There’s an annoying primary school rhyme that goes, ‘I know you are, you said you are, so what am I?’ The idea is the kid has been insulted by someone and they throw it back on that person by giving this rhyme. And it can be really annoying.
I don't think it really necessarily stems from any particular truth. But there is an element of truth in it. And that is, the idea that perhaps what we find most annoying in others, or the fault that we're most prone to see in others, or the fault we assume is there in others, is the one that's most common in us. And this would explain Jesus’ teaching that you should look at taking out the log in your own eye before you worry about the speck in your brother’s.
But where it interests me, is in this idea that the welfare state doesn't work because people don't have a good enough work ethic. And what's interesting, is that all the evidence is that people at the bottom have a really good work ethic. I don't know so much about people at the top, because as far as I know it hasn't been studied to the same extent. It's not been such an interesting question, whereas people on the left who want to defend those who are poor have an interest in going out and saying, ‘well, is it actually true that these people just don't have a work ethic?’
Because it'd be great – to some extent; to those of us who aren't poor due to a lack of work – it would be great if the reason that people were in poverty was because they couldn't be bothered to work. It would be great because it would not only absolve us of any moral responsibility to do anything, but would even give us a moral responsibility to do nothing – which is exactly what we want to do, because it's convenient and easy for us. It’s a nice answer that politicians will like to hear, as it requires no government spending or action, and even advocates less government spending. So people on the left who are thinking ‘well, no, I think there's a bit more to it than that’ have an interest in going out and asking ‘Is it true?’, in order to make sure that government policy isn’t harming poor people.
People on the right should have an interest in finding out if it's true, because it would really crucify their ideas of what the welfare state should do if it was wrong. But It's easier just to assume it; they're not the ones who want to prove their theory wrong. That’s not know science should work, but then we’re talking here about politics (on the right), not social scientists.
Fortunately, people – trained academic scientists – have gone out and looked at poor people's work ethic, and found that poor people have a really good work ethic. I’ve blogged about it before: unemployed people, sick and disabled people, people cycling in and out of low-pay jobs, and people trapped in dead-end jobs all share a really strong commitment to work.
And there are also social scientists who are interested in the differences between rich and poor people. How does wealth alter your attitudes towards morality? For example, if you're poor, are you more likely to think that it’s a dog-eat-dog world, grab what you can, steal what you need, everyone else is greedy and cheating so you’re a fool if you don’t too. Or maybe it’s just a matter of survival, and there’s no time to think about morals. Perhaps wealth is needed to allow people to afford morals? Perhaps living in comfortable circumstances gives people the security to be generous and to relax; to be scrupulously honest in what they owe, and relaxed in pursuing debts. Perhaps rich people are less likely to cheat or be greedy or steal, because they don’t need to.
Or, are rich people more greedy? Are they where they are because they cheated and therefore they've had to learn to justify cheating? Are they where they are because they’ve kept wealth to themselves rather than give it away; spent it on themselves, not others, so they had the fancy car and expensive suit and time on the golf course that got them in with the industry leaders? Have they seen other people cheat and lie and grab to get ahead, so that’s normality to them?
Well, we have data on this too, and it turns out it is the rich people who have worse morals.
So then there's an interesting question. When rich people claim that poor people don't have a good work ethic, is it because rich people are just pushing their own knowledge of themselves and their class onto other people? Is it that rich people don't have a good work ethic? Do they perhaps hate the work they do? Maybe it's actually really boring and the only reason they’re in it is for the money. Or maybe they know its functionless; meaningless; even dangerous to the financial stability of the world, sp to get meaning from it it has to be about the money. And if that’s what motivates you and the people around you, then it's no wonder that you assume that that's how poor people will behave as well, because you just assume that people are just like you.
But wealthy people in wealthy jobs is a completely different background, completely different social history, completely different personal reality to poor people trying to eke out a living. It's completely different wealth. So the anecdote of how one wealthy person feels about work and what motivates him or her to go to their particular high-paid but boring/destructive/ meaningless job says nothing about what motivates a poor person to go to work. And data on what motivates rich people to do their high-paying jobs says nothing about what motivates poor people.
But as I said, we know what motivates poor people. Poor people have a good ethic. Maybe all these rich commentators and politicians and politicos need to take the log out of their own eye before starting to think and learn about what life is actually like at the bottom.