Over the weekend, Newsday’s Lane Filler had a terrific editorial piece on one of the absolute worst trends in modern American politics: Government’s growing tendency towards preventing failure (read: insulating people from the consequences of their actions).
But as Filler correctly points out, this trend isn’t just limited to big financial firms on Wall Street. We only pay special attention to “too big to fail” because it’s a relatively new development. In many ways, our entire social contract has come to be defined by the same ethos. An excerpt:
Every social program, as much good as it might do, strikes a blow against moral hazard. Unemployment insurance, which many people have received for as long as two years during the current recession, helps folks get through tough times, but economists agree it also keeps some of them from taking jobs. Few people would take $300 per week to trim hedges if they can get $300 per week to not trim hedges while they wait for a wage offer they can actually live, or even better, thrive, on. Take away the $300, though, and that bad job starts to look better. Extended unemployment benefits aren’t the only reason there are 3.4 million unfilled jobs in the United States, but they are a reason.
Let people know that if their income is low enough, the government will give them food, and they won’t have nearly as much inclination to earn food money as they would if they were down to carpet-lint soup. Provide shelter to those who can’t provide their own, and folks feel less desire to hustle for housing than they would if an underpass in Cleveland were their winter home.
As Filler goes on to note, the same criticism applies to Social Security and Medicare, both of which provide far more in benefits than beneficiaries ever pay in.
None of this, of course, is to argue against a basic safety net. But as many conservative wags have been noting of late, the safety net is coming to look a lot more like a hammock.
Failure, uncomfortable as it often is, is the finishing school of success. Having weakened its instructive powers, we should not be surprised to find ourselves living in a nation of adolescents.