Misguided Compassion

I’m going to bounce off of this comment on Alpha is Assumed, which is kind of at a tangent to the point of the original post. What I’d like to examine is the position that everyone is entitled to food, clothing, and shelter. (Clothing, for the purposes of this analysis, will be considered a type of shelter, as there are numerous places around the world where the climate is salubrious enough that the natives don’t actually wear any clothing except for decorative purposes.) Also, I’m going to assume that the commenter in question means that everyone is entitled to be given food and shelter from others, regardless of whether the individual in question has done anything to “earn” it, other than merely existing.

This is a highly compassionate stance. I firmly believe that those who hold it are trying to Do The Right Thing. However, “the path to Hell is paved with good intentions” is not a proverb for nothing. Let us examine why.

First off, let’s acknowledge that hunger and exposure are Really Bad Things. They kill people, after all, and are particularly painful even if they aren’t killing you yet. Humans are social creatures; it’s perfectly understandable that we don’t want to see anyone we care about – even theoretically care about, as in “caring for all of humanity in the abstract,” – go hungry or cold. Hunger and cold suck. But what should we do about it?

Well, let’s look at animals in general. What do animals spend all day doing? Well, adjusting for species variations, they spend most of their lives acquiring food and shelter. (And sex, but we’re not gonna go there.) The purpose of existence, materialistically speaking, is to perform whatever activities are required so that your existence may continue. Some animals need less shelter than others – humans, with our tendency to adapt outside of the tropical ranges where we don’t particularly need much shelter ourselves, tend to need more than most due to our expanded habitat. But basically, the answer to “What should you do all day?” if you’re a living organism, is “Find food and shelter.” When animals are successful at meeting these first two needs, then they start adding on extras like leisure time. And if you’re a rational animal like humans, you take any surplus and use the extra time you don’t need to spend hunting for food or building shelter to create things like art and culture and technological advancements that make life in the First World a lot cushier and more forgiving than life as a nomadic tropical hunter-gatherer tribe.

In fact, in the First World, we have so much surplus that we’ve specialized “acquiring food and shelter” to the point that people like Lord Highbrow forget that that’s what people are supposed to be doing every day. The artist whose paintings sell like hotcakes might be producing a luxury item, and he might be pursuing self-actualization or a lifelong dream, but when it really comes down to it, his work is merely a specialized form of providing himself food and shelter. That his acquiring of food and shelter is mediated through currency and the fact that modern society is ridiculously, unimaginably wealthy and awash in surplus (compared to subsistence a la hunter-gatherers) doesn’t change the fact that what he does all day is “provide himself with food and shelter” by producing something that others value. In addition to material benefits, there’s also a satisfaction and pride in being able to provide for oneself by producing work that others acknowledge as valued!

Now let’s look at the two classes of animal that are, in fact, entitled to food and shelter out of the surplus of others: children and house pets. Children are entitled to food and shelter from their parents: nobody expects parents to give their eighteen-year-old an itemized bill for the past eighteen years and nine months of their lives. And if a parent fails to provide food and shelter for the child, that’s reason for society to swoop down and provide the kid with food and shelter from unrelated adults instead. Children are not required to work for their food and shelter all by themselves; they are entitled to it. Pets are the same; who hasn’t seen those mildly disturbing bumper stickers about how “I love my dog as much as you love your kid”? The animal is not expected to do much of anything to “earn” its keep – it is entitled to food and shelter from its owners simply because it exists. However, even in these two cases, there are expectations placed upon the recipients. In return for food and shelter from parents, kids are expected to grow up and become valued members of society; pets offer their owners emotional benefits. The entitlements of children are investments in the future; even housepets offer their owners at least enjoyment in return for their upkeep. (I have fish. They’re not very companionable, but I do enjoy them.)

Now here’s the question: can we treat all human beings like children and house pets? That is, give them food and shelter as an entitlement? Well, no – where is the surplus going to come from? Who will fill the role of “parent” or “owner” and provide the surplus? Sure, we have a lot of surplus in the First World, but most of the people who built up our modern society didn’t have much of a safety net, and they certainly didn’t expect anyone to give them food and shelter as an entitlement. Remember Jamestown and Plymouth? “If you don’t work, you don’t eat” saved them. When shelter and food were an entitlement, the colonies starved. What will happen, if everyone is treated like a young child or a pet, and spends all day in play rather than in producing value? Somebody’s got to produce the food and shelter, wresting it by the sweat of their brow from nature itself.

Nature. Is. Not. Compassionate. Reality bites.

But we do have a lot of surplus. And we can provide a lot of people with food and shelter, can’t we? Doesn’t that mean we should?

Maybe.

Like children, the infirm – whether due to age or accident or disease – those, we can entitle to food and shelter. Not because they “deserve” it, but because we are human. We have the surplus, so we don’t have to set Grandma on an ice floe because the tribe can’t afford to feed a mouth that can no longer help support the tribe. We sacrifice the surplus of our own labor to provide for the needs of helpless others because we are human. (No-kill animal shelters, anyone?)

But what happens when you treat able-bodied (and able-minded) adult humans as if they were helpless? Some people lean on welfare out of necessity, just to pick themselves up after disaster strikes. There are inspiring stories – and Lord Highbrow, by his own testimony, is one who earns his own food and shelter through great efforts of his own.

But not all adult humans are like that.

