THE ANTS were spending a fine winter’s day drying grain collected in the summertime. A Grasshopper, perishing with famine, passed by and earnestly begged for a little food. The Ants inquired of him, “Why did you not treasure up food during the summer?” He replied, “I had not leisure enough. I passed the days in singing.” They then said in derision: “If you were foolish enough to sing all the summer, you must dance supperless to bed in the winter.”Wow. There’s so much econ in this fable it’s hard to know where to start.
Obviously, we’re looking at a problem of intertemporal choice. The insects must decide how much effort to exert during an earlier period (summer) to prepare for a later period (winter). Exerting effort entails a present cost in terms of forgone leisure, but a future benefit in terms of consumption. The optimal choice depends on the magnitude of the subjective costs and benefits, as well as the chooser’s rate of time preference -- that is, how much he values the present relative to the future.
To a behavioral economist, the fable involves myopia or hyperbolic discounting. To simplify greatly, the grasshopper places too much weight on the present simply because it’s the present. If asked during the spring to choose his summer behavior, the grasshopper might plan to work harder. But then the lazy days of summer arrive, and suddenly he decides to kick back. This is known as time inconsistency, and it is often regarded as evidence of cognitive bias or irrationality.
To a neoclassical economist, however, this is clearly a fable about moral hazard -- the tendency to take greater risks when shielded against the consequences. No one knows whether the coming winter will be mild or harsh, and so they must choose between storing up food or taking a gamble. The grasshopper’s failure to work during summer might well be a rational response to the expected assistance of others in the event of a harsh winter.
And this raises the specter of the Samaritan’s Dilemma. People of a kind and decent disposition don’t wish to allow others to suffer, especially if helping them would be a small sacrifice. But providing charity may foment moral hazard, thereby leading to more people needing help.
The Samaritan’s Dilemma featured prominently in the most recent Republican presidential debate, in which Wolf Blitzer posed a tough question to Ron Paul:
A healthy 30-year-old young man has a good job, makes a good living, but decides: “You know what? I’m not going to spend $200 or $300 a month for health insurance because I’m healthy, I don’t need it.” But something terrible happens all of a sudden, he needs it. Who’s going to pay if he goes into a coma, for example? Who pays for that?This 30-year-old man is the grasshopper, and we are the ants. Aesop’s ants take the position of Ron Paul: “Well, in a society that you [sic] accept welfarism and socialism, he expects the government to take care of him. … But what he should do is whatever he wants to do, and assume responsibility for himself.” I find it interesting that so many people -- who presumably heard this fable in their childhood and thought it wise – found Paul’s answer reprehensible.
Paul also advocated private charity as an alternative to government. Yet private charity, too, creates the potential for free-riding by the irresponsible. So there is a tension in Paul’s position. John Goodman explains how the tension can be resolved:
[P]rivate sector charitable activities are never run like government entitlements. If you are away from home and lose your wallet, the local Salvation Army will give you a meal and a place to sleep and maybe even some cash. But they will not do this day after day, night after night. It’s probably fair to say that all private charities seek to give aid without encouraging dependency.Aesop’s ants follow a similar policy; they do not refuse the grasshopper aid outright, but instead inquire as to how the grasshopper’s situation arose. Of course, charitable discretion is not a perfect answer. There is always the risk of denying help to the deserving, and also the risk of giving help to the undeserving (what if the grasshopper had lied?). But if you grasp the Samaritan’s Dilemma, you realize there is no perfect answer; that’s why it’s called a dilemma.