Three Simple Policy Heuristics
There is a widespread belief that life is shit, “hard choices” have to be made, and those hard choices usually involve someone else suffering and dying.
Life may well be lousy, but most “hard choices” don’t have to be made, and those hard choices are one of the main reasons why life is lousy for so many people.
The most important thing to understand is this: Harm ripples, kindness ripples. People you hurt go on to hurt other people. People who are treated with kindness become better people, or more prosperous people, and go on to help others. Yes, there are exceptions (we’ll deal with those people), but they are exceptions.
First: Do no harm.
Again, people who are abused, go on to abuse others. Rapists were often raped before they raped others. People who have no money can’t buy other people’s goods. People who are crippled physically, mentally, emotionally, or socially cannot contribute fully to society and tend not to make those around them happier or more prosperous. Rather the reverse.
While it is necessary to imprison some people for committing crimes (though far fewer than most societies imprison), it is not necessary to make having been convicted an economic death sentence. People who can’t get living wage jobs (or any job at all) when they get out of prison gravitate back to crime.
We don’t want people raped in jails, because many become rapists themselves and virtually all are damaged by it. When they get out of jail, we have to deal with that damage. We don’t want them stuck in solitary confinement for long periods of time because brain scans show this inflicts traumatic brain damage, and, yeah, we wind up having to deal with those people when they get out.
If someone runs out of money, we don’t want them to lose their primary residence. Even if you are soulless, you shouldn’t want a society that creates homeless people; it takes far more money to support someone on the street than it does to pay for almost anyone’s mortgage or rent. We don’t want people who are sick to be denied health care because they become pools for disease. We’re treating these people eventually anyway (when they turn 65 or become so poor they qualify for Medicaid), which is far more expensive than dealing with their illnesses when they first present themselves.
We don’t want to destroy other countries (Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, etc.) because their people become refugees with whom we then must contend; this produces scads of angry people, some of who may wind up killing us, and it further ruins their economies, rendering them unable to buy our goods (except our weapons.)
Damage to others who live on the same planet as you can come back to haunt you. Damage to others in your own society will come back to haunt you.
So, first, do no harm. Yes, there are exceptions, but they are radically rare. Almost every bit of harm we do to others through government policy is a bad idea. The only common class of exception is covered in rule three.
Second: Be kind.
As the harm you do others comes back to you (insofar as you are “society”), so the good you do comes back to you. I almost don’t know what to say about this, as it is so brutally obvious. Happy people are better to be around. Prosperous people are better to be around. Healthy people are better to be around.
Only when goods are legitimately scarce is there reason not to help make other people better off, and, in those cases, it is only applicable to the scarce goods, and only until you can make the goods no longer scarce. Short on food? Ration and plant more crops.
But in today’s society, all the significant shortages of the goods which matter most are artificial; we have more than enough food to feed everyone. America has five empty homes for every homeless person. Europe has two empty homes for every homeless person. Clothing is cheap as hell. Internet is vastly overpriced. Our main sink is just carbon: We need to spew less of that, and we can do that. Our second main limitation is the destruction we are imposing on biodiversity, but we could produce our food with far less impact on the environment if we wanted to, and, even in the short term, we’d be better off for it.
People need stuff: food, housing, safety, education. None of these things should be in shortage anywhere in the world, including safety. They are in shortage because we choose to act greedy, violent, and selfish when we do not need to.
Third: Remove the ability or reason for people to do harm.
Humanity is not a race of saints. It does not need to be. Most people are neither good nor bad, they are weak. They do what the social and physical environment disposes them to do, with the social environment being far more important in the modern era.
Still, some people are bad. The hard core is probably around five percent of the population. And many other people are damaged, because our society has damaged them. They take that damage out on others.
The most dangerous class of malefactors are incentivized to do evil. Think bankers, corporate CEOs, billionaires (almost all of whom do evil as routine). These people do evil because they profit greatly from it, BUT (and most of you will not believe this) what makes a profit in the modern world is overwhelmingly a social choice. The government chooses who can create money, what counts as profit, who is taxed how much, who is subsidized how much, what is property, how much it costs to ship by rail vs. road, etc, etc.
There are independent technological and environmental variables, but they are overwhelmed by social variables. Change the variables and you change the incentives.
The policy is simple: Take away incentives for people to do evil. Take away their ability to do evil (aka. excessive access to money.)
Those who continue to do evil, lock them up. Do it completely humanely, no rape, no violence, no solitary confinement. But make it so they can’t do evil. While they are in prison, try to rehabilitate them. Norway has half the recidivism rate of America for a reason: Rehabilitation does work for some people.
When they get out, bring them back into society. Make sure they have housing, food, clothing and so on. If they do evil again, lock them up again.
None of this is complicated, in principle. This is simple. This is straightforward. It is work, mind you, we must stay on top of incentives and ability, and not allow anyone to become so rich or so powerful that they are able to buy the rule-makers or be above the law.
None of this should be controversial, though it is. None of this is new, these strands of thoughts go back to Confucius, Ancient Greece, and beyond. They are only controversial because it is in the interest of many for these ideas to be painted as such. And many people, having done evil, develop a taste for it.
Running a society well is hard, in the details it is complicated, but in principle, it is simple. Do the right thing. Make it so that people do well by doing the right thing. Make it so people who do things that are harmful to others stop doing them.
When you want a good society to live in, inculcate these principles. Until then, know that you will only live in a good society briefly and by chance.
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