people who are, and feel greatful to them for giving you your basic rights.

So then you'd have a world where people were all glad of the existance of other people, and understood that it was important for everyone for society to keep running and producing our basic rights. And then your motivation for being a "good person" is that people like you and are greatful to you, for doing what is necessary to keep the work a nice place. Being liked is a powerful motivation.

Hmm, it's still hard to say that in a way that doesn't have incredably dubious flip sides. If motivation number 5 for being a "good person" is that people will like you and respect you for contributing to society, is it possible to say that without implying that people don't like and respect people who don't contribute to society? Or is that so obvious it's not offensive? (There are lots of ways of contributing to society, it doesn't have to be bringing home a wage... )

Funny things, people, all pride and jelousy. We don't mind working to help people out, it's just the niggling feeling that they're mocking us behind our backs for wasting our time doing so that makes it seem really futile...

(68 comments | Leave a comment)

Date:May 30th, 2005 05:10 pm (UTC)
I thought you had foster siblings?
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Date:May 30th, 2005 05:11 pm (UTC)
Only since I was 11, and they stayed on average about 8 months. Social services and adoptive parents make it particularly difficult to keep in toouch, too
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Date:May 30th, 2005 05:33 pm (UTC)
On the subject of babies I agree that there is an issue with making it too much of an easy option, however I feel that it is very important that if someone gets pregnant they should be enabled to keep the child if possible. Where keep can mean either bring up or carry to term and then put up for adoption.

On the issue of benefits in general I think a major problem is that the benefits system is flawed. It does not encourage people who can only get a low-wage or part time job to work. In many cases it actively discourages. It seems unfair/inconsistent in places.

e.g. Why does someone who owns a house outright, saying with £100,000 + capitol get full benefits (admitedly they don't get help with the mortgage for an initial period) whereas someone who has savings of over £8,000 get nothing? Admittedly they might be able to get incapacity benefit after a year or so if they where unable to work due to illness, but only under certain limited circumstances.

I know some reforms are planned, but not what they will be. The whole system really needs a massive re-think.

Not quite sure whether that's actually a comment or just a random rant of my own, but there you go...
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Date:May 30th, 2005 10:55 pm (UTC)
Just how easy is it to sell a house though? A lot of people end up on benefits for only a short bit of time (say a year or so) in between employment and asking someone who has worked for their house (and probably doesn't actually own it yet) to move out in order to be able to eat whilst unable to find work is somewhat strange. Moreover mortgage payments serve the same function as rent in terms of having a roof and are actually cheaper in most instances - hence there is no reason to get no help in that area.

Savings, unlike houses, are immediately spendable and can be used for living on. And you do get JSA (providing that you are jobseeking) however much you have (Dad got it whilst sitting on c.60K).
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Date:May 30th, 2005 05:57 pm (UTC)
In 2001, I spent six months claiming benefit: I was signed off znd receiving income support in lieu of incapacity benefit because, being only 20 and having just left university due to my illness, I hadn't made any NI contributions. With respect to 4, I would say that it's not just job satisfaction but a sense of contributing and being part of something greater than myself that I missed.

The worthwhile things that you mention aren't often available to people on benefit: I read quite a bit and did some charity work when I was a little better, but I don't think the latter would be an option for a lot of people. I couldn't socialise during the day because everyone else was at work/university. In general, I just felt unhappy at being dependent. Although I feel that this is what the welfare state is for, and though I told myself I would more than pay it back in contributions in the future, I didn't enjoy living on money that I hadn't earned or that wasn't at least a direct loan. I think that probably had something to do with being depressed anyway, and I don't doubt a lot of people don't experience that sort of guilt, but I think the perceived sense of stigma is there for some people.

When I started my job in August 2001, I really relished paying tax! I really enjoyed the feeling that 'my' money, as little as it was, was being put to greater use. I felt like I'd reclaimed my place in the scheme of things and I got some self-confidence from that. Again, this is my subjective: I don't think genuine benefit claimants should feel undeserving, but I think involvement in production as well as consumption can help a person to feel included in a society.
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Date:May 30th, 2005 06:11 pm (UTC)
I just felt unhappy at being dependent. Although I feel that this is what the welfare state is for, and though I told myself I would more than pay it back in contributions in the future, I didn't enjoy living on money that I hadn't earned or that wasn't at least a direct loan

Yes! If people feel unhappy, and want to be able to pay back for the help they've received, and honestly think not being on benefit is better than being on benefit, then the whole thing won't fall to pieces, and there will be motivation to "be good" and work...

