I was reading a Nero Wolfe book the other day and there is a man we’re obviously supposed to dislike going on about how it’s stupid to try to feed all the hungry in the world. It puzzled me how this could be even disputed, much less a bad opinion. Given the different kleptocratic kakistocracies around the world, trying to feed all the poor is in fact to support dictators and evil men. Trying to feed individual, targeted poor is different, but then you can’t feed “all the poor in the world.” Of course, this was a time when the power of governmental organization and “scientific governance” were considered forces for good. (This man is also referred to as a Nazi, even though he’s clearly against all forms of socialism, national and otherwise. Never mind, Rex Stout is dead and his time is not our time. Perhaps he was referring to someone who actually existed and there was stuff about this man I can’t now know.)
My grandmother, who was normally very shrewd had a blind spot a mile wide. When I was little, we got door-to-door beggars. (One would like to believe that was stopped by greater prosperity and better programs to help the poor. One would also like to believe that pigs can fly. Actually downtown in the city has as many beggars as ever, but the crime rate is so much higher that anyone begging door to door is likely to starve. People don’t open the door to strangers, anymore.) Grandma had real trouble not giving to beggars. Mind you, she rarely gave them money (she rarely had cash money on hand, other than needed to run the house.) But she’d give them sandwiches, eggs, bread, lengths of fabric.
This drove my mother nuts. I even understand why, since at the time in Portugal there was an (unofficial) beggars guild and families of hereditary beggars, many of whom mutilated their own children to make them deformed/blind so they could beg.
When we all lived in the same house, more or less (well, mom and dad’s home was a shotgun apartment built out of what used to warehouses along the east side of the house) mom would follow my grandmother to the door when the bell rang “to act as her spine” if the pitch was obviously stupid/false. Though it will tell you the sort of household I grew up in when you consider that both women agreed you should too give a generous amount to the guy who told the most ingenious, if obviously false story – and also to the guy who could not lie and therefore begged with “Please give me something, for neither my mother nor my father are blind.” Mom and grandma spent the morning giggling and dissecting his pitch. “Maybe he means since his parents aren’t blind they see how ugly he is and have cast him out.” And then people think I’m strange…
Sometime a few days ago, I was reading a book about dinosaurs and it referred to how a dinosaur “probably earned his living.”
Yes, there is a point to all of this.
The other day in this blog, a commenter asked me about the Gods of The Copybook Headings by Rudyard Kipling.
These are supposed to be the lessons of the fables in copybooks, and you write them at the top of the copy, in your fairest hand, to show you got it. (I will note I was raised on Aesop’s fables.)
And they are – yes, all of them – true even those I wish weren’t. Anyway, the Copybook headings are a great way of getting a spine when faced with reasonable begging pitches.
How reasonable? Well, pitches about feeding all the hungry in the world. Who wouldn’t want to do that. As someone who did have times of hunger now and then (which is not the same as times of appetite) I very much would like it if it were possible for us to feed, clothe, house everyone in the world – if that were the base level to work from. It’s not possible. It will never be possible no matter how much our science advances. The flaw is not in our science but in ourselves.
Someone at the panel on transhumanism spoke out against extending life because “we already don’t have enough food to feed everyone.” I couldn’t beat that one down, of course, because it went into politics and policy, into the governments people choose, into how redistribution is always redistribution of famine. I couldn’t go into it because it had nothing to do with technology of life extension. It had to do with Old Adam. Or perhaps Old Cain.
There is no such a thing as a lack of food in the world. And when there is in a particular region, at a particular time, it is usually the result of a truly craptastic government. Anyone who looks at the two Koreas can’t but conclude that the fault is not with lack of food but with a government so constituted that it makes it impossible for people to “earn a living.” (Anyone but our president, who, having been thoroughly indoctrinated in Marxism likely thinks that SK steals from NK.) Anyone who knows the history of Rhodesia can’t but realize that Zimbabwe is poor because its government chooses not to let its people earn a living.
In fact, it is normally the governments who ignore the gods of the copybook headings and decide everyone must eat, whether they work or not, who bring that sort of ruin and famine to their people.
There is a reason for this. It is fashionable in the US to talk about people who are on welfare and don’t work. That is not precisely true. Yes, there are people on welfare who neither have a regular job nor look for one. But what might not be understood is that these people are working: they are navigating the labyrinthine bureaucracy and making sure they meet all the guidelines to keep the money flowing. That is work. It is just not productive work. It is a work that is the result of perverse incentives. These people have become convinced that’s the only thing they can do to survive – so they do it. And the government functionaries who derive power from their “service” want as many of them as possible under their sway. So they teach more people how to work at getting money for “free”. And they put more barriers in the way of those ever wanting to leave that condition.
Then there is minimum income. We do have the ability to give every adult a certain minimum income, I think. Or at least we did before we ran the presses at melting speed. Heinlein in his Fabian socialist days envisioned this as a way to get the economy going. If every adult has some tiny income, enough to live on if you have three roommates and live on Ramen noodles – say 10k a year – then everything you make above that is in a way disposable. Not only is there no need, but there is more disposable income to stimulate the economy. (To understand the appeal of this to Heinlein you have to understand that his most frequent contention with his sister was that they only had a pillow between the two of them. It’s poverty we now can’t begin to imagine.) Also, one presumes, since breathing and over eighteen was the criteria, we might spend less on that that on our current welfare system.
And maybe it would be. Except we hit up on the snag of human nature. A wise man said “The poor, you shall always have” and He seems likely to be right. First of all, poverty is relative. When that man walked in Galilee being poor was usually a fatal condition. You simply didn’t make enough to eat, or to keep off the cold. You might not be able to reproduce because you couldn’t support children. It was a condition of terminal failure. Unless you somehow clawed up, you’d die of it.
Nowadays, our poor are likely to live in air conditioned houses. They often – if they’re on assistance particularly – have more children than the very wealthy, and the children have toys and clothes.
Nothing wrong with that, but they’re still considered “poor” – they’re poor in relation to people like me, who are not on assistance, and who live in larger houses and own more stuff and/or who can buy a book just because. Just like I’m poor in relation to those people who can afford to take European vacations or even who own a mountain cabin to hole up and write in. (Okay, most people don’t write in mountain cabins. I don’t know why not.)
The point is that humans are not angels. This is both good and bad. We’re built on a frame of the great apes, and the great apes are social creatures. This means they’re also creatures of status. What we consider poor is a matter of relative status, which means it keeps changing. If our government doesn’t succeed in Zimbabweing us and we end up in a future where houses clean themselves, where you can have anything you can dream up and order t-d printed, there will still be the “poor”. They might be those who lack the imagination to have their… replicator create really nifty things, but they’ll still be poor. They’ll lack status.
The good and bad of the status seeking in humans is envy. Good? How can envy be good? Envy is good when it makes you want what the others have, and instead of this leading to you organizing the community to steal it from them or – alternately – leading a communist revolution, it makes you work harder to “get there”. Many an Horatio Alger worked so hard they forgot what they were working for and when they got there they couldn’t enjoy it. BUT many more made it and enjoyed it, and all of them contributed to the wealth of society in general and building that.
There are, however, a group of humans with very low status envy. Possibly a very large group. In the seventies, Denver experimented with a minimum guaranteed income scheme. So did other places. The results were always the same. No matter how low you set that income – even if it’s at a level like 10k where you really have to make a crazy effort to survive on it – the majority of people will live on it and stop trying to work or find work.
This might be an evolutionary trait. The idiot hunter who went off and felled mammoth after mammoth was not only wasting food because his tribe of fifteen could barely eat a mammoth before it spoiled, much less ten – he was also depleting the mammoth herd and ensuring future starvation for his people.
So, the survival trait we inherit is “get enough to live on with minimal work, and don’t strive for more.”
Some of us are broken. We were given both envy and high principles. We can’t even contemplate bringing others down to level things, but instead we work madly to increase our status. (No, it’s not how I think about it, but it’s probably what’s going on in the back of the monkey brain.) Most of humanity however is functional. Give them enough to eat, and a place to live, and no matter how unvaried the diet and how small/terrible the place, most people will stay put.
“But Sarah,” you say “Where are the gods of the copybook headings? Even you say that it’s possible, if we arranged it that way, to feed most people so they don’t need to work. Why shouldn’t we?”
We shouldn’t because the gods of the copybook headings in fire and terror return.
Government produces nothing. It doesn’t build that. It doesn’t build anything. It can’t. Government is force. It can, on threat of that force, seize enough of what someone produced to give to someone else. Even when it “builds” roads or power plants, it does so with confiscated wealth and at the expense of what the owners might have done with that wealth. (They wouldn’t have? How do you know? Remember status. Throughout history humans have funded research – often in useless stuff – and paid for innovation. How do you know left to its own devices private capital wouldn’t have created neighbordhood-sized nuclear plants? Or who knows what? The one thing we know is that nothing done by government has ever come in on time or under budget.)
When governments start thinking in terms of “feeding the hungry” which in our day becomes “giving things to the continuously redefined poor” what it is actually doing is reducing the number of people working in the productive sector. Between the bureaucrats working to redistribute wealth and the people working to keep getting the handouts, a huge contingent of people is removed from the productive sector.
When that number reaches the point where the productive sector can’t keep up, a crash ensues. An Earth-shaking Kaboom, you might say. The “you” in the poem is collective in this case. “You” individual might survive for a time, without working, given a very wealthy society. But no society can remain wealthy when it doesn’t “work” – ie. When it produces nothing. And eventually the gods of the copybook headings, in fire and terror return.
In the Carboniferous Epoch we were promised abundance for all,
By robbing selected Peter to pay for collective Paul;
But, though we had plenty of money, there was nothing our money could buy,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: “If you don’t work you die.”
UPDATE: Welcome Instapundit Readers, and thank you Glenn Reynolds for the link!