It ain’t easy doing the right thing

… when that costs you something.

So anytime that someone claims it’s easy, or a win-win, then I’d suggest replying with: “No, it’s not easy, but I’ll do it because it’s the right thing to do.”

That’s why humans everywhere are familiar with some version of the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Ignorance of this reality, whether it’s willful or hopeful, is counter-productive. Some people do look out for others, of course, but those others are often family, friends or people with whom we have an ongoing (reputational) relationship. Those others are not strangers, people on the other side of the planet, or those not yet born, which is relevant to most discussions of local and global commons.

This post may seem obvious to most of you, but maybe not so obvious is how its lesson explains war, theft, violence, bad behavior and even just laziness.

In all these cases, you’ve got people taking benefits for themselves and leaving costs to others, e.g.,

  • Stealing.
  • Violence.
  • Rape and war.
  • Littering.
  • Cheating.
  • …and any other activity with negative externalities (everything from eating meat or fish to emitting carbon or excess consumption).

How can we steer people away from their default desire to have something for nothing? Moral education is a good start, but many people lack such intrinsic motivations. That leaves extrinsic motivations such as rules, regulations, taxes and social stigma.

My one-handed conclusion is that humans who cannot be “civilized” need to be “caged” in some way, for the good of the community.

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Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

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