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.