All Commentary
Saturday, May 1, 1965

A Part of the Problem

Only the inimitable Victor Borge would have “an uncle who once invented a cure for which there is no known disease.” But all of us can claim an “uncle” who is adept at formulating answers without knowing what the prob­lem is; and “Uncle Sam’s” favor­ite answer is, “Subsidy!”

In fairness to “Uncle,” it may be conceded that his failure to identify problems clearly could be a shortcoming picked up from various of his nieces and nephews. It happens to the best of us!

For example, what about all these victims of poverty we see throughout the world? Blessed as we are today with our fast cars and planes and instantaneous ra­dar and television entry into the most remote corners, we can de­tect the first pangs of hunger or the slightest sigh of suffering or hardship, in a matter of seconds, it seems, from anywhere on earth. Previously, when a man’s “world” was little larger than he could circumscribe conveniently on foot or horseback, his chances of spot­ting anyone much poorer or hun­grier than himself were not great. And if there were a neighbor in need, it was not so difficult to fig­ure out just what he needed and how to help him. In those days, if a farmer lacked a plow, none of his friends would have thought of giving him a fully automated steel mill.’ If no one had an extra plow to give, at least someone would be willing to lend the tool in ex­change for some help with the corn at harvest time.

If a family were really up against it, perhaps with illness and a shortage of food in the dead of winter, it wouldn’t have been considered real neighborly to send over a “relief” check and a prom­ise of more when needed. A near­by housewife might drop in with a pot of stew, and spend some time nursing the sick and tidying up the cabin before returning home. And the expectation would be, in most cases, that when the stew kettle eventually was re­turned to its owner, it would con­tain a freshly baked pound cake or some repayment in kind. Or, a neighbor would stop to see if one of the boys from the needy family might be able to spend a few weeks helping with the chores at the neighbor’s place—for his room and board, and perhaps a chance for some schooling.

There is an art to helping a person help himself, of being char­itable toward anyone without damaging his self-respect and sense of self-responsibility. When those one would aid are close to home, well known and loved and respected, the temptation to be rash or careless in rendering aid is diminished. A friend’s life and character is at stake, and the prob­lem can be more clearly seen as not simply a need to fill his belly but a way for him to earn self-respect and a reason for living.

Contrast this with the modern method of perceiving poverty from a jet or helicopter or through a picture tube, a tele­scopic view of multitudes of stran­gers, too numerous to be counted or cared for one by one, too much of a job for any one neighbor.

The picture is accurate enough; these are actual human beings who are hungry, homeless, ragged, diseased, illiterate. Their sad plight is real and evokes the sym­pathy of all who observe their con­dition. But feeding a starving multitude is no job for a friendly housewife with a kettle of stew. An individual, yes, or perhaps several members of a family can be cared for by any one of us—but viewing the problem en masse tