Chainsaw Surgery: Using the State to Help the Poor

So you want to help the poor. After gazing at pictures of homeless men living in cardboard boxes under the shadows of skyscrapers, you’ve been struck with the urge to expand the welfare state, just a little more, to even things out. Or you’ve seen pictures of sad-faced women abandoned by men and ringed with children, and want to help them out. Or – and these are always the most pitiful and heartbreaking – you see pictures of the children themselves, hungry and hollow-eyed and sleeping three to a bed.

And you want to help. You want to make it all better. And you should be applauded for your intentions. But before you start waving the magic wand of altruism around (or invoking the might of the State), it might be worth educating yourself a little on some of the complexities of poverty – just so you know what you’re getting into.

There are, in general, three types of poor people. There are those who are poor by choice, those who are poor by habit, and those who are poor by circumstances.

Poor By Choice
Many people choose to be poor – and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. A monk who has renounced all worldly goods earns virtually nothing, but cannot be considered among those ‘struck by poverty’. Giving him money will not help him out of poverty, since that is where he wants to be – he will simply give it away. Graduate students often live on a pittance, but are going for the gold of academic tenure, and so are merely investing in their future, not trapped in penury. What about medical interns? They earn almost nothing, but are they poor? Would-be actors? We can safely assume that acting is fun, since many actors do it even after they become rich, so those shooting for movie stardom cannot be considered among the sad and needy poor. The same goes for all the other wannabes in the cultural arts. If you quit your job to go audition for ‘American Idol’, it’s hard to count you as among the downtrodden.

A man who has taken Emerson’s commandment to ‘simplify’ and has quit his stressful corporate job to start an ostrich farm cannot be considered a poor person in need of help. Even if he did it to cool his ulcers, it is still his choice. A family where one parent stays home to raise the kids is ‘poorer’ than another family where both parents work – but so what? By eschewing the rat race of the dual-income family, they are voluntarily paying for time with their kids – and reducing the risk of teenage problems thereby. These are not people who need to be ‘helped’.

Poor By Habit
We can also called these the ‘controversial poor’. Among these are the man who blows his paycheck betting on the ponies, or the woman who spends more than she can afford on drink and smokes. Here we also find those with very short tempers, whose personal volatility interferes with their ability to hold down a steady job. Those who cannot navigate the perils of authority also show up here – those who quit high school because of a mean teacher, or blow interviews because they resent being judged. Women who have children with shiftless men are also poor by habit, since we can assume that they know the basic facts of life, and have chosen risky intercourse over other forms of social entertainment. This category is stuffed with those who prefer short-term gains over long-term gains – and who can stop them, or tell them they’re wrong? All decisions must balance short term and long term gains. Going to university is a good idea in many ways, but not so much if you’re on your deathbed, or if you don’t think you’re going to live past twenty, or are below average intelligence. Choosing a life of self-indulgence is a perfectly viable strategy in the short run – and so who can tell the gambler that he is fundamentally wrong for gambling? Sure he is blowing his future, but his present is verrry exciting! And even if he is wrong, how can you help him? By giving him money? Of course not – that will merely fuel his addiction. By lecturing him? Nonsense – that never works. Getting him into treatment? What if he doesn’t want to go – or even admit that he has a problem?

No, the only way to truly help those who are poor by habit is to refuse to shield them from the consequences of their decisions. A gambler facing bankruptcy will experience at the very least an interruption of his habit – and at best a life-changing catastrophe. As many drunks will tell you, you usually have to hit bottom to change. Thus any money that you give these people merely prolongs their bad habits, further ruins their health and numbs them to the consequences of their decisions. Charity towards those with bad habits is a form of self-indulgent cruelty. If your neighbour screams at her children whenever she drinks, what do you say when she comes over and asks for a bottle of whiskey? Should you be ‘generous’? Of course not! You might be frightened of saying ‘no’, but for heaven’s sake don’t pretend that it’s any form of virtue!

Charity always carries the risk of perpetuating dysfunction. Let’s say that your neighbour is a nice man who seems down on his luck and asks you to lend him a few hundred dollars so he can retrain as a typist, since his manufacturing job went to Mexico to escape the unions. What are you to do? It doesn’t seem quite right that a few hundred dollars will be enough, but he tells you that he’s getting money from other sources as well.

If you give the man the money, you are either helping him out, or hurting him. If he really wants money to retrain for a better job, perhaps it will help – but perhaps not. What if there’s just not that much demand for typists? Surely if there was such a great demand, on-the-job training would be available. Is he going to a good typing school, or is it a scam that preys on the unemployed? And what good does typing do without computer skills? And how much chance for success does a person have if he asks a virtual stranger to lend him money? What does that say about his friends and family? Could there be a good reason why they don’t lend to him any more?

And what if he doesn’t really want the money to retrain for a better job, but to avoid working? If you give him the money, you’re hurting him, because he will have an even-longer gap on his resume, will be that much older, and will have further diminished his already-meager work ethic. And what if he buys pot? Your money harms his lungs and his brain. All his bad habits will further embed themselves into his personality, and so what looks like kindness will actually be cruelty.

If you lend your neighbour money, and he does not end up getting a job, you will become more and more uncomfortable as the months go by. He will have to evade you, or come up with excuses. You will feel cheated, resentful – and guilty, deep down.

There are many significant down-sides to charity, and so it is a very tricky business to get involved in. The transfer of money and resources is the least of it – and yet that is where everyone wants to jump in and starting waving the guns of the government around!

Poor By Circumstance
The poor in this group are worthy of charity, since they are poor through no fault of their own. The vast majority of those in this category are children, of course, who were scarcely able to choose their parents.

This group also includes the mentally ill, those struck by unforeseen illnesses – and, to a much smaller degree, those struck by a bizarre series of unfortunate and unpredictable circumstances – the pregnant widows whose husbands died by accident and whose insurance company went bankrupt and so on.

Surely this category clears up the problem of who we should help though, right? Well, not exactly. First of all, you cannot really help children without giving money to their parents – and, if you give money to parents based on the poverty of their children, the sad fact of economics is that you will end up producing more poor children. As demand rises, so does supply. (If you doubt this, look at the poverty statistics before and after the ‘Great Society’ programs of the 1960s.)

The mentally ill are very challenging to help, since they have a marked deficiency in the ability to balance short-term and long-term gains. Here in Toronto, for instance, there are more than enough beds for the homeless, yet they can still be seen outside in freezing weather. Short of incarceration, they cannot be reliably protected from themselves, and being crazy is no crime.

The ill are easier to help, of course, but are very much in the minority of those we call ‘the poor’. They are also a lot easier to find and identify, since they have objective symptoms and seek medical help.

That just leaves those who are poor by circumstance – that most elusive prey of the do-gooder, the poor person who genuinely wants to better himself and just needs a helping hand. How easy are these people to find?

Well, they would be a lot easier to find if they weren’t so constantly eclipsed by those who are poor by habit trying to pass themselves off as poor by circumstance. Those who are poor by habit are fully aware that they can receive significant subsidies if they can successfully pass themselves off as poor by circumstance – and so work as hard as possible to obscure their own choices and pass themselves off as helpless victims. They know that the process of untangling the tangled web of personal choice and circumstances requires a significant investment of time and energy – usually far more than the charity itself involves. The uneasy feeling that we get when handing five dollars to a panhandler – will he buy food or booze? – is precisely due to this problem. This is why panhandlers ask: ‘Help a man down on his luck?’. We also know deep down that when someone asks charity of strangers it is because he has exhausted the patience of friends and family – scarcely a good sign that he uses benevolence to good purpose.

