Carrots and Padded Cells
“I’m hungry, what’s for lunch?” asked my nine year old. I came out of my office to find him with my ten year old sitting on the couch in their jammies playing video games. “Seriously? You guys aren’t even dressed!” He replies, “Why do we need to get dressed? It’s summer and we can’t go anywhere anyway.” He was mostly right, especially during the COVID-19 induced quarantine, but I knew they would feel better if they did, and they needed to get off the couch and get some exercise. It was time for a Daddy decree. So I declared, in my most Daddy-like authoritarian voice, “From now on, no one gets lunch until they are dressed!” That’ll show him. I’m so smart, aren’t I?
Not so much. Two seconds later, without even driving his Mario Cart racer off the track, he asked, “OK, then can I have a snack?” I think the dent my forehead made in the wall is still there.
Leaders like to solve problems by making rules. That’s what they were elected to do, right? Sometimes, but often that approach emboldens leaders to make new laws whenever things that don’t line up with their perfect world (and sometimes causes the manufacturing of new problems in need of solutions). Leaders should always envision a better world, but when they try to use the force of law to create it they run into two immutable characteristics of lawmaking: the law of unintended consequences, and the freedom cost for every new rule.
The law of unintended consequences is visible on a daily basis.
The freedom cost is the opposite: we have become so numb to it, the loss of freedom is often ignored. Did you see how fast people clamored to follow the daily COVID-19 edicts from governors across the country? (Always wear masks, only wear them inside, don’t go on boats with more than 2 people, even if they’re in your family, stay 3 feet apart, stay 6 feet apart, protests are exempt, protests are not exempt, eating is OK, but not at a bar, and not inside, unless you’re a doctor). Good luck! Each new rule takes away a tiny bit of freedom from its subjects. They may make us slightly more safe, but they also make us less free. So where on the spectrum do we want to be?
Total freedom is not a very popular place for most, unless you’re into post-apocalyptic dystopian survival of the fittest movies. Some rules are needed. There is a reason neither you nor your neighbor can build a nuclear reactor in the garage, and it’s a sacrifice of freedom I’m comfortable with. The opposite, total safety, sounds good at first but at its extreme is like a padded cell with a straitjacket. Someone else is there to make sure you can’t harm others, or yourself. It’s not a very nice place to live. Somewhere in the middle is where most people want to end up, but there is a current pushing hard in one direction and elected officials need to be aware of it.
We are moving swiftly toward safety and away from freedom, and the problem is not new. Thomas Jefferson said it well in 1788, “The natural progress of things is for liberty to yeild [sic], and government to gain ground.” No one gets elected on a platform of “Making People Less Safe” and now, even with rules on just about everything, we still get thousands more each year. My kids can’t even imagine what it is like to ride their bikes in the cul de sac without a helmet on. Our daily loss of freedom is palpable, if we choose to see it. So what do we do about it?
As cathartic as it may be, shaking your fist at “the man” and yelling “You’re not the boss of me!” is not the solution. Electing people who value freedom, who will seek out the freedom cost levied by every new rule, and who part with freedom only as a last resort, is a better solution.
There’s another important characteristic we need in elected officials: the willingness to admit mistakes. Unfortunately, the populace now has a Twitter sized attention span where admitting failure is simply not tolerated. So, rather then admit mistakes, many pretend things are working that clearly aren’t. Fortunately, once in a while there are exceptions:
“We have tried spending money. We are spending more than we have ever spent before and it does not work. And I have just one interest, and if I am wrong… somebody else can have my job. I want to see this country prosperous. I want to see people get a job. I want to see people get enough to eat. We have never made good on our promises…. I say after eight years of this Administration we have just as much unemployment as when we started and an enormous debt to boot!”
That quote was from Henry Morgenthau, Jr., the longtime neighbor, close confidant and loyal secretary of the treasury for over a decade for Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The quote was made before the House Ways and Means Committee in May 1939. While I don’t think we learned anything from Henry’s mistakes, I learned something from mine.
Mario Cart continued, but Dad had a new pronouncement, “OK, forget that rule. I’ll make you lunch, but I won’t give it to you until you’re dressed, and if you don’t go now, I won’t make it at all and you’re on your own to find something. Good luck.” They looked at each other, then hit pause and ran upstairs to get dressed. The carrot works much better than the stick.
Incentivize people to do what is in their best interest, but give them choices. Freedom doesn’t really exist unless you give others the ability to make choices you think are stupid. That’s the essence of freedom, but nothing says you can’t give them information and point them in the right direction.
So now we have the ideal characteristics of an elected official in a nutshell: protect freedom, don’t take people’s time or money unless you absolutely must, admit and learn from mistakes, and incentivize good behavior. If that’s what you believe, I’m here to help you get elected to something!
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- Molding the Next Greatest Generation November 11, 2013
- Orange County Supervisor 2014 June 28, 2013
- Awakening the Soldier Released December 24, 2012