Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

More issues around perverse incentives, evil, and lack of concern for others

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Two issues in the overlap between some recent texts ([1], [2]):

Firstly, one particularly common source of negative effects on others through disregard is children. Now, children themselves cannot necessarily be blamed for their behaviors, as they, depending on age, often are victims of nature, naturally lack the intellectual capability to see a non-egoistical view-point or to see that some actions are disturbing to others, are so used to being around other children that they see screaming and noise as the normal state of affairs,* whatnot. The great problem is the many parents who should know better but either do not or do but willfully ignore the interest of everyone else when their children are concerned, e.g. by bringing a small child into a library and letting it scream its head off for several minutes before silencing it or removing it from the premises.**

*Yet another reason why it is idiotic to put children in large groups of other children with few adults, as e.g. in a typical school.

**An actual situation that I encountered last summer.

A critical point is the risk that this type of parenting has a negative effect on the behavior of the next generation: if the children are never told to behave themselves, show concern for others, respect the rights of others, …, and if the parents never set good examples, chances are that many will keep this type of egocentric behavior into adulthood, compounding the problems in [2] and likely leading to a new generation repeating the same type of negligent parenting.

My own and my sister’s upbringing was already comparatively lax, and the attempts to impose discipline usually came from the grand-parents. For instance, my maternal grand-mother repeatedly tried to set limits on the out-of-control behavior of my sister, but my mother let her get away with anything, even overruling my grand-mother (her right, obviously, but rarely a good decision and definitely a contributor to sister’s “hyper-millennialism”).* For instance, I was a few times told the Swedish equivalent of “children should be seen and not heard”**—always by the grand-mother, never by the mother.

*With time, my memories have grown vague, but one example was my sister deliberately breaking a cheese dome (?), my baby-sitting grand-mother saying that she would make sure that my sister would have to pay for it, and my mother later letting the matter slip.

**Taken to excesses, this attitude can be harmful, but I consider it a sounder attitude than today’s extreme laissez-faire, and there is no contradiction between a moderate use of it and an independent development of the child, e.g. by silencing screaming and trying to move as much play as possible to the playground. There certainly is no contradiction between being an independent adult and a considerate one.

Today, not even this appears to take place. A very common German attitude, e.g., is “Kinder machen Lärm” (“Children make much noise*”), which is then taken as an excuse to allow them to cause disturbances wherever they are, as well as admitting them to places where they should not be, for want of maturity, e.g. “adult” restaurants. (A saner conclusion would be to keep them away from situations where they would disturb others.) I have heard** at least one story of a child putting its hands in the food or drink of an unrelated guest in cafe or restaurant and the parent just wanting to laugh it off. I have myself had a strange child trying to climb (!) on me to get a better view in a zoo, without the parents intervening. Etc. The children, then, go through years of doing what they want, when they want, where they want, never learning to pause and consider anyone else, never learning about personal boundaries, etc.

*“Lärm” might normally be translated with “noise” (without “much”), but this is too weak as “noise” could also be the translation of e.g. “Geräusch”. An overlapping English expression is “children will be children”.

**And seen a fictional parallel on a TV show, possibly “Sex and the City”.

Secondly, a common reason for current societal issues is that humans are built for a different kind of society, and that the (in some sense) disturbance of the old environment leads both to imbalances and to unwanted behaviors being more beneficial (to the perpetrator—not society) and/or receiving less punishment.

Notably, we used to live in a society where too negative behaviors, sooner or later, had direct negative consequences for the perpetrator, e.g. in that a misbehaving child was given a slap* on the behind, that someone who repeatedly violated the rights of others might have been punched** in the nose, or that someone who committed fraud might have ended up with a knife in the back. (Also consider the saying “a dueling society is a polite society”.) Today, the population is almost helpless, having to rely on governmental assistance over own force, and this assistance not always being intended by the system, rarely forth-coming when it is intended, and error-prone and slow*** when it actually is attempted. This implies that the risk–reward balance for a great number of behaviors have changed in favor of the perpetrators of negative**** behaviors.

*While the slapper today is put in the same box as someone who gives a child two dozen strokes with the belt, because all violence against children is considered unacceptable.

**Today, the puncher would usually be in worse legal trouble, regardless of (non-violent) provocation. In theory, the state should intervene to protect against such behavior, but it usually does not.

***The lack of a direct connection and a short time between action and re-action makes an adjustment of attitude less likely, while a deterring effect might be absent altogether. (Compare the deterring effect of e.g. “if I try to rob old man Smith, his sons might beat me up within five minutes” and “if I try to rob old man Smith, I might be caught, might end up in court, and might go to jail in a few months time, but more likely I will just receive a slap on the wrist”.

****Similar, for the worse, can apply to positive behaviors, as with e.g. someone who supports the neighbor’s family in [1].

(Of course, this does not necessarily imply that a system of self-justice would be better—just that it has a different set of advantages and disadvantages. I would definitely argue, however, that the limits on self-justice are too heavy in e.g. Germany, in light of the abysmal job that the state does of protecting the citizens.)

Secondly, consider hard work and economic prudence: In the past, someone who was lazy, spent his money on entertainment instead of necessities, whatnot, risked a quick death due to starvation. Today? Governmental aid will come to the rescue, even of those undeserving*, changing the balance to favor the imprudent. Have too many children back then, and some would starve; today, and the government keeps them fed, implying that the “imprudent reproducers” can eat their cake and have it too. Etc. A particularly interesting case of perverse incentives is the German ALG II** (likely with many other similarly flawed schemes around the world), where existing wealth prevents people from receiving this income booster. This might seem reasonable on first glance: why should the government give handouts to those who can support themselves for months or years based on exiting wealth? However, now consider two individuals, both identical in income, career development, and whatnot, but differing in that the one saves 200 Euros a month and the other spends all his surplus money on entertainment. After ten years, both are fired and unable to find a new job. Eventually, the time for ALG II comes: the prudent saver is now denied ALG II, because he has roughly*** 24 thousand Euro; the prodigious spender will have an empty bank account and will receive ALG II. What incentives does this bring? (Especially, to those at risk of being in need of ALG II, who should be saving as much as they could to protect themselves while they still have an income.) Of course, those who have very poorly paying jobs might be tempted to avoid work at all, draw ALG II instead, and lose little or no money while gaining that much more spare time.

*The idea behind aid schemes was typically originally that those willing-but-unable to provide for themselves should be helped. This is not where we are today.

**A scheme intended to cover the difference between actual income and the existential minimum (or some similar standard). This is particularly relevant for those with no income after exceeding the time limit for unemployment benefits (“ALG”—hence the misleading “ALG II”); however, it also includes a wide range of cases where income is present but insufficient.

***The exact number will depend on factors like saving/consumption during unemployment, interest rates, prior emergencies, whatnot, but in doubt it is the principle and not the exact number that matters.

(Again, this does not necessarily imply that a system of self-X would be better—just that it has a different set of advantages and disadvantages. However, the balance has definitely been pushed far to far towards reliance on the state in many countries, including Germany.)

Written by michaeleriksson

January 4, 2020 at 11:32 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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  1. […] **My claim there that “the constant exposure to human stupidity and irrationality” would be the main obstacle to my own happiness needs extension with “human lack of respect for others”, as above. Also see e.g. [3] and [4]. […]


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