Finally, if we do decide to attempt to untangle the complex web of choice and circumstance, in order to apply our charity more productively, we expose ourselves to significant risk of emotional or physical attack. Imagine asking the following questions of the above-mentioned neighbour who wanted money for a training course:

  • Was there any way to see this problem coming?
  • Why don’t you have any savings?
  • Why are you not borrowing from friends or family?
  • Why are you not part of any cultural group that might help you out?
  • Can you not get a scholarship for your training course?
  • Can you not get on-the-job training?
  • Can you make arrangements with an employer to subsidize your education in return for a post-graduation time commitment?
  • Can you take out a loan to pay for your education?
  • Can you not work nights to pay for your education?
  • Can you show me the brochure for your vocational program?
  • What is the placement success rate for this program? Is it verified by outside auditors?

There are literally dozens of questions that can be asked to qualify the intentions of a person hoping to receive charity. A person who is genuinely poor by circumstance will appreciate being asked such questions – and will probably, through this process, end up discovering productive alternatives to anonymous charity. A person who is poor by habit, however, will inevitably become offended by and aggressive towards his interrogator – and that is precisely how the wheat is separated from the chaff! A person who gets angry at questions probing personal responsibility for poverty is probably poor by habit, and will be hurt, not helped, by financial generosity.

In the past, before the welfare state, the separation of the unlucky from the unmotivated was the primary function of charitable organizations. Those seeking help had to face a panel of means-testers, who probed and grilled and constantly offered alternatives to direct charity, such as jobs or babysitting services. Even if direct charity was approved, the investigative process would then have to be repeated at regular intervals in order to avoid the problem of dependency on charity. The process was analogous to the prescription of a powerful drug such as morphine. You don’t hand it out like candy, and you work as hard as possible to avoid addiction – precisely because it is so dangerously pleasurable!

In hindsight, we can see the opposite process occurring during the late 60s and 70s, when ‘means tests’ for welfare and unemployment insurance recipients were gradually diminished and eliminated. Charity became a ‘right’, and legal limits on its distribution were slowly eliminated. (The elimination of the ‘means test’ is precisely the goal of those who are poor by habit, of course, since they always want to pretend to others that they are poor by circumstance, and so gain illegitimate charity.)

The welfare state, sadly, has eliminated the most important skill of productive charities, which is the deep knowledge required to separate those who will benefit from charity from those who will be harmed by it. Centralized State bureaucracies mailing out checks to unknown recipients can never know whether they are promoting good habits or subsidizing destructive ones. Overburdened social workers with no power to control benefits have no capacity or ability to redirect charity to the most deserving cases. And because of the rise of the welfare state, private charities have mostly eliminated the ‘means test’ process (also because they are dependent on State subsidies, which specifically forbid such tests).

All empathetic and sympathetic souls want to help the poor as much as possible. However, as the above complexities illustrate, really helping the poor is no simple matter. Sometimes it is just giving a sympathetic hug, a coffee and an ear to bend. Sometimes it is the withdrawal of sympathy and resources. Sometimes it is offering a job rather than money. Sometimes it is offering a treatment program for addiction. Sometimes it is a combination of all these things.

Charity is like surgery – it is complex, delicate, dangerous, and requires deep knowledge and skill. If you really want to help people, you have to know what you’re doing – and you have to really know the people you’re interested in helping, in a deep and very personal way. Using the welfare state to deal with poverty – despite it being a moral evil due to taxation – does far more harm than good. Using the violent power of the government to redistribute resources and calling it charity is like throwing blunt knives at a crowd and calling it surgery. Any benefits are purely accidental, and far more people are harmed than helped. It’s time for Libertarians to answer the inevitable question: how can the poor be helped without the State? with the answer: a heck of a lot better than they are now!

Stefan Molynuex, is the host of Freedomain Radio (, the most popular philosophy site on the Internet, and a "Top 10" Finalist in the 2007-2010 Podcast Awards.

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June 2024

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