Sometimes insanity works… but not the way you expect.
Consider the Napoleonic Wars. Men in orderly rank and file marching into battle with rifle and musket, to face volley fire from opposing rank and file of uniforms. Were the men marching insane? Would not a soldier’s chance of surviving be greatly increased by running away from the line of men firing at his formation? Undoubtedly, yes, it would. Would his own formation have a marginally lower chance of winning if he were to do so? Yes, again. If the man next to him ran away, would he increase his personal chances of survival, too? While decreasing, a bit more, the chance of failure for their side? Yes, absolutely, to both. It is crazy to stand and fight, if you can increase your chance of survival by running away. But if enough people on your side choose to run and survive that fight, you also doom your side to total defeat, and being hunted down by the victors and having your land, property, and women taken, because they were collectively crazy enough to stand and fight. It’s a fine line between disciplined and insane.
This is why desertion is punishable by death. Deserters take a very short-sighted, selfish view of the war by making their personal survival on a specific battlefield be more important than the big picture. By not being swayed by the personal tragedy of the individual, the battle can be won, and MORE individuals will survive to live long and prosper, because the incentives are aligned with the goal. Ironically, armies of volunteers, people that choose to place themselves under this sort of discipline, are even more effective than conscript armies subjected to such harsh measures to enforce obedience, even though the threat of it still needs to be there.
Compare that to our welfare system. We look at an individual, for example a single mother with a new-born child, and we take pity on her, saying we should help out such an “unfortunate” person. It would be heartless to abandon such a person, right? And so, we offer her a stipend to buy food and “necessities.” But what does this do to the incentives in the system? Which is more reliable, a husband with a job, or a government check? A rhetorical question in today’s economy. Suddenly, the incentives to men to work hard and be productive, in order to secure a mate and regular sex, is greatly reduced, simply because she’s no longer forced to rely on him. Indeed, if he’s a deadbeat his wages can’t be garnished, and he himself is eligible for benefits! Then, for every additional dollar he earns, an ever increasing chunk will be taken via taxes, etc. On the other side of the “couple,” there is a greater incentive to unwed women to have children than for married women, because the unwed mother will be eligible for far more subsidies than the married one, who may indeed be paying to support the bastard kids as well as her own!
The other part of the equation, the government, sees another perverse incentive. While the nation sees great benefit in productive, independent, self-supporting human beings, individual politicians benefit by having as large a government-dependent class as possible, as a means of “farming votes” by handing out money via government programs in exchange for political support. Trying to “be nice” with other people’s money simply doesn’t work. In fact, it often makes the problems worse.
The incentives in the current system are insane, utterly self-destructive for the nation in the long run, but of great benefit to the individuals in the very short run (often the very same ones that harp endlessly about “sustainability”). This system of incentives must change.