But I'm not sure how you promote "being on benifit is worse than not being on benifit" without promoting "being on benifit is bad / evil / wrong" Because lots of people have lots of good reasons for being on benifit and you don't want to make their lives hell. , but you need to encourage people not to be on benifit *somehow* otherwise why would anyone want to be "good"?

And I'm not sure how you teach people "not being on benifit is better than being on benifit", other than by discussing things 1 - 4 with them... I'm not even sure about whether you should teach people "it's good to be unhappy about being on benifit", because while it *is* good to be unhappy about being on benifit for the system, it probably is very bad for the deserving individuals... :-/
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Date:May 30th, 2005 07:18 pm (UTC)
Not really a specific response, but just something I wanted to add. Here are three case studies, all people I know personally:
1. A single mother of two who managed to get divorced without roping her ex into child support. She has dropped out of high school once, and out of college at least twice. Until recently she was living on the various benefits allotted to her because she wasn't really qualified to work and in any case there was no one to look after the children (the youngest has only just started school). Within the last year she was diagnosed with severe disgraphia, and is now at Oxford University studying for a BA, and so far succeeding with the help of their disability support staff.
2. An artist who has MS (I believe) and is confined to a wheelchair. He wants to paint for a living, but if he makes any money at all, all of his benefits are stopped. So unless he can go from earning nothing to earning the same as his benefits (I don't know how much that is), he will be worse off through trying to do what he wants to for a living. He would be very happy to have his benefits reduced by the amount he can contribute, but that's not how they work.
3. A very intelligent, perfectly healthy woman who goes to see her psychiatrist regularly to get anti-depressants so she can claim disability allowance and stay home with her son. She quilts for extra pocket money and is actually perfectly capable of work, but she doesn't want to do it. She also persuaded her mother to lie to the government and say that she was paying rent, when in fact she's not, so she gets extra money. (The final insult is that she gets better health insurance (this is in America) than her sister-in-law who works full time as a teacher.)

Sadly, any system to take care of the needy can be taken advantage of by people with low moral standards. Like the people who put on their gardening gear and stand by the road with a scrawled sign to get extra money from passersby who think they're helping the homeless (this really happens around here. They then often go out and buy computer equiptment)
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Date:June 1st, 2005 09:41 pm (UTC)
What we seem to be getting at here is that society needs honesty to function well. Which we know to be true in so many ways. Such barefaced deceit makes me want to scream in frustration, because it corrupts everything good (like people who want to give money to help the homeless but don't in case they really just want computers), and I don't know what can be done about it.
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Date:May 30th, 2005 07:51 pm (UTC)
it's blindingly obvious that the state couldn't provide for everyone if we all sat around and tried to scrounge off the state.

But I don't think that people who care full-time for children *are* just sitting around, are they? You make parenthood sound like some kind of treat - as far as I'm concerned it's a difficult, life-swallowing job that I would never want to do. I'm very grateful that some people *are* willing to do it, because a sudden drop in population would be disastrous for everyone. This is why I have no objection to the state giving them financial help if they need it.
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Date:May 30th, 2005 10:12 pm (UTC)
You make parenthood sound like some kind of treat - as far as I'm concerned it's a difficult, life-swallowing job that I would never want to do

The two things arn't mutually orthogonal. Difficult, life-swallowing jobs can often be the most highly respected and personally rewarding. For example, I would never want to be a doctor, as it would be exhausting, huge amounts of responsibility, and stressful. But I can also see that it would be a great privalage - a "treat" if you must - to be able to do it and daily help people.

The thing that I object to (and the point that I think your comment misses) is that the financial help for being a mother does not go to those who want most to be mothers or those that would be best at it.

To stretch the doctor analogy, if I wanted the "treat" of being a doctor, the only way to do it is by the "good person" route, of working hard, getting good A-levels, and ploughing my way through medical school. And then as doctors are good and useful things for the state, the state would pay me to be one.

If I want the "treat" of being a parent, the "good person" route of trying to earn through work enough money to raise a child and a house to raise a child in is huge amounts of work. Trying to earn enough money that I wouldn't have to work during the first few years of my childs life would be even harder. However, the alternative route, which "good people" have drummed into them is morally and socially wrong, of just getting pregnant in the knowlege you have no money / house for your child is much much easier, as you can hope it will work out OK and the state will provide for you and your kid.

The state doesn't ask for all the applicants who want to be full time mothers and award money to those that want it most. I think I would have no objection to the state doing that! The money often doesn't even go to people who wanted to be mothers, as most of the pregnancies that lead to people claiming benifits are at least nominally unplanned.

