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Incentivizing good makes it bad?

I overheard two liberals talking about Nancy Pelosi; one said that she was corrupt because her husband is a wealthy businessman, and the other agreed immediately. I thought that was strange, since we wouldn’t say that about any non-politician. Because your neighbor or cousin marries a wealthy businessperson therefore she’s corrupt? In general, I get the impression that the reality just doesn’t matter—one way or another, someone will always find grounds to accuse Pelosi.

I noticed conservatives doing something similar to Christine Blasey Ford who is accusing Supreme Court nominee Kavanaugh of sexual assault. It’s almost like a script, how the far-right will instantly and without any actual evidence, claim that an accusation against a conservative is done from profit motive. Since there doesn’t seem to be any actual evidence that Ford has a profit motive, I hear them point to potential book sales as the source of the money.

The phenomenon generalizes pretty widely. Doctors supposedly only cure people from profit motive. This is why we should distrust what they say about vaccines. Car companies profit from sales. So we should assume the claim that their cars are safe is a lie. A politician wants to protect or foster an industry, and it is at least conceivable that somehow the politician is being paid to hold this position. Therefore the politician is only acting from money motive. Even in our private lives people can be quick to assume that a friend or relative does something out of self-interest based on no more evidence that self-interest was possible.

We really need to think about how our judgements and behaviors set up carrots and sticks for society. If personal gain, whether real or merely possible, is grounds for undermining a person’s character, that has the effect of not rewarding good people. As soon as you reward people for being good, the reward becomes a possible self-interested motive. Two things follow from setting up this inversion.

  1. We don’t encourage people to be good.

  2. We don’t give good people the extra resources to do more good!

Why is Mitch McConnell so successful in spite of his obvious corruption? He gets plenty of attacks in the media, but so does Pelosi, and they are nowhere near each other on the corruption scale. The function of how much damage your career takes … doesn’t depend on the variable of how corrupt you actually are! Everybody always gets attacked no matter what. So why not just be as corrupt as you can—you get the same amount of criticism but lots more reward. We don’t give fuel to good people in order to crowd out the McConnells.

It reminds me of something that seems completely irrelevant but I think is a nice analogy. How do you isolate the yeast used in bread and beer? It lives on most wheat crops, but so do a lot of other microscopic bugs. You want the particular kind of yeast that is good for you, Saccharomyces cerevisiae for instance, to grow and everything else to die out. The key is to identify some differentiating property and use it to separate the two out—or rather, to foster one and starve the other. That’s why you can mash wheat into a gruel with some water and let it sit until you see some bubbles from fermentation. That means the good yeast has eaten and grown a little, and is crowding out the bad. Feed it some more wheat and the new offspring eats and reproduces some more, crowds out the bad some more. Do it again and again and again, and you get a culture of only the good yeast. Now bake bread or brew beer with it.

I assume the analogy is by now obvious. By tearing down anyone who achieves any level of wealth or happiness in the process of doing good for society, we’re not feeding the good. And so in part, we’re to blame for why the good guys don’t win. We can’t just engage in a constantly negative project where we only attack people in power. We need a constructive project where good people get rewarded with power. Think of the alternative … or rather, you don’t have to because we’re living it.