Monday, October 3, 2016

Welfare queens and their defenders

Dear Hannah,

If the editors of The Atlantic ever saw Lost, they might remember Sawyer the con-man explaining his dad's philosophy of stealing.  It runs, in short, that no matter who you are or what you do for a living, you're either taking or giving too much -- but you're never getting what you deserve.  The whole world is alternating between stealing or being stolen from.  The professional thief and the saint are separated from the rest of us only in name.  The difference between the thief and the majority is only a matter of degree.  In church they call this the 80/20 rule: 20% of them do all the work, and 80% of them sit on their asses.



This, in essence, is the argument about welfare.  The Atlantic argues that the welfare queen is a myth, and that the people getting welfare are overwhelmingly people who need it.  And on the other hand we have much of the taxpaying public, who may not even be against the idea of welfare, but are interested in knowing whether the people who get it actually deserve it.  The left, forgetting that the taxpayer is ultimately the best judge of whether he's getting fleeced, says how dare we question whether anyone down on his luck deserves it.  The right, with a bayonet in its face, asks whether luck, in many cases, has anything to do with it.

The left's refusal to admit an unfair welfare expenditure is really the heart of the issue, as if there was never anyone who got taxpayer funding who didn't deserve it.  The truth is that even without the extravagance of the welfare queen we know it happens frequently.  Anyone who knows anything about hiring in Washington State knows that many people only schedule interviews so they can keep collecting unemployment.  Anyone who's had any experience in the grocery business has seen people buying lobsters on food stamps.  And anyone who's worked with the homeless in downtown Seattle knows that even the speed freaks get government checks -- which are immediately spent on their speed.  Whether these are the majority of instances is beside the point.  The point is that whoever is running things is more concerned about the feelings of the "unfortunate" than they are about the property of the virtuous.

But the truth is, unless you want to end up on the street, you have to be a little skeptical with how you spend cash.  For instance, the implication in the hiring of any manager is that the people beneath him can't be trusted to do the job without supervision and rewards and the threat of punishment; and that even our allies, the people we greet every day as we enter the office, could possibly ruin our chance at feeding our families.  The fact that we treat people at work this way but refuse to treat meth-heads the same is more than a failure of equality.  It's a failure of ethics and intelligence.  It says that we can only question the people we build things with, and never supervise the people who only take things from us.

The issue goes much deeper than business and right into biology.  Whether you believe we evolved from goo or were created by God, our existence as biological beings is predicated upon an attempt to get as much of what we want or need with the least expenditure of effort.  In everything we call this principle efficiency.   If it was any other way -- say for instance that any being in the world decided to behave as though efficiency were irrelevant, its reserves would drain and its energy would fail, and as it continued spending recklessly it would eventually die.  That's why every living thing is guided by the opposite principle.  Acquire, conserve, continue to live.  Economics, in cash or calories, is the foundation of all survival.

Human beings are ultimately founded upon this law of efficiency; and although many of us are capable of rising above it, for important causes for short periods of time, we realize its handiwork in everything we do.  Why buy the cow, when you can get the milk for free? runs into watercooler chats, which runs into people arguing about whether Christians have to pay a tithe.  All of it, from the way we deal with women to the way we deal with bosses to the way we deal with gods and governments, is influenced by our need for personal efficiency; and if we were to say the influence was wrong, we would be equally wrong as if we said it was always right.  What's important isn't that we kill ourselves in fits of altruism and say that self-interest is wrong.  What's important is that we're aware of the temptations of self-interest, and that nobody at any point is exempt from the temptation of getting something for nothing.  This skepticism is the foundation of good business and good government.  And if we have welfare, it ought also to be the foundation of a sensible welfare program.

In other words, the people at The Atlantic have simply forgotten that they're people.  And forgetting that humans are humans, they've eventually ceased to be humane -- not even toward the "downcast" they were ostensibly trying to help, but toward the majority which is actually responsible for helping. 

Your father,
-J

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