Safety is an Illusion

I’m going to weave together a few things here.

Sarah Hoyt:

I grew up in an early nineteenth century farmhouse, imperfectly adapted to the 20th. In another country. Yes, we had exposed electrical wires, massive furniture I could pull on top of myself, stuff that was dangerous stored where I could reach it. It never occurred to grandma to move the wood-chopping ax, let alone the knife drawer. In the yard, there were agricultural implements, in my grandfather’s carpentry workshop, well, everything. And I played in there all the time.

It never occurred to anyone to move things, take things away, hide things so that the world was a safe play pen for me.

Instead, they made me a world-proofed child.

Athol Kay:

Now if you’re a nice person, you probably feel that allowing the lazy and stupid to get owned by their sub-optimal planning, makes you a terrible, terrible person. If that’s the case, you’re probably also confusing the subtle, but important difference between fire extinguishers and flamethrowers. It’s not like you set them on fire.

I’m not a nice person. It’s not that I don’t feel empathy for suffering – but it’s one thing, to understand that a young child is crying because the world is hard, and another thing to never teach the child that throwing a tantrum over not getting her way is not an acceptable behavior. Parents protect children from the consequences of mistakes at young ages because if they didn’t, well, it’s pretty easy for young children to make mistakes that turn out lethal. But take that too far, and never teach kids how to deal with reality as it is, and not as kindergarten tells them it should be? That can also be lethal.

There’s a line that has to be drawn. For everyone who’s not literally mentally retarded, in the true medical sense, there’s a time when you just have to stop helping and let the fool learn from the school of experience. Or not. In Athol Kay’s gaming example (you really should read the full post!), Idiot Mage is using up resources with his idiocy that other members of the party might need.

Charity works the same way. There’s a finite amount of charity in the world, because giving charitably does not create wealth. No redistribution scheme ever does. Economic activity can create wealth, but not charitable activity. You can give away all your possessions to the poor – but if they respond by consuming the consumables and using the durables to destruction, and they go back to being poor and needy, what are you going to do then? You’ve already given all your possessions away. The stored capital is destroyed, the seed corn is consumed – and the locusts are still hungry. And now you’re working just to keep yourself fed and sheltered somehow, and whatever income stream you have is not likely to add up to the huge windfall that liquidating all your possessions produces. You can help many people – once. After that, you’re only going to be able to support so many.

You can choose to go the acetic life of poverty and service route – and if you do so out of love for God and not as a means of showing off how righteous you are, I would deeply admire that. I would also advise you to make sure that the poor you’re giving your possessions to aren’t locusts. I’d advise you to find deserving poor, that is. The kind of person who is “down on his luck” due to factors beyond his control, but has shown a propensity for long-term planning rather than short-term consumption.

The kind of poor person charity should be directed towards is the kind of poor person whose grandchildren are going to be going to Ivy League schools – or, on the other end of success, running their own plumbing business. In other words, help people who are going to take that help and turn it into success, not more failure. Christ told the rich young man to sell all he possessed, yes – and he also told the parable of the talents. The Prodigal Sons are indeed welcomed home when they repent – but God also expects people to invest their resources wisely and produce a return on them.

Giving somebody a leg up out of a hard time so that they go on to lead productive, independent lives, and influence others to do likewise, is one heck of a return. Giving tax-funded handouts to people who spend generations on welfare programs while their illiterate children form inner-city gangs, and encourage others to do likewise? Not such a good outcome. To the Christians who believe in government-run welfare, I’d like to point out that “love” means letting the Prodigal Son live with the pigs and long to eat their slop while he’s starving. Not giving him government-mandated food stamps while he continues to throw lavish parties for his friends after his inheritance runs out. If you give the Prodigal Son food stamps, he never reconciles with his father.

And that means being willing to stand by and let others suffer sometimes. When you have the ability to mitigate the consequences. The parents who muffle their children in bubblewrap and insulate them from the consequences of their choices end up producing young adults who not only spectacularly fail; they also are totally incapable of figuring out how to cope with failure. And sometimes people fail, not because they’re lazy or stupid or due to any personal shortcoming (though God knows all of us fail for those reasons sometimes), but because the storm came and all man’s best laid plans are insufficient. So even if your precious snowflake doesn’t do anything wrong, bad things still happen. Guaranteed. The world IS NOT SAFE.

So yes, we need to be charitable. But we need to be careful not to satisfy our desire to be charitable in ways that are counterproductive, like having the government subsidize flood insurance for multimillion-dollar beach houses or even modest homes built on river flood plains. We can do some things some of the time to make the world safer, but there’s always going to be crazy, and there’s always going to be evil. And as long as there’s crazy and evil, there’s going to be victims; so the right thing to do is teach people how to avoid becoming victims, and give them coping skills to handle disaster if it strikes.

That way, when some mentally unbalanced nutcase goes on a rampage, the prospective victims know how to fight back, and the survivors know how to put their lives back together as best they know how. Without blaming strangers.

Here’s a tidbit from Martel to wrap up:

Yet we’re called to face ugly realities, to understand both what we can and can’t do to change them, to learn how best to adapt to that which will not change but take whatever action we can to make it better.  There’s a word for handling what should not be in the best way possible:  heroism.

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