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Thursday, May 10, 2007

The Punitive Nation

It has struck me over the years how the default solution proposed to almost any problem in the United States these days involves punishment of some sort. Deal with drug use? Impose draconian punishments. Late with the credit card payment? Impose a fee. Late for work? Write it up for the file. School not performing well? Cut their funds.

The idea is a foolish one. The assumption is that the prescribed penalty will affect behavior, but, of course, it doesn't. And the penalties, instead of making the situation better, make it worse. People's lives are ruined for smoking a reefer. Someone who was already in a financial hole is now a little deeper. A worker who was already poorly motivated has another gripe to add to the list. Students at an underfunded school have an even smaller chance of succeeding.

I'm not necessarily sure what the answers are to all these problems, but I know that punishing people doesn't help. The problem is that, once you've announced a punishment, you can't not implement it, no matter how destructive the imposition of it would be.

People don't like to hear this, but there is no programmatic approach to solving problems. It's all ad hoc. Whatever your ideology, you're wrong. Life is too complicated and random to be tamed by some system. And you don't have to take my word for it. Just pick a random stretch from history, and you will see in glorious black-and-white the failures of every ideology and system. The only way to deal with with the problems posed by trying to live in a society is to take each issue on its own, look at it, take it apart, and look for solutions that are inherent in the problem itself.

But, for God's sake, don't just resort to kneejerk punishments.