It is a brute fact of human nature that a certain percentage of the population will always find ways to screw up their lives—regardless of government efforts to keep them from doing so. But that propensity for self-sabotage will necessarily undermine their measurable equality with their fellow citizens. In a capitalist economy, if two employees with equal qualifications are hired at equal salaries on the same day, but Employee A goes out and gets drunk every night, while Employee B goes home and gets a good night’s sleep, over time the quality of Employee A’s work will likely suffer in comparison with the quality of Employee B’s work. So, too, will his rewards.

Extenuating circumstances don’t matter. The fact that Worker A had a miserable childhood, or that his father was an alcoholic and passed along the tendency to his son, is sad, but it would be unjust, and economically untenable, to reward good work and bad work equally. Indeed, rewarding them equally would only encourage Employee B to slack off.

The principle of unequal rewards not only sustains capitalism, it harnesses human nature. That’s why government efforts to equalize outcomes almost always run afoul of the law of unintended consequences. Human nature is not malleable. When people are not held accountable for their bad choices, when their situations don’t suffer on account of their bad choices, there’s no incentive for them to stop making bad choices. They’ll make more of them—and rely on the government to keep rectifying disparities. The consequence is a cycle of failure and dependency, a cycle that is passed down from generation to generation.

Consider, for example, the disastrous move in the 1960s to expand benefits under the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program. AFDC began during Franklin Roosevelt’s administration, intended to assist impoverished widows and their children. But its scope was broadened during Lyndon Johnson’s administration to include payments to all unmarried mothers, not just widows. Why? Because the out-of-wedlock birthrate among blacks in 1963 stood at a record high of 23.6 percent—roughly four times the overall rate of six percent. That meant that many unmarried black mothers who were struggling to provide for their families were ineligible under previous rules for public assistance. Thus, the expansion of the AFDC program was prompted by altogether compassionate motives. The federal government wanted to provide black children who had been born, as it were, behind the eight ball with the financial resources to prosper later in life. The overriding hope was to close the gap between black and white achievement, to equalize socioeconomic outcomes.

So the federal government began, in effect, to sponsor illegitimacy.

By 1997, when the AFDC program was modified to include a five year limit for receiving payments, the out-of-wedlock birthrate among blacks had tripled to 70 percent. That is roughly the current rate. Is there any behavioral pathology known to man not found disproportionately among children born out-of-wedlock? Hence: Is there any behavioral pathology known to man not found disproportionately among African Americans? Motivated by nothing but compassion, the Johnson administration did more to undermine the structural integrity of the black family than did decades of Jim Crow laws, eventually spawning a degenerate urban culture in which the phrase “baby daddy” has come to eclipse “husband.” (The expansion of AFDC, it should be noted, didn’t exactly shore up white, Hispanic or Asian family structures either.)

The AFDC calamity illustrates the perils of the government attempting to remedy bad behavior. Out-of-wedlock births, except in exceedingly rare instances of rape and incest, represent bad choices on the part of individuals. Bad choices have consequences. If the government attempts to relieve people of the consequences of their bad choices, it infantilizes them. It robs them of their moral agency . . . and, again, encourages them to make more bad choices. History instructs us, in short, that when the government attempts to rescue people from the outcomes of their irresponsible behavior by legislative acts, the effort is more likely to backfire than to work.