Passing the Buck

Earlier this week I was pondering the inevitable totalitarian turn of the social welfare state – wherein Big Gulps get banned, no smoking in public, etc. – and the way that welfare programs turn into pathological dependency-propagating social viruses.

Once you’ve got the state taking care of people, and giving them incentives for poor behavior by insulating them from the natural consequences of that behavior, your society ends up with a lot more poor behavior that needs ever-more money to attempt to ameliorate the consequences. Then you get to the point where the bureaucrats in charge have to do something to keep costs down, and those solutions tend to be of the micromanaging and/or inhumane variety.

The root of the problem always comes back to passing the buck to someplace it doesn’t belong.

For instance, that story about the new mom who abandoned her husband when he refused to give up his son. The Armenian state allows parents to pass the buck on their duty to care for their offspring, so this kid’s entire maternal family decided that since he wasn’t perfect, they would just get rid of him, and since Dad wasn’t on board with this plan, they’d get rid of him, too.

The same phenomenon is at work with single mothers in Western nations. The state allows women to pass the buck on making sure their children are provided for, and as a result you end up with babymommas saying “Somebody has to pay for these kids!” Yeah – and that somebody is Mom, who decided to get herself knocked up multiple times by multiple men without making sure to have provision lined up in advance. But she thinks it’ll be okay, because the welfare state assures women that they’re not really responsible for their decisions – right up until CPS takes the kids away for abuse or neglect and puts them into foster care, that is.

The public school system works the same way. The education buck ought to stop with the parents, but the state has decided that actually, it will be the government’s responsibility to “educate” all the children in taxpayer-funded daycare centers. And so, predictably, you get a school system that fails the vulnerable and burns out the good teachers.

Every time you pass the buck to somebody else, you open the door to “your help is hurting” and invite it to come in and stay – because when you make the consequences of failure less severe, you end up encouraging people to fail. Success is hard work, after all. Even the “privileged” kids who partake in their parents’ success without earning it themselves can trace that success back to some work that somebody did, and then a lot of maintenance work by the rest of the family to keep that ball rolling. Lotto winners and irresponsible wealthy kids tend to find out that luck is no substitute for successful habits, because eventually the money runs out!

If you insulate people from feeling the bite of failure, they’ll keep failing, because failure is easier than success. This is where the “heartless conservative” meme comes from, I think. People are social and we want to help each other; and Western societies are obsessed with eliminating as much suffering as possible. This is not necessarily a bad thing; charity is a virtue. The problem comes when pampered moderns think that they can use government to guarantee that everyone will be cared for and all problems caused by fallen humanity can be fixed if only you throw enough money at them.

That never works. We have welfare programs on top of welfare programs, and people are still “falling through the cracks” – government “charity” is not a guarantee that no child will ever go hungry because his parents are addicts and misusing food stamps, for example. But because people want to make sure that children aren’t “punished” because of their parents’ inability to function as responsible adults, they end up simply enabling those very same failing parents to continue to fail. And unfortunately, doing charity “right” – so that you don’t enable failure and abuse – is about more than giving money, or giving things. 

I have my own anecdote to relate. A young woman I know was telling me about a charity that packs food for children in the local school who are on the “free or reduced lunches” welfare plan, to tide them over long weekends and such. So, not only is there welfare plan on top of welfare plan through the government for these kids, but private individuals are going above and beyond that to make absolutely sure! that these children won’t go hungry. A noble goal indeed – in a wealthy society like ours, we certainly have enough resources to make sure kids don’t go hungry. Getting the proper resources to where they’re needed without diversion, though, that’s the hard part.

What is this particular charity teaching those kids? That somebody else is always going to be there to give them handouts. The food in the packs is, of course, highly processed sugar-filled shelf-stable cr*p that those charitable moms would probably never feed their own kids on a regular basis. And what’s going on in those homes? Why are these children’s parents unable to feed them when the state is already providing a hefty chunk of nutrition for free that most other parents have to provide for their own kids out of their own pockets? Who knows! Just send the kiddies home with some popular kid-approved packaged food so they don’t go hungry while government school daycare isn’t in session. It’s not like it’s the charity’s concern if those kids end up with behavioral problems and obesity due to a terrible diet and nobody ever teaching them how to cook or that YES they MUST eat their vegetables. Just as long as they’re not hungry. But if you suggest that maybe this handout is a bit misguided, what response will you get? “It’s not fair to punish the children.” Well, no, it’s not the bastard children’s fault their single mothers are failing parents, but you’re not doing any long-term good for those families, either.

What would real, helpful-not-enabling charity look like? Well, for one thing, it would probably involve teaching the kids how to make age-appropriate food for themselves and sending them home with a couple jars of peanut butter, jelly, and a loaf of bread, for one thing. Or the charitable women going to the homes of the children and bringing a healthy meal – or cooking it there. That would be kind of embarrassing for the adults, though, wouldn’t it? In a way that having a food-stamp card and a free lunch at school isn’t. (Just imagine, now, what it would be like for the government to institute such a welfare plan. Pass the buck from the individual to the collective; arrive at totalitarian micromanaging state with a commissar in every home.)

The arrogant entitlement of welfare-dependents who pretend to be “victims of society” rather than victims of their own poor choices is well known. But that’s exactly what you get when you have a faceless government-run social welfare “charity” handing out things to people who are failing: the ability for adults to pass the buck on their own responsibilities and pretend that they’re doing just fine and they don’t need any instruction on how to fix their lives.

But dispensing with government-run welfare and going to a personal responsibility model doesn’t mean that people will be starving in the streets. There’s a lot of charitable dollars out there to make sure that material needs are met. Just take a look at the response to the father and his Down’s Syndrome son – even though he made some mistakes, obviously, in properly vetting his wife and her family, not to mention the whole Armenia thing. (What in the world makes somebody think it’s a good idea to move from New Zealand to Armenia?) The outpouring of charity required only that he ask for help. Then he got it, and far more abundantly than he had expected.

People like to help each other. But when they pass the buck for helping each other to the government, not only does the help invariably start hurting (a fault which can plague private charity as well), but the goal of making sure that everyone who needs help is cared for is never actually reached. Changing welfare rules or instituting standardized tests in school will never solve the problems, because the problem isn’t that the government systems are not quite optimized properly – the problem is passing the buck in the first place. 

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About pancakeloach

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