H.L. Mencken famously said that for every problem, there’s a solution that’s clear, simple and wrong.
That’s an observation that has escaped lawmakers and economists for a long time, although in the last several years, many of them have come (grudgingly) to recognize its wisdom.
For a long time, economists predicted human behaviors using a “cost/benefit” framework; incentives were “profit maximizing” and costs were, well, costs. Of course, real human beings aren’t so one-dimensional. We don’t behave as the economists predicted, because what constitutes an incentive or disincentive for any particular person cannot be so neatly identified.
It isn’t that we humans don’t act in our own self-interest–we do. It’s just that “self-interest” means different things to different people. Teachers who could make more money in the private sector are rewarded by making a difference in children’s’ lives; lawyers for public-interest organizations forgo substantial monetary rewards but derive immense satisfaction from “doing justice.”
“Value” and “reward” are inescapably subjective.
The incentives to which people respond–what impels someone to work, or to work at this job rather than that one–is often a matter of cultural values and expectations. That’s why the widespread belief that a social safety net creates a “culture of dependency” has always been flawed. People don’t work just for sustenance; they work for cultural acceptance, meaning, self-esteem and personal pride, among other reasons.
A recent cross-national study has recently confirmed the lack of a relationship between the generosity of a country’s social safety net and the diligence with which unemployed people look for work. (It also found that receipt of social benefits didn’t make people happier or more satisfied. Depending on the kindness of strangers simply keeps folks fed and/or housed, not cheerful.)
In other words, feeding people who’ve lost their jobs doesn’t make them stop looking for work, and providing minimal support to those who are down and out doesn’t make us suckers.
It might, however, make us better humans.