Does that make things clearer?

(I suppose it's the age old dilemma of life being easier if you're nasty than if you're nice, but it rubs a bit more because the system, which should know better, makes it like that...)
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Date:May 30th, 2005 08:13 pm (UTC)
Sounds like the Victorian distinction between the 'deserving' and the 'undeserving' poor. Which isn't necessarily a criticism, because at some level that's the attitude you need to make the welfare state work - "It's okay and not shameful to claim benefits if you genuinely need them and don't have an alternative, but it's wrong to claim them when you should be working and people will rightly criticise you if you do."

The problem with that, of course, is it relies on people having the self-perception to judge whether they really do have alternatives - if someone truly believes it's hopeless to apply for jobs because they'll never get one, how do you persuade them otherwise? (particularly when they are genuinely likely to find it difficult to get one). It also leads to a lot of people who do deserve benefits feeling guilty or ashamed about claiming them, and probably not getting everything they're entitled to.

Not sure what you do about that - try to create a society in which everyone has plenty of opportunities so it's blindingly obvious who's wasting them, perhaps?
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Date:May 30th, 2005 09:57 pm (UTC)
But even that becomes confusing, because even if people are obviously wasting opportunities it may not be "their fault" that they're doing that... there are harder things to measure than whether someone doesn't have a leg, or genuinely can't find a job, and the line between deserving and undeserving is far far too fuzzy...

Maybe people would be more driven if they could see a need. Maybe there's just too much detachment between the jobs people do and the life they live. (Wonder if this all ties in with people longing for the Good Life and running off to run smallholdings?) Not enough useful feedback between what you do all day and what you need done? If there was a large graph on the side of Westminster with a bold red line of "how much work we need to do to keep the population in the manner to which they're accustomed" and a big black line of "how much work we're doing" oscillating around it ;-) People are much better at stealing from faceless chains than small shops, and maybe they're much better at taking money from the government if they feel it's something they have a right to, rather than effectively charity from someone else working harder than they have to???
Date:May 30th, 2005 09:45 pm (UTC)

Bow, bow ye lower middle classes...

I think there are several fallacies in your post. The first is that parenting is actually pretty hard work (as pointed out by the_alchemist) and (assuming competence) is socially extremely useful. ("There should be an exam before someone can become a parent - and I don't mean just the practical" - Terry Pratchett). The second is that there is sufficient work to go around - very little of the work we do is strictly necessary (parenting, farming and transportation/infrastructure would be about it in absolute terms). A corollary to this second point is that one purpose of jobs is self-respect, and that every society actively needs some grand folly, whether it be incessant warfare, pyramid building, conspicuous consumption or socialism in order to give jobs to the remaining people.
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Date:May 30th, 2005 10:19 pm (UTC)

Re: Bow, bow ye lower middle classes...

Hmm. Well, I replied to the_alchemist after her comment.

The second point is very interesting... I think I'd feel a lot happier if people *did* say "look, all is safely gathered in, we have enough food and houses for everyone, all go and take a three months holiday". I wonder if society would be happier if people spent 9 months knowing that what they were doing was actually useful, and then had enough holidays and leasure to recover and do the stuff they want to do. I don't think self-respect would be an issue in the same way it is for unemployed people, because they'd know that they were useful, and had earned the break, and had work to go back to on the other side of it. Unless the point is that most people wouldn't know what to do with themselves if they had long holidays? I don't think that's true - look at students and teachers and retired people.
Date:May 30th, 2005 10:51 pm (UTC)
It's too late at night for me to state my opinion, so I think I'll just throw in some stats:

Single mothers are entitled to local authority accommodation and benefits of around £5,300 per year.(1)

The current "poverty line" for a lone parent with a baby is £5,800 per year.(2)

I think this backs up your point 2. Sure you can survivie on benefits, but it is not a nice life.

(1) 2004/5 figures based on a lone parent, aged under 25, with one child.
(2) 2004/5 figures extrapolated from Households Below Average Income 1994/5-2000/1, based on a poverty line of income after housing costs of 60% of the national median.

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Date:May 31st, 2005 07:32 am (UTC)
The benifit may be pretty low, and admittedly there's two of them instead of one, but it's almost twice undergraduate student loan, (and I can't tell if "local authority accommodation and benefits of around £5,300 per year" means that's 5000 + accomodation, in which case it's highly comparable to what I'm getting for PhDing).

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Date:May 30th, 2005 11:02 pm (UTC)
Teen parents in news atm btw...

