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The Perennial Problem of Philanthropy 2

Does not wanting to pay mean you don't care?

By Will Offensicht  |  November 30, 2011

A year ago we pointed out the difficulty in managing poverty in the Western world: poverty always seems to increase by the government's measure no matter how much money we spend.

Recent events have made it more urgent to figure out what to do about poverty, or even just the fear of possible poverty - the European financial crisis has led to riots in London, Greece, France, and Spain.  It's time to revisit this issue and expand the discussion into a series.

People who've been receiving money from their governments without working for it think of the money as some sort of divine right.  They always want more, but taxpayers don't want to pay any more.  The question the European rioters and the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) throngs are asking is:

Are wealth, prosperity, and high living standards a matter of luck and pluck - that is to say, due mostly individual effort by the people involved?  Or have greedy, powerful people gamed the system so that the hard-working many will never get anywhere no matter what they do?

That question leaped out at me as I followed a blog discussion:

A conservative trying to be sure he'd understood a liberal:

You believe Republicans think just because they alleviate suffering in their immediate (usually better-than-average) surroundings, they've done their piece. They don't care as much about a host of other people... just because they can't see them... They also condition their charity on having too much themselves and not minding giving some away.

Liberals, on the other hand, believe that charity should be extended to all that need it, regardless of whether they walk down the particular street those people live in.  Liberals believe organizing charity makes for more fair distribution, and are prepared to pay for it (through taxes) regardless of whether they have the extra money or not.

These bloggers are stating the welfare problem as it's generally discussed today - how much should the well-off be taxed to support the poor?  How much should each poor person receive?  How much should today's workers pay towards the pensions of those who retired before them?

The Peter Pan School of History

History shows us how the welfare question is always answered when it's asked in that way.  Henry Randall sent a copy of his Life of Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Macaulay, a British author and Member of Parliament.  Part of Lord Macaulay's reply of May 23, 1857, was printed in American Heritage, February 1974, p 104:

Dear Sir,

... I have long been convinced that institutions purely democratic must, sooner or later, destroy liberty, or civilization, or both.  In Europe, where the population is dense, the effect of such institutions would be almost instantaneous.

What happened lately in France is an example.  In 1848 [after the French revolution that finally ended the Orleans monarchy - ed] a pure democracy was established there.  During a short time there was reason to expect a general spoliation, a national bankruptcy, a new partition of the soil, a maximum of prices, a ruinous load of taxation laid on the rich for the purpose of supporting the poor in idleness.

Such a system would, in twenty years, have made France as poor and barbarous as the France of the Carloviangians.  Happily, the danger was averted; and now there is a despotism [under Napoleon III - ed], a silent tribune, an enslaved press.  Liberty is gone, but civilization has been saved[emphasis added]

Lord Macaulay pointed out that all of the formerly downtrodden French poor wanted immediate access to the good life as soon as the aristocracy was overthrown.  The resulting welfare system and taxes to support it destroyed industry in France.  The economic situation became so bad that Napoleon III was able to take supreme power, just as the economic unpleasantness in Germany after World War II made it possible for Hitler to assume supreme power.

In Lord Macaulay's view, basing welfare and its necessary taxation on purely democratic impulses would eventually destroy society.  He would regard the European and OWS riots as a sign that collapse was nigh.  As Peter Pan put it, "This has all happened before and it will all happen again."

Welfare Wars

Nobody truly believes people ought to be left to starve in the streets, but the devil is in the details.  Our present system creates two classes of people:

  1. Welfare recipients who're profoundly ungrateful for what they receive from the government.  They are united in their desire to get more.  London students rioted at the prospect at having to pay more for college tuition; OWS participants not only want free tuition, they also want guaranteed high-paying jobs.  They end up despising the taxpayers who support them as suckers, and they kind of have a point.
  2. Taxpayers who are deeply convinced that welfare is far too generous.  They end up detesting those chiseling welfare folks who'd rather do drugs at public expense than work - and they, too, kind of have a point.

The widespread perception that the welfare system is loaded with cheats was illustrated during a recent Republican Presidential Debate:

Texas Rep. Ron Paul, a doctor, was asked a hypothetical question by CNN host Wolf Blitzer about how society should respond if a healthy 30-year-old man who decided against buying health insurance suddenly goes into a coma and requires intensive care for six months. Paul--a fierce limited-government advocate-- said it shouldn't be the government's responsibility. "That's what freedom is all about, taking your own risks," Paul said and was drowned out by audience applause as he added, "this whole idea that you have to prepare to take care of everybody …"

"Are you saying that society should just let him die?" Blitzer pressed Paul. And that's when the audience got involved.

Several loud cheers of "yeah!" followed by laughter could be heard in the Expo Hall at the Florida State Fairgrounds in response to Blitzer's question.  [emphasis added]

The mainstream media reacted in gleeful mock-horror at this confirmation of what they've always believed about callous, bloodthirsty Rethuglicans.

Asking the Wrong Question

As asked today, the welfare question has become, "How high do we have to raise taxes to get enough money to give the poor whatever the government decides they ought to have?"  Anybody who objects to the implied taxes is callous, heartless, or worse as far as the mainstream media are concerned.

Similarly, the health care question has become, "How do we find the money to pay for whatever health care procedure any doctor decides any person ought to have?"  As we've explored before, this is not physically possible because there's no limit to how much medical care any society can consume; there is always one more test, one more drug, or one more day on total life-support.

The Republican audience's laughter at the prospect of someone dying because they'd chosen not to buy health insurance shows how a major segment of the population feels about these issues.  Having that many people even think about letting others die is obviously grotesquely unhealthy for society; do we want to live in a world where people cheer the death of the poor?  Yet it's unreasonable to expect people not to feel relief at the demise of a burden that they never desired nor accepted yet which was placed on them by the force of government power.

The next article in this series re-frames the welfare issue by stating a different goal.  As with the game Jeopardy, once the solution to the welfare situation is known, the correct question becomes pretty obvious.