Thursday, November 17, 2011

Hard work

Noah Smith has a couple of interesting posts up, but the one that I really found interesting was "Why conservatives can't get people to work hard". It had several insightful comments including the classic:

One basic idea is that hard work should be rewarded. Obvious, right? I mean, we're supposed to be economists here! People respond to incentives, and they are risk averse. A winner-take-all society is not very conducive to hard work; I'm not going to bust my butt for 30 years for a 1% shot at getting into The 1%. But I am going to bust my butt for 30 years if I think this gives me a 90% chance of having a decent house, a family, some security, a reasonably pleasant job, a dog, and a couple of cars in my garage. An ideal middle-class society is one in which everyone, not just anyone, can get ahead via hard work.

Even more interesting, he points out the underlying ambivalence among conservatives as to whether hard work has a causal link to productivity:

Conservatives, meanwhile, are all too often divided on whether they actually believe that hard work works. Plenty of conservatives have undermined Cowen's hard-work-and-discipline bloc by saying that success in life is all due to natural differences in ability. These "I.Q. conservatives" see inequality as the natural order of things. They have focused on getting people to accept their place in society and learn to live with what they have, rather than strive to move up in the world. This is a very Old British sort of conservatism, a nobility-and-peasants ethos dressed up in the faux modernism of psychometric testing.

Conservatives need to look in the mirror and ask themselves: "Do we really want people to work hard and be disciplined? Or do we just say that in order to keep the peasants from getting restless, when deep down we believe that it's all about good genes?" Because if it's the former, conservatives should do some hard thinking about what actually gets people to work hard. And they should think about how to respond to those among their colleagues for whom it is simply the latter.

I think that the "I.Q. conservatives" (as Noah calls them) are actually a fairly concerning movement. We all know that social structures based on accepting one's lot in life (think feudalism) have shockingly low levels of productivity. A social creed that suggests that this lack of productivity is due to innate personal differences is also one that cannot address any social dysfunction that may be present. After all, if the reason person A is successful is that they are the "right sort of person" then we don't have to handle questions like "why is person B unsuccessful".

A broad adoption of this ethos would be an unfortunate outcome for any society because it then concentrates decision making ability into a more and more restricted class. Democracy and capitalism succeed by making the information base broad. It's not that they always succeed in creating good outcomes. But the track record of a narrow elite making decisions is . . . poor.

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