Saving Everybody from Themselves

On July 14, Andrew put up an excellent post responding to a comment from Michael Morse and explaining what we mean when we talk about the inherent corruption of the public sector, particularly with respect to unionization:

When someone regularly deals on a firsthand basis with people in need of real help — and in the case of public safety workers, people who are in real danger — it is natural to prioritize the needs of those making or answering calls for help ahead of the monitions raised by people not immediate in distress, who are asking for relief from the strains they feel are being created by publicly-imposed obligations. But just like self-interest is not inherently bad, but leads to problems when pressed too far, so too can the impulse to help those whom we have most direct contacts with create problems and confusion, when effects of our actions on people outside of our personal interactions are too severely discounted. No human being is immune to this, which means no human system is immune to this.

The next day, Michael made a relevant appearance in a Bob Kerr column titled, “It keeps happening because no one tries to stop it“:

… among the shooting victims and stabbing victims, those injured in traffic accidents and those hurt in fires, are the drunks. There will always be the drunks because, says Morse, they are a problem that is tolerated rather than dealt with. There have been a few initiatives, some trying to shift the focus from the physical to the psychological. But they haven’t gotten anywhere. The drunks keep falling and the city has to keep picking them up.
“They’re survivors,” says Morse. “I don’t get angry. They’re using the tools at their disposal. They get to eat and get cleaned up at the hospital. If they’re a little too ripe, they get new clothes.”

There will always be drunks, but I’m not sure one can blame society for not “dealing with” their problems. Indeed, it’s not unlikely that public efforts to assist alcoholics reinforce the thinking and bad impulses that draws them to the bottle in the first place. (Rephrasing it from language of personal decisions and responsibility to language of psychological disease doesn’t gain us any ground, here.)
Being familiar with Bob Kerr, I’m comfortable inferring that his means of dealing with alcoholics problems would take some form of government action to alleviate “root causes.” If they’ve got some diagnosable medical issue (such as depression), he’d have the government provide them with treatment and medicine. If they’re lacking for material comforts, he’d have the government supply them. If they’re chronically unemployed, he’d have the government employ them, train them, and give them subsidies while waiting for them to conclude that working a whole lot harder for a little bit of income beyond the subsidies makes sense.
In other words, he’d respond using methods that have seemed to me only to prolong adolescence and cultivate dependence when applied to teenagers.
Kerr begins and ends the column lauding a woman who took time out of her life to stop and call 911 to help a particular drunk passed out on the street. Even in a libertarian construct, there is an extent to which we are obligated to deal with drunks, even if only to keep them from disrupting the lives of everybody else. If the expense isn’t too great relative to the society’s wealth, picking them and helping them home is preferable to turning them into criminals.
But the error to which we incline when we take that woman’s compassion as a model for public policy is one of hindering long-term objectives in the service of the short-term gratification that comes with feeling compassionate. We will never eliminate the problems of human society and remain human. To alleviate those problems, though, and to improve the lot of our fellows as individuals, we ought to focus less on assuring them that we will do everything we can for them and more on creating a society in which the rewards of better decisions can overcome the lure of self destruction.
That means making it less difficult for people to find ways of supporting themselves. It means getting government out of the way of both productive activities and destructive stumbles. And it means returning to a confidence in higher purpose and more profound truths than a Marxist can admit.

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Warrington Faust
Warrington Faust
10 years ago

“They’re survivors,” says Morse
Does anyone else remember when being described as a “survivor” indicated some form of luckiness? Sometime in the 80’s, it began to infer a degree of heroics. “He’s a survivor” began to indicate “He can take it”.

michael
michael
10 years ago

When I talked with Bob, the “dealing with it” I mentioned involved incarceration. Just to clarify, I don’t get angry because to do so would make for some very long days and years, over half of the calls Rescue 1 responds to are alcohol related, and half of those for chronically homeless alcoholics. I don’t condone the behavior, and have done all I can to put a stop to it. I’ve written extensively about the problem, a few OP/EDs and articles have been publlshed, but the “problem” is continuously shifted from a legal one, public intoxication and such, to a medical one, and the lawbreakers/patients treated and released from ER’s hundreds of times every year.

Dan
Dan
10 years ago

As much as I fear the inevitable statist response to this realization, a fundamental stumbling block in “dealing with” the problem is that most in our society still don’t understand the true nature of addiction. An individual initially chooses to begin using drugs (alcohol falls in this category), but as use continues, the drug makes physical changes to the individual’s brain and the behavior becomes more and more compulsory, to the point where it isn’t a meaningful choice anymore. In other words, it becomes a physical medical problem with behavioral symptoms.
The only true potential solution is medical treatment, ironically in the form of prescription drugs capable of countering the long-term chemical changes in the brain that drive people to keep using even as their lives crumble. Some of these treatments have been successful in easing individuals off of alcohol, heroin, and painkiller addiction, but the treatments are still in their early stages. Until these technologies are further developed, this is all essentially a waiting game as ultra-expensive rehab can only really mitigate the damage as the doctors and cottage industries get rich. All the progressive coddling in the world won’t solve it, and needless to say that arresting and locking up alcoholics and drug addicts (the conservative “solution”) is the worst possible collective action that can be taken, morally and financially.
My approach, and the approach some cities have been having “success” with, is along the lines of self-imposed quarantine:
thechart.blogs.cnn.com/2011/05/06/where-alcoholics-can-drink-themselves-to-death/
We don’t currently know how to help these people, but we can at least incentivize them against destroying everything around them for the time being by giving them a warm, safe place where they can drink or use themselves to death.

michael
michael
10 years ago

“We will never eliminate the problems of human society and remain human. To alleviate those problems, though, and to improve the lot of our fellows as individuals, we ought to focus less on assuring them that we will do everything we can for them and more on creating a society in which the rewards of better decisions can overcome the lure of self destruction.”
More than one person has asked me why I as a union member and more often than not, supporter subject myself to the torture that comes with participating in this blog.
Andrew’s original post was excellent, and the above quote an addition to the excellence, and Justin’s prior observation concerning an essay I wrote highlighting the misery I encounter on a daily basis was accurate and thought provoking, the reasons are clear.
The good a man does, or writes, sticks with me, the evil oft interred with their bones, or quickly forgotten.
And as a bonus I get to paraphrase Shakespeare now and then and you people get it.

michael
michael
10 years ago

Wow, when I have something nice to say, nobody else has anything at all to say.

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