Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Aesop Econ: Hercules and the Wagoner

A CARTER was driving a wagon along a country lane, when the wheels sank down deep into a rut. The rustic driver, stupefied and aghast, stood looking at the wagon, and did nothing but utter loud cries to Hercules to come and help him. Hercules, it is said, appeared and thus addressed him: “Put your shoulders to the wheels, my man. Goad on your bullocks, and never more pray to me for help, until you have done your best to help yourself, or depend upon it you will henceforth pray in vain.”

Self-help is the best help.
This might be a story of simple laziness (or in economic terms, a strong preference for leisure over effort). But here’s what I wonder: what made the carter think Hercules might come and help? What led to such an odd expectation? I suspect the carter, or people he knows, must have tried this strategy before -- and with success. Hercules’ words lend some support to this hypothesis: never more pray for help without first trying yourself, or henceforth pray in vain. Though it’s not entirely clear, it sounds like Hercules might be known for lending a hand in situations like this.

For that reason, I read this as a story about disincentives to work. Such disincentives come in four primary forms: punishments for working; reduced rewards for working; rewards for not working; and reduced punishments for not working. The last of these is what’s in play here. Knowing that help from Herc is forthcoming, people become less inclined to exert effort themselves.

Work disincentives are a common topic in current policy debates. One example is unemployment insurance. The purpose of such insurance is to help those who cannot find jobs. The worry is that unemployment payments discourage people from seeking and taking jobs. Of course, the claim is not that all unemployed people, or even a great number of them, fall into this category -- only that some unknown number do. (I personally know at least three people who fit the bill and have told me so.) And then the question is whether the gain from helping those who genuinely need help outweighs the loss from those who don’t.

Getting back to Hercules, the question is what policy he should adopt. If he helps everyone who seems to need help, he will encourage dependency by some. If he refuses to help anyone, then some poor souls may be stuck in ruts indefinitely. So Hercules adopts the intermediate policy of demanding people try self-help first before begging his assistance. And then the question will become: how many of those he helps are really trying?

1 comment:

Stuhlmann said...

The key question in my mind is, "what was Hercules's state at this time?" Was he still a mortal hero or had he already become a god? The story doesn't make this clear, but it is hard to imagine that the carter would call out to him otherwise, unless the man had seen the hero standing nearby. If Hercules was a god, then I would think that it would be in his interest to help those who pray to him. Otherwise people would stop praying to him, and gods seem to either like or need the prayers and reverence of humans. So was the carter asking for charity from Hercules, or was he asking for the help that was due to him for the prayers and sacrifices that he had made to the god?