A lot of teens get preggers and get dosh from gummint for doing so. I say that they should take the babies and give them to a good parent thereby securing both the decent life that the kid deserves *and* avoiding rewarding 12 year olds for *breaking the law* and being prats.

Many people are sick or otherwise unable to work but there is currently a culture of living off the dole and not caring about it - ie people have lost the 'argh I am not contributing I suck ethic'.

And I think it is entirely reasonable for your cousin to say 'I don't want a wedding, I want a house' weddings (especially expensive ones) are unnecessary and a luxury whereas housing is a necessity and a basic part of living. Parents who expect their children to marry are *daft* and need biffing about the head for making moronic assumptions (on the basis that not everyone wants to get hitched even if they do get attached, and not everyone wants to be attached).
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Date:May 30th, 2005 11:26 pm (UTC)
A lot of teens get preggers and get dosh from gummint for doing so. I say that they should take the babies and give them to a good parent thereby securing both the decent life that the kid deserves *and* avoiding rewarding 12 year olds for *breaking the law* and being prats.

If a teenager is deliberately getting pregnant when they're barely out of school, just so as to secure a house and a pretty paltry weekly sum, that is a pretty serious indication of a sad lack of ambition among young people. As nlj21 above says, the benefit is pretty low and it's not going to sponsor them through a lavish existence. If a young woman thinks that that is one of the few options available to them, I think that needs to be taken into consideration before we start passing judgement on them. It's no great surprise that teen pregnancy rates are highest among girls in poorer inner city areas, with lower educational qualifications and from potentially less stable homes - anyone can draw fairly obvious links between all those factors.
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Date:May 30th, 2005 11:32 pm (UTC)

But the temper of mankind was altered, and it was no longer esteemed infamous for a Roman to survive his honour and independance.

-- Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

Don't overlook honour, or its modern variant self-respect, as a reason for doing things the Right way. People know deep down that the person recieving things is of lower status than the person giving things*; see "potlatching" and gift economies. Asking for support is always going to have a stigma associated with it. A corrolary of this is that being dependant on someone often makes people hate them. Certainly financially supporting my ex-fiance was a disaster for our relationship. I doubt you'd find many middle class women around here who'd be happy with the idea of staying at home in "leisure" living off their husbands; it lacks dignity and freedom.

As for the poor, in my experience of listening to homeless people - a few times I've spent a while letting people who sound interesting tell me their life stories before handing them a large note - they are people who have (a) been alienated from their family and friends for some reason and (b) had an economic disaster. Pretty much all of them are depressed and/or have other mental problems and/or have alcohol or drug problems. In general it's very hard for them to think clearly, make plans, and function normally in mainstream society. They are the people who we would most like to help and who it is very, very hard to help.

There is a second category of people who just have massive attitude problems. When people who are horribly selfish and badly behaved complain about social exclusion, I'm reminded of the joke about the boy who kills his parents and then demands the mercy of the court on the grounds that he is an orphan. If you want to hear about these people, ask a policeman. Or someone on the NHS front line (116,000 violent assaults on NHS staff 2002-2003)**. Or Louis' cousin, who teaches in London and has to deal with children who don't know what good behaviour is because they've never had an example in their family.

Hmm, what an incoherent ramble..

* You can't give a present to someone with higher status / power over you; you can only offer them a bribe or tribute. Things are also a bit different within families or very tight master/apprentice/servant pseudo-family situations.

** Personally, I feel that people who start fights in hospitals should have their organs forcibly donated to needy people, and the remains displayed in A&E on Saturday night pour encourager les autres.
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Date:May 31st, 2005 10:27 am (UTC)


I think you're getting fairly close with the idea of workers being more respectable, but from the wrong direction. It's not that the scroungers feel it deep down inside, it's that everyone else does and looks down on the scroungers for, well, being scroungers. <pretentious>The Japanese have a term, 人の目 (hito no me, lit. "eyes of the people"), for this sort of peer pressure and it is spectacularly effective at enforcing (apparent) homogeneity.</pretentious>

The problem with this is that it suffers very badly from network effects and with a relatively small proportion of scroungers acknowledging each other's worth you hit a tipping point and get a chav culture.
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Date:May 31st, 2005 10:51 am (UTC)

I can't believe I'm agreeing with KoW...

Oddly, that was about what I was trying to figure out how to say.

