Nobody likes pain, but we need it. This may sound counterintuitive or cruel when you are suffering with an injury or illness, but severe dangers accompany a life without pain. A rare genetic disorder renders some people incapable of feeling pain, heat, or cold. Life for them is full of unexpected dangers, particularly for children, who frequently injure themselves, even biting through their own lips or tongues. More than we appreciate, pain protects us. It teaches us to avoid harmful behaviors and to pursue beneficial ones. Avoiding future pain is an incentive to be hardworking, frugal, kind to our family and neighbors, and even to maintain good health.
While policymakers and politicians may mean well, government programs like ill-conceived entitlements, tax breaks, and mandates wrought with perverse incentives numb the beneficiaries against pain, working against healthy incentives. Consider the most recent economic crises. Why would companies that received massive government bailouts choose to avoid the bad practices that got them into trouble in the first place? What incentive do they have to change if government guarantees a painless outcome?
Pain is an important part of life that should work to correct some of our most harmful behaviors. But if we’re too numb to feel the consequences of our decisions, then like those children, we may find we have seriously damaged our lives, our economy, and our society before we recognize the need to change what we are doing.
Christina Martin is a policy analyst and project director at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.