Good Kids, Bad Kids


At a violin camp for kids in my neck of the woods, the students divided into four groups: bad boys, bad girls, good boys, good girls. No one had to divide them. They sorted quickly based on human volition. The groups ate together, walked to and from class together, and sat together. As the week went on, the sex separation reduced, so that by the end, there were only two groups: good kids and bad kids.

The good kids paid attention in class. They spoke respectfully to teachers. They practiced at the appointed hours. They had nice table manners. They didn’t use vulgar language. They were in bed somewhat early and they woke early. They were neatly dressed. The girls were modest and the boys didn’t wear hats indoors. They excelled in sports.

But as this was a strings camp, what matters is how they played. The good kids all played well. They were at the top of the sections, whether violin, viola, or cello. They aced the theory exams. They all got along with each other.

The bad kids cursed. They girls dressed poorly and the boys wore hats indoors. They rolled their eyes during lectures and didn’t pay attention. They whispered to each other in rehearsals. The girls gossiped constantly. The boys had baggy pants that showed their underwear, and they did idiotic things like rolled up dollar bills and sniffed salt as if it were cocaine. They were rude to adults.

What about the bad kids and their musicianship? Were the bad kids great musicians, and so could get away with their behavior because they are good at what they do? No. There was no exception. The bad kids were all bad musicians too. They occupied the lowest chairs in every section.

I’m telling you this so that you believe: the caricature of these two types of kids is not a myth. How dare we so wickedly divide kids into such broad groups? Because it reflects reality. The divisions are quite strict even though they are unenforced. Remember the Highlights cartoon called Goofus and Gallant? Goofus was mean and rude and terrible. Gallant was nice, polite, and had ability. I recall thinking how childish this division was, an adult invention that oversimplified the world. Apparently I was wrong. It pretty much sums up the way the kid population divides itself up.

Now, think for a moment about egalitarianism, the theory that all people are equal and so the spoils of society should be equally divided among them. Do you see how this flies in the face of the daily experience of every living person? Imagine the damage that would come to the camp by evenly distributing the positions in the orchestra. The good kids would not be rewarded, and so would face a disincentive for continuing excellent behavior. The bad kids would conclude that there is no cost to being a jerk. The orchestra wouldn’t sound as good, since bad players would be responsible for harder and more exposed spots.

So who would win under egalitarianism? I suppose that the winner would be the sicko powermonger who did the dividing. That person would gain some measure of satisfaction merely from the thrill that comes from upending the natural order of things.

This individual has a name in the world in which we live: the state. If the state gets away with this, it wrecks the orchestra of society. It discourages goodness and subsidizes badness. Cultural decline defines the new reality, and there is a descent straight to the gutter. As for the state, it wins solely by its desire to do what it is designed to do: coerce people and enjoy watching people obey.

In contrast, a state of freedom and justice leads to excellence all around. Those with good behavior enjoy reward and those who behave badly must languish in their low status and incompetence. They must suffer as those with good behavior excel in all ways.

In education circles, there is a lot of talk about character education. But much of the discussion of this issue assumes institutional neutrality, as if it doesn’t matter how society is structured. But the truth is that all issues of personal character are deeply influenced by institutional context. Under freedom, there is a direct relationship between success in life and goodness of character. The same is true of bad character: it will be punished in the long run. These two tendencies working together produce an interesting dynamic that seems to keep society and culture on track.

Bad kids will always be with us. What we need as a society is a framework that discourages or, at least, doesn’t provide long-term rewards for bad behavior. Similarly we must have social structures that grant people who behave properly certain advantages that arrive by virtue of their own excelling. Fortunately we do not have to build such structures. They are embedded as part of the social matrix of freedom.

I tend to be skeptical of claims that society is going to Hell in a handbasket. And yet, there is a certain point here. As government grows, people become worse. The worst get on top and their bad behavior trickles down to everyone else. The good are not permitted the freedom to flower. As one example, consider inflation. It rewards short-term thinking and punishes long-term thinking. It rewards debtors and punishes savers. To that extent, it degrades our characters and causes cultural decline.

Laissez-faire is sometimes seen as an “anything goes” philosophy. It might more accurately be described as a “reap what you sow” philosophy.

Jeffrey Tucker [send him mail] is editorial vice president of Comment on the Mises blog.

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