I had a friend at school who was very naturally clever, passed the 11+, and did surprisingly well at GCSE given how little work she did. She lived with her mother, who hadn't been off the dole in recent memory despite being able-bodied and not having young children. I think it was very hard for my friend to be able to summon any motivation to work, because her mother had no particular moral authority or ability to set an example. She was persuaded to do A-levels, but dropped out halfway through the first year to have a (planned) baby. It was interesting, because my school was very middle-class and the rest of our social group there would have done nearly anything to avoid her life path, but her friends on the council estate thought she was a hotshot academic already.

People need to have babies sometimes, it's not up to us to criticise her life choices, etc, but it must be nearly impossible for the children of people who live on the dole to motivate themselves to do anything else. I don't know if anything Should be Done about it, as it's better for some people who don't need it to get help than for people who do need it to not get help.
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Date:May 31st, 2005 06:20 pm (UTC)
Because I'm me I tend to think about everything in game-theory terms, generally as a prisoner's dilemma.

The basic conception for anyone who hasn't come across it is that two people are locked in cells, and can do action C or D. CC is quite a good outcome, DD sucks, and CD is good for the D guy and bad for the C guy. If they can communicate, they can say "OK, we'll both C" and trust each other to, and even if they can't they can *hope* the other will. However, logically, you're always better doing D.

Life is like this in some ways. Do I drop litter (D)? If I do, I save a little bit of effort. If *everyone* does the streets are horrendous. If everyone doesn't, life is a communist utopia :)

But because some people don't play ball we have guilt and littering laws to keep them in line, and this by and large works.

So, um, this is *why* we having nagging guilt at living on benefits.

I'm not sure what a solution would be. The *obvious* thing is that if too many people are on benefits a bit of everyone else's work should be shared out to them, but there's not an *easy* way to arrange that, what with retraining, a few lazy people, people who want money more than any amount of time, people who measure their success relative to everyone else, etc.
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Date:June 1st, 2005 09:30 pm (UTC)
It seems to me that there are two questions here. (i) Why do people want to be good? (ii) How should society encourage people to be good?

1) Is it bright to demand universality of your moral code? Why not have a moral code which says that I will scrounge and everyone else will work for me (like a Pharaoh, for example). From the individual point of view, that might be better.

That said, I agree that most people do have some ethic of "do unto others as you would have them do unto you", an idea that fairness requires a moral symmetry. I suspect that this ethic does have quite a significant effect on people's behaviour. They ask themselves, "How would I feel if someone did that to me?" and decide not to do it. Of course, it only works if people have a measure of empathy. That in turn possibly explains why it works less well with regardless to faceless organisations like supermarkets and the DSS.

2) I think it's certainly true that things are less nice if you live on benefits. I also think (pace your fluffy socialism) that this is inevitable, short of communism. We do "look after" those at the bottom (although doubtless we could do so better), but we're never going to provide those at the bottom with all the consumer luxuries to which those at the top aspire. (a) Employed people would never accept it; (b) it would remove any incentive to wealth creation; (c) it's objectively unjustified to spend the state's resources in this way. Rich people get more of what they want than poor people; that's what "rich" means.

Unfortunately, while this gives me a fairly big incentive to succeed at the bar rather than live off benefits, it is much less effective lower down the economic spectrum. Indeed, I have a housemate who took a conscious decision to stop working and live off benefits (although this involved a marked drop in income). Presumably he felt that his life would be nicer as a result, and as far as I know, he finds that it is. It makes me quite cross, but I feel that the answer isn't to make life on benefits less pleasant.

3) I agree that this is not a wholly convincing reason.

4) This, on the other hand, I think is more important than you make out. I would feel much happier stacking shelves all day than sitting at home being erudite, because I would feel that I was being useful. Being useful is terribly important to my self esteem, and I don't think I'm alone in this. I find the absence of this sense in, say, my house-mate, hard to understand. Holidays are only nice if they come between periods of work.

5) I think it's true that people who work hard and contribute to society are generally more respected than the unemployed. I think that's right too: they're doing something good. I don't deny that people who don't accomplish anything through no fault of their own are good people, but they still haven't accomplished anything and, as such, you can't look at them and go, "Gosh, I'm impressed at that wonderful thing you've done." Unfortunately, I very much doubt that denying people respect is an effective motivator; it probably just reinforces feelings of disempowerment. Contrariwise, however, I suspect it's a very important motivator for people who are successful to keep trying.

Unfortunately, very few of these things are in the control of the state. We can try to instill a work ethic through education, but that is unlikely to be effective against the opposite parental influence. Other than that, we are left with trying to arrange things so that people's individual interests coincide with those of society, which means carrots and sticks, I think. For a start, we could arrange benefits so that total income increases steadily as a function of economic productivity, by taking away one pound of benefit for every two earnt (or similar).
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