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Incentivizing Irresponsibility

How the nanny state creates less responsible citizens.

12:00 AM, Sep 10, 2009 • By JIM PREVOR
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It is almost irresistible for conservatives to snicker as Democrats in Massachusetts hold hearings and seek ways to justify an attempt to change the law in Massachusetts to allow the Democratic governor of the Commonwealth to appoint a Democratic senator--presumably available to vote for President Obama's initiatives.

It was just a few years ago when Senator John Kerry was running for president and the governor was a Republican that the Democratic state legislature thought it imperative to change the law to prevent governors from appointing senators. It is just too delicious, the hypocrisy too obvious, for conservatives to ignore.

Yet there is something disturbing beyond hypocrisy in what Senator Kennedy proposed in his last letter to the Massachusetts Democratic leadership. It is something that goes across party lines and that speaks to the real problem behind the hyperactive legislative agenda President Obama has undertaken. It is that all this activity, all this legislating, even if it was in some sense to be successful, is not really addressing what makes a nation a better place to live.

The ubiquity of health insurance or the decrease in carbon output isn't the point. In fact, housing or, even, education, isn't quite the point.

As a father of two young boys, I've learned what many parents come to know ... it is easy to raise children, but it is hard to raise good children.

What makes a country good? What makes the people good? What do we want to encourage?

When I was a little boy, my mother bumped into a parked car and damaged it while in a parking lot. After waiting a bit, she wrote a note admitting her fault, gave all her contact information and asked the owner of the other car to call her so she could compensate for the damage. She placed the note under the windshield wiper of the parked car.

I've often thought of that incident because that is the kind of child I would hope to raise. One who does the right thing even when nobody is there is to see it.

It is living with people like this that makes living in a neighborhood, a city, a state, a country more palatable, yet for all the federal activity, none of it seems likely to move us toward a society of more civil people.

When I think of the Democrats in Massachusetts discussing the idea of changing the way senators are chosen, or when I think of Governor Crist in Florida thinking of naming his friend as a "placeholder" to keep the seat warm until he runs for the office, or of Tom DeLay back in 2003 considering breaking the tradition of reapportioning congressional districts only once a decade, I like to imagine that all these players would think up these schemes, giggle like school girls at the possibility of it all, then go on to do the right thing.

It is not clear what role government can play in all this. Manners are not going to be taught by Congressional edict ... which in and of itself tells us we should be working on strengthening the family.

Which is a pretty strong reason to resist things like Obamacare: Its focus is on making the government responsible for providing healthcare. Which means, of course, that no child will ever be able to look at their father as I looked at mine growing up, that this man worked from dawn to dusk to fulfill his responsibilities to his family. He put food on the table, gave us shelter from the elements, clothes on our backs and, yes, he made sure we could go to the doctor or hospital when needed.

When one grows up with parents whom one thinks of that way, one doesn't want to disappoint them. If the government takes care of everything, there is no one to disappoint.

It would be easy to argue that politicians should be better people; that they should feel more constrained by custom; that they should feel shame a little more easily.

Yet, lamenting the self-serving behavior of politicians seems unlikely to produce much change in their behavior. They, like children limited only by what their parents will tolerate, behave in whatever fashion the voters will tolerate.

So the question is what kind of policies will make people be more responsible, make them more likely to learn right from wrong and more likely to behave in an upright manner and expect the same of others--including their political representatives?

So much of the argument against Obamacare is presented on prudential grounds--it is too expensive, the budget is too high, people will lose the chance to go the doctor they prefer, etc. Yet the bigger argument is that if you give people guarantees of material things--food, shelter, health care--regardless of how they behave, then more people will behave irresponsibly.