The desire to punish

he desire to punish distorts policy-making decisions across the political spectrum. As I argue in a piece to be published here on Sunday, much of our thinking about welfare and unemployment benefits is shaped by punitive thinking, by the desire to exact vengeance upon our fellow citizens for the crime of malingering on welfare or unemployment. It isn’t that malingering (and fraud, and abuse, and waste, and the rest of it) doesn’t happen, or that it isn’t important. The problem is that the desire to enact punitive policies often runs counter to the necessity of enacting effective policies. For example, it may be the case that people should be more enterprising and more willing to take on the risk and discomfort of relocating to a new city when there is no satisfactory work to be found where one is. But that is not how (some) people are. If we want to make policies based on how things and people and institutions are rather than based on how we think they should be — which is to say, if we wish to address reality rather than a set of metaphysical preferences shared by the policymaking elite — then punitive measures are only relevant to the extent that they cause actual changes in behavior. When it comes to getting people off of unemployment and into a job, it may be the case that punishing malingering is less effective than, say, helping them with relocation costs. Paying somebody $2,500 to move from Abernathy, Texas, to Tulsa, Okla., for a new job is in almost every way preferable to paying them $8,000 to sit on their asses in Abernathy and do nothing — except that it deprives us of punitive opportunities…

In the American political parlance, the desire to punish most often is expressed by the words “Get tough.” There are addicts in the policymaking class, but not those kinds of addicts: addicts who sleep in the street, who dabble in prostitution and petty larceny, who peddle drugs themselves. We didn’t just “get tough” with these people — we declared war on them. We “got tough” on drugs rather than help addicts, as though a few months in prison makes an addict anything other than an addict with new traumas and additional criminal skills. To think otherwise would be “impermissible weakness,” no doubt. We dream of rounding up illegals from Mexico and points south but scarcely ever think of bringing charges against the business operators who employ them and thereby create the main incentive for illegal immigration. Politicians promise us that we can solve our domestic economic problems – which include a failed public-education system and an American middle class that demands a much larger welfare state than it is willing to pay for — by “getting tough on China,” which is the new version of that golden oldie from the 1980s, getting tough on Japan. In 20 years, we’ll be getting tough on India, but the dropout rate in New York City is still going to be 50 percent.

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