A great many, in fact, will take the offered entitlement of food and shelter… but then never produce any surplus value of their own. They won’t “pay it forward.” Look in the shadows of every modern welfare state – and you’ll find an underclass of welfare dependents. People who for generations have been fed and housed by society to the point where they no longer know how to provide for themselves, even if they were inclined to do so. And a significant number of those, lacking any purpose in life, engage in behaviors which actually cost society a great deal. Criminality in the welfare ghetto is not due to poverty – they have food and shelter: their material needs are met. But they don’t understand where it comes from, or how to make it themselves, and they’ve been told for generations that they deserve food and shelter just for existing, so they fill their empty days with crass entertainment and drugs and violence and use the mantle of “poverty” to claim victimhood for themselves, gazing enviously at the wealthy who have nicer things than they do.

There are children born into those cultures of dependence who will never escape, and never realize their full potential as productive human beings. If that doesn’t make you want to cry as much as tales of starving children in Africa tug on your heartstrings, there’s something wrong with you.

Speaking of food and Africa, let’s take a look at an example of misguided compassion at work. Read the whole thing, including the next article! But for those without time for a rabbit-trail wander through the internet, I’ll pull out one example the particularly struck me. A charitable group decided to provide free eggs to a village in Africa. (No doubt they believed they were helping “solve hunger worldwide” or something to that effect.) However, the end result of their providing that entitlement? The local egg farmer sold all his chickens and went out of business, of course. Instead of the village being able to produce its own food, they were dependent upon the largess of people who lived elsewhere – and eventually that largess was reallocated to some other place, leaving the village without. Great job breaking it, heroes.

This is the problem: yes, it would be nice if everyone possessed the very basic material needs. It would be nice if they were easy to acquire; they’re not. In addition – man does not live by bread alone. From the second article in the series:

Well, people in the third world who are poor, that’s not the only problem they have. Maybe there’s a sense that if we get them to where they’re not poor anymore then everything’s fine, but is everything fine for us? America isn’t poor, but does that mean we’re fine? No. It just means that once that basic threshold of sustenance income is reached, a whole bunch of other problems manifest themselves. 

There are those who need charity, who need an entitlement to food and shelter, because for whatever reason they cannot provide it for themselves. In those cases, it is indeed good for others to provide. But every time the basic material need of food and shelter is offered as an entitlement, material want is replaced by emotional, spiritual, suffering. HUMANS AREN’T DOGS. Adult humans aren’t pets, or children, to be happy with our every need provided for by others. Our needs are not simply material; we need to feel that we are capable of supporting ourselves, that we are valuable in others’ eyes, that we are making a difference. The dreamers, the visionaries, the artists – they will be satisfied with patrons providing for their physical needs, because in return they offer works of emotional value. What of the rest? Robbed of the need to “earn their keep,” they’ve been stripped of purpose. No one can live like that, so they find replacement purposes for living. Behold the consequences, in every ghetto across America and Europe, where schoolchildren drop out, join gangs, rob and assault and murder each other, generation upon generation – and few, so few, even care, because, well, we’ve given them food and shelter, and it would be improper, judgmental, to expect anything, even good behavior, in return from them? Is that not a cruelty far greater than the fate of the Little Match Girl?

The path to Hell. It doesn’t matter much to the ones at the end how good your intentions were when you lead them gently along it. Take care that your compassion does not lead others to destruction.

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3 Responses to Misguided Compassion

  1. Martel says:

    You’ve hit some great points. To believe that somebody is entitled to the necessities of life is to foster a belief in them that other people OWE them their survival. Not only is such a sense of entitlement unlikely to stop with “necessities” (do you NEED a car, a microvave, a computer, etc.?), it divorces their survival instinct from their survival. Profoundly dehumanizing.

    Great post & thanks for the link.

    • pancakeloach says:

      Thanks! I wouldn’t miss one of your posts. 😉

      I think a lot of Compassionate People don’t see any problem with people believing that other people owe them survival – because the Compassionate People don’t want to see anyone die of hunger or exposure, so they’re willing to make everyone pay taxes to avoid it. But they don’t realize that treating able adults as children, physically disabled, mentally retarded, and/or house pets causes a lot of problems in and of itself. Maybe in some other alien species such entitlements would work, but not in humans. If it worked in humans, no welfare state would have slums or homeless people. As it is, the guarantee of food and shelter barely even works in the smallest unit possible – the family. Who hasn’t heard of the spectacularly poor choices kids of rich parents make? If entitlement regularly ruins the offspring of the best and the brightest, who have the most opportunities of anyone, what hope is there for merely average people, much less those on the left side of the bell curve?

      • Martel says:

        Great point, as was your anecdote about the African eggs.

        Another reason I opposed forced income redistribution is that in addition to corrupting the receiver, it also corrupts those who “give”. Helping out the less fortunate is virtuous (actually helping), and welfare merely passes these virtues off to the government. A few years back a heat wave killed thousands of elderly folks in France (which has an extensive social welfare system), but that would NEVER happen in Mexico (where people take it upon themselves to care for their own families and neighbors.

        Furthermore, the Bible call upon its adherents to give OUR OWN stuff the poor, not to take from somebody else to give to the poor so that we can pat ourselves on the backs.

        What happened with the African eggs was bad for them, but at least it didn’t hurt the givers, too. Forced redistribution causes just as many egg problems, but it harms the givers, too.

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