Albert Hirschman called it the perversity thesis — the claim that an "attempt to push society in a certain direction will result in its moving all right, but in the opposite direction". The best example of thesis is in arguments against cash-transfer programs for the non-working poor.
It’s the perversity thesis that informs Iain Duncan Smith’s recent rhetoric on welfare reform. In 21st Century Welfare, the UK Secretary of State for Work and Pensions writes:
The benefits system has shaped the decisions of the poorest in a way that has trapped generation after generation in a spiral of dependency and poverty. This has cost the country billions of pounds every year in cash payments and billions more in meeting the social costs of this failure.
The only way to make a sustainable difference is by tackling the root causes of poverty: family breakdown; educational failure; drug and alcohol addiction; severe personal indebtedness; and economic dependency.
These problems are interrelated and their solutions lie in society as a whole. However, we must recognise that the benefits system has an important role to play in supporting personal responsibility and helping to mend social ills.
So according to Duncan Smith, by trying to help people without jobs and money, the government has only made the problem worse. Welfare has deadened the desire to work and created an ever growing population of lotus eaters — people who behave as if they are drugged. And that’s exactly how Franklin D Roosevelt described cash handouts to the unemployed. In his 1935 State of the Union address, he said: "dependence upon relief induces a spiritual and moral disintegration fundamentally destructive to the national fibre. To dole out relief in this way is to administer a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit."
The argument that policy makers need to be cruel to be kind has a long history. It begins with an assumption about human nature. In his Memoir on Pauperism, Alexis de Tocqueville insisted:
Man, like all socially organised beings, has a natural passion for idleness. There are, however, two incentives to work: the need to live and the desire to improve the conditions of life. Experience has proven that the majority of men can be sufficiently motivated to work only by the first of these incentives. The second is only effective with a small minority. Well, a charitable institution indiscriminately open to all those in need, or a law which gives all the poor a right to public aid, whatever the origin of their poverty, weakens or destroys the first stimulant and leaves only the second intact.
According to Tocqueville, the deadening of the incentive to work is only the start of the problem. Ultimately, giving money to poor people threatens civilisation itself:
The number of illegitimate children and criminals grows rapidly and continuously, the indigent population is limitless, the spirit of foresight and of saving becomes more and more alien to the poor. While throughout the rest of the nation education spreads, morals improve, tastes become more refined, manners more polished—the indigent remains motionless, or rather he goes backwards. He could be described as reverting to barbarism. Amidst the marvels of civilisation, he seems to emulate savage man in his ideas and his inclinations.
For some reason, many conservatives seem to think that dark skinned people are especially susceptible to the corrupting effects of well meaning attempts to lift them out of poverty. In the US modern debates over the ‘underclass’ often assume it’s a problem concentrated in black communities.
So here’s a question of Troppo readers — What evidence is there that income support has drug-like effects that undermine people’s ability to actively pursue their own self-interest? Is this something we can test empirically or is it always going to be an article of faith that people are allowed believe or reject depending on which political tribe they belong to?