Our Moral Responsibility    (Nov 7, 2001)

Almost every appeal we hear for one good cause or another is couched in terms that remind us we have a “moral responsibility” to help the less fortunate.  Really?  Do we?

Yes, we do, but there's a caveat.  “Moral responsibility” loses its connection with morality when coercion enters the picture.  “Moral responsibility” cannot exist without the ability to fail to take responsibility.  Like light and darkness, neither can exist without the other.  When our behavior is coerced, when there is no choice but to do that which is “moral”, morality no longer has anything to do with the issue and “moral responsibility” all but evaporates.  This is the situation we are placed in by the welfare state: we are taxed in order that we not shirk our moral responsibilities to those less fortunate.

If that were the entire problem, it might be sufferable.  We would shrug our shoulders at the venality of our politicians and continue about our business.  Unfortunately, that's not the entire problem.  The recipients of that concern for the less fortunate cannot see the ultimate supplier of their aid; they see the taxing authority as their benefactor and they understand that they are entitled (by virtue of being less fortunate) to the aid they receive.  Because they are entitled (that's why they call such things “entitlements”) there is a reduced incentive to act to become independent.  When all charity was private (that is, not tax-supported) the poor were painfully aware that they were dependent on the kindness of strangers and, as a general rule, did what they could to escape that unpleasant situation;  that is, they found work and saved so that they would no longer have to rely on handouts (and this still happens even if not as predictably as we might wish).  Private charities, moreover, were able to granulate their effect:  they exercised individual discretion;  if an obviously able-bodied person seemed not to be making an effort to get off the dole that person could be cut off without a long, arduous investigation and mountains of paperwork designed to forestall a legal challenge.  The change from private charity to tax-supported charity created what many of us see as the fatal flaw of the welfare system:  that consecutive generations are dependent upon it.  The lack of granularity is a primary cause of this:  the government must grant citizens equal protection under the law, and this works to prevent the bureaucrat cutting off that able-bodied slacker.

Many adults today, having grown up in a world where “being on welfare” was something to be avoided until and unless absolutely necessary, cannot imagine how our current situation could have arisen and because they find the world around them so inexplicable they assign the blame for it to… themselves.  The government, after all, is working to undo that horrid situation, isn't it?

In a word… no.  That “horrid situation” did not exist in the form we see it today until government decided to act.  It is true that some people were poor before The War on Poverty was declared, but even Jesus is reported to have said “…the poor will always be with you…” so it's not exactly a new problem.

The War on Poverty defined “poor” as having an annual income below x (and I don't know what “x” originally was).  Such a definition, note, must be local to the defining authority.  There are rich people in Third World countries who would gladly become poor Americans.

With a definable underclass government may now proceed to remedy the situation with subsidies, grants, and gifts.  As the defined underclass is pushed up from the bottom, the bottom does not simply disappear.  Those who are now poorer than the ones pushed up become the new bottom.  Indeed, the poor shall always be with us; somebody has to be on the bottom just as somebody has to be on the top.

Viewed this way, it becomes clear that The War on Poverty is another war which can never be won.  Well, maybe it can't be won, but what's the alternative?  The alternative is to return a measure of granularity to the process, something we can do quite easily:  by returning to the situation of “private charity”.  We will still, under a regime of private charity, have poor people, but we will also have some assurance that they are poor because of their own choices, rather than because someone somewhere has defined “poor” to include them.


© Frank Clarke, 2001

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