Amy Alkon on the mainspring of some (possibly many) altruistic actions:
I write about this sort of thing in Good Manners for Nice People Who Sometimes Say F*ck. It’s called “pathological altruism,” and describes deeds intended to help that actually hurt — sometimes both the helper and the person they’re trying to help:
[Dr. Barbara] Oakley notes that we are especially blind to the ill effects of over- giving when whatever we’re doing allows us to feel particularly good, virtuous, and benevolent. To keep from harming ourselves or others when we’re supposed to be helping, Oakley emphasizes the importance of checking our motives when we believe we’re doing good. “People don’t realize how narcissistic a lot of ‘helping’ can be,” she told me. “It’s all too easy for empathy and good deeds to really be about our self-image or making ourselves happy or comfortable.”
One example of this is The New York Times series on nail salons — intended to help the workers but actually keeping a number of them from being able to get work…work they were able to get before the crackdowns the NYT piece led to. From Reason‘s Jim Epstein:
Salon owners have also stopped hiring unlicensed workers, whether they’re undocumented or not. By law, every manicurist working in New York State must complete 250 hours of training at a beauty school, which costs about $1,000, and then obtain a government-issued license. This is a barrier to entry, and some aspiring manicurists can’t afford the time or tuition. There are some salon owners in the industry who, up until recently, were willing to hire them anyway because they were desperate for employees and the state rarely checked. Cuomo’s task force changed that.
Kim sponsored a state law, passed in July, that attempted to remedy the situation. The bill made it legal for nail salons to hire workers as apprentices receiving on-the-job training. After a year, they’re eligible for a state license without attending beauty school.
Few are utilizing the apprenticeship program. “It needs tweaking,” Kim admits. Despite assurances to the contrary from state officials, Kim says he’s hearing on the ground that when signing up for the program, applicants are being asked their citizenship status, which is scaring off many would-be apprentices.
Licensed workers legally working in the U.S. have also been hurt by the inspections. “Workers themselves prefer to be paid in cash, and it’s not just at nail salons,” says Kim. Salon owners have started recording every dollar that passes through their shops to avoid getting fined. The inspection task force has had “unintended consequences,” he says.
The biggest victims, however, are people like Jing Ren, the main character in the Times series. Ren, 20, is undocumented, penniless, and “recently arrived from China.” Instead of paying $1,000 for salon school, she signed on as a trainee at a shop in Long Island. By the end of the article, she’s making $65 per day in base wages.
When weaving its cartoonish tale of evil bosses and oppressed workers, the Times never considers what would happen if all of the nail salons willing to hire Jing Ren disappeared. Would future immigrants like her be better or worse off?