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February 12, 2006

Teach a Man to Fish; Don't Make Fish an Entitlement

 

It is as blessed to receive as to give. Giving w/o some expectation sets a man down the road to perdition & too much self-esteem destroys self-respect. If we are going to do welfare and charity, we ought to learn to do it right.

Americans are the most generous people in the world both in absolute terms and per capita. Some see this merely as a failure of government. Charities, they say, must step in where the safety net is frayed. This misses the point. The act of charity is beneficial for both the giver and the receiver. When the government steps in with its coercive power, it often destroys much of the good because it neglects most of the aspects I mentioned in the introduction.

I never give anything without the expectation of getting something from the recipient and I think anybody who does is craven. My motivation is sometimes altruistic; sometimes not. If I give something to an individual, I expect that he will become a more productive citizen and maybe do something for someone else later on. If I give to a charity, I expect some useful and desirable result.

You can show no greater contempt for a person than to believe that he cannot in some way repay a gift you have bestowed on him, no matter how poor. You are doing him no favors if you just fill his stomach, better to let him hunger physically than to break his sprit and self-respect. When government programs have really worked to alleviate poverty it is usually because they came with stings attached. Take the GI Bill, which successfully brought lots of poor people into the middle class and was probably the single most successful government social program in history. The government provided help in return for good behavior, first by serving the country and second by going to school and studying. It was not an entitlement that you got because of who you were. It was a benefit you earned by what you did.

Charity (in both the original and modern sense of the word) is transactional and always has been. When Jesus saved the adulteress from the mob he told her to, “Go AND sin no more.” In the parable of the candlesticks, the Bishop tells Jean Valjean to become an honest man. There would have been no redemption if they had talked about victim status and made no demands for behaviorial change.

One of the most successful development schemes has been the Grameen Bank, whose founder Muhammad Yunus recently won the Nobel Prize. The bank LENDS money. The loan recovery rate is 98.85%. It does not give it away, although the recipients are certainly poor and downtrodden enough to "deserve" it. If it gave money it would be another worthless giveaway that destroyed the sprit of the people it was meant to help.

Our government once understood this concept too. Most of the New Deal programs, including Social Security, required some contribution from the individuals involved. They were based on behavior, not membership in a group. We lost sight of that during the 1960s, when we found victims everywhere. We were supposed to feel guilty for their plight. Guilt is a foolish emotion which makes people do foolish things and too many people assuage their guilt at the cost of someone else's self-respect.

I say self-respect and not the more PC self-esteem. A lot of losers have high self-esteem. They think they are worthy and entitled. Most abusers enjoy very high self-esteem. They will not accept any insults or slights. What they lack is self-respect. They know they are rotten and hollow inside. That is why they demand outside respect.

Government is learning the lesson. Welfare reform explicitly took behavior into account. It went against 40 years of PC orthodoxy and it worked. We are also experimenting with self help/government support mechanisms such as the earned income credit, thrift savings plans & IRAs, as well as health savings accounts. The Lord helps those who help themselves and government should take the hint.

When the history of charity in our times is written, they may say that we lost our way for a while and let the government behave like an indulgent parent, ensuring physical comfort but neglecting character. For nearly a half century, we let guilt and foolishness dominate our relationships with our less fortunate fellow citizens. But I hope historians will also record that we came to our senses and remembered to care for the sprit as well as the body.

PS - Speaking of being poor, take a look at the growing list of necessities. We can never overcome poverty, since it is a moving target.

PSSS - Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and all he will want to do is sit out on the lake and drink beer.


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