There are two obvious and effective methods that any government can use to encourage obedience: rewards for those who do obey and punishments for those who do not. Each, in its own way, makes people want to follow the rules and laws of a society, but each also requires an active investment of time and money by the state in order to properly identify those who behave, locate those who misbehave—and to thereafter mete out incentives and disincentives that are proper and proportional. The purposes of the government will be harmed by both executing jaywalkers and giving huge sums of cash to those who simply sort their recyclables correctly, so enormous resources must be expended to both monitor individuals and calibrate an appropriate response. This method of social control is, by its very nature, both costly and deeply bureaucratic—which greatly limits its reach, efficacy, and reliability.
Civic harmony is, in contrast, much cheaper and easier to maintain if the populace has internalized common behavioral norms and is personally resolved to comply with them. Pursuing, arresting, and incarcerating a murderer is, for example, much more costly and difficult than if the crime had never happened at all. Moreover, any delay or miscarriage in capturing and punishing a perpetrator will reduce faith in the competence of the government agencies that are responsible for maintaining order. The crux of the matter for any government, therefore, is figuring out how to encourage good behaviors by its population without resorting to the use of costly and cumbersome interventions.
This begs an obvious and—for the proponents of Big Government—extraordinarily maddening question: Is it possible for any government program or initiative to promote that which, for lack of a better term, we might call “morality”? Is this sort of finely calibrated effort even within the scope of what we can expect of government given the blunt instruments it has at its disposal?
The primary resource that government has readily available to influence human behavior is made clear to Americans every time we file our taxes: Government relies on money to exert its power. No money equals no government. It is just as simple as that.
Therefore, when working to influence human behavior in order to reduce crime and other malfeasance, government uses the tool most immediately at hand: cold, hard cash. The underlying premise of most social service spending is that relieving want will both improve the lives of the less fortunate and, more importantly, reduce criminal behavior driven by deprivation. Presuming that burglars, thieves, and muggers are simply trying to support themselves and their families, all manner of government money flows into programs to provide food, shelter, transportation, education, and other necessities that an impoverished individual would apparently otherwise need to steal from others to afford.
Eliminating want is, therefore, believed to be the most effective method for reducing the desperation and resulting pathologies that lead directly to crime and other behaviors inimical to public order and safety. Those Social Justice Warriors who today advocate for “defunding” the police believe wholeheartedly that crime is merely an artifact of deprivation, so we can cure all that ails society simply by handing out more free goodies.
This is a surprisingly widespread belief, but is this actually true?
Given the sheer level of physical comfort now enjoyed by most who now reside in America, one might presume that we must already live in a virtually crime-free nation. Although there is still poverty in America, it is, by any reasonable comparison to both our immediate past and the history of civilization as a whole, a relatively cushy poverty. Unlike poor ancient Romans who were compelled to toss newborns onto the rubbish heap because they could not afford to feed another hungry mouth, 21st century America features a sometimes surprising level of comfort for the people whom we classify as poor. Those who live on the streets are not there because assistance is unavailable; they are typically afflicted with severe mental health problems and addictions that have destroyed their lives and pushed them to the margins of society— which is terrible but not indicative of a lack of societal resolve to provide needed assistance.
Moreover, the physical comforts that one enjoys seem to have an exceedingly tenuous connection with the incidence of criminal behaviors One can easily be either poor and law abiding or rich and venal, and our daily experiences indicate a relationship between crime and poverty that is far more complex than academic theorists and government officials propose.
A criminal might indeed be poor, but is poverty more likely an outcome of criminal behavior rather than the causal factor? For example, if an addict has spent all their money on their habit and so turns to theft in order to buy drugs, can their crimes truly be said to result from poverty? If someone is arrested, loses their job, and is evicted from their home because they can no longer pay their rent or mortgage, is that homelessness a cause of their crime—or its direct result? The difference between correlation and causality is often not carefully considered when advocates of increased social service spending are beseeching legislators for yet more money, and these discussions invariably avoid any suggestion that some individuals might be prone to criminal behavior due to underlying and intractable psychiatric problems.
It could, in fact, be reasonably argued that government efforts to increase the daily physical comforts of the poorest among us also tend to provide a disincentive for obtaining the education and training necessary to escape from poverty. Moreover, less time spent working or studying is inevitably more time available to engage in maladaptive activities—drug and alcohol abuse, unprotected sexual activity, and misbehaviors born of sheer boredom—that cause more life problems that lead to a further degradation of one’s personal circumstances. Although many may reject the Biblical injunction that “idle hands are the devil’s workshop”, it is shortsighted to forget that work and school provide the daily structure, societal connection, and self-esteem that many individuals might otherwise seek out through far less uplifting activities with far less reputable companions.
There is, moreover, a stunning lack of empirical evidence demonstrating that government social service programs—no matter how much is spent—have any power to inculcate positive behaviors in individuals or communities. I have yet to see a government program that teaches someone to get out of bed and go to work on a cold, rainy day. Public service announcements have little effect of the habits of crackheads. Helpful booklets regarding the drawbacks of spending the night with a woman whom you meet at the local liquor store seem to have no effect at all. Gang members are content to shoot at one another and innocent bystanders despite the admonitions of violence intervention specialists now paid for with your tax dollars.
The sad truth of the matter is that government is more often the enabler rather than the savior of those whom it tries to help, and the long and expensive war on poverty has succeeded only in vanquishing local, state, and federal budgets. In terms of making people want to obey the standards of behavior we would like to expect, government efforts have been, by any objective measure, an abysmal failure. The only methods for reducing crime that have been proven to be effective, much to the chagrin of so-called progressives, are aggressive policing and stiff jail sentences that both remove malefactors from the general population and ensure that crime will—most definitively—not pay.
In addition, it could simply be the case that American society has changed so remarkably for the worst over the past one hundred years that government is unable to have the least hope of promoting positive behavior among individuals, and today’s dire combination of escalating social service costs and increasingly violent crime might be the clearest possible evidence that a return to reconnecting crime with punishment is long overdue.
Perhaps government could at one time nudge Americans toward behaviors that would benefit themselves and others because there was a consensus that hard work was necessary, sloth was a sin, and we were responsible for our own successes or failures in life. Americans could be made to want to obey because our basic values were far more congruent than they are in our “anything goes” nation today. If hard work is now a pursuit for fools, living your lifetime on the public dole is perfectly acceptable today because government’s many missteps have turned everyone into a mendicant, and your life failures can be easily explained away by your many victimizations at the hands of an uncaring world and hateful people, government cannot affect your behavior beyond simply turning the spigot of taxpayer money on and off as the changes in the political winds dictate.
The obvious downside of America tossing the very notion of normality on the ash heap of history is that moral suasion is as antiquated as Mr. Ford’s first Model T. Any lingering hope that government programs can act as a means of moral improvement should now be abandoned. Government is busy bankrupting itself trying to compensate for life choices that run the gamut from the foolhardy to the felonious, and the tab for our blithe acceptance of dysfunction and the damage it inflicts on every level of our nation is escalating beyond our ability to pay the bill. Any nation that legalizes addiction, celebrates single parenthood, beams pornography into every home, excuses ignorance, and discards any notion of basic human decency or restraint will soon find itself unable to avoid a broad societal collapse—no matter how much money it spends to heal the self-inflicted wounds.
Few bother to want to obey anymore because there is no value we can agree to aspire to follow. We are more and more the arbiters of our own curiously inconsistent and often flatly contradictory personal moral universes, which translates into daily exercises in situational ethics that speak clearly to our lack of shared core values. Given this reality, fewer are willing to stick their necks out to defend a principle; caring only gets you in trouble in the confused nation we now share. The mob on social media is the final word regarding what is right and wrong in America today, and the ferocity of their often ill-informed and emotionally-laden judgments give pause to anyone who might dare to contradict the prevailing ideology of me, me, and me.
Was America’s past a moral paradise? Hardly that, no. Many groups and individuals were taken advantage of in blindly oblivious or blatantly cruel manners. Were people placed into ethically untenable situations or forced to violate the trust of others? Sadly, this was sometimes so. No nation composed of inherently imperfect humans will ever be able to stake a claim to perfection.
Nonetheless, the path of our society today is leading us to a precipice that is best avoided. The elevation of hatred and fear to the very center of our daily discourse is symptomatic of how deeply we have damaged our country. We are alone, afraid, and antagonistic to a degree that calls into serious question whether we can continue to exist as one nation, and the Biden administration’s dead-end attempts to paper over the divides in our country with cash, lies, and executive orders indicates that the end game for America could be far closer than we might like to believe.
I must admit that I wake up some mornings and avoid reading the daily propaganda dumps from those whom we used to call journalists. We no longer have news; we have a state-sanctioned narrative that is designed to stoke tribalism and distrust in order to enhance the power of those who profit from escalating conflict. The corruption and mendacity evident in too many of our nation’s core governmental institutions both reflects and reinforces the deep rot in so much of American society, and the hateful rhetoric spewed by elected and appointed officials who seek to set us at one another’s throats rather than unite us is the frighteningly ugly reality we are forced to endure today.
How can this possibly end well, and why do we tolerate those who continue to destroy America with their words and actions? To ignore the clear signals that an abrupt—and perhaps wrenching—change in direction is desperately needed would be the worst mistake of all for our teetering nation and angry citizens.
We must act today to avoid the catastrophe that is peeking just over the horizon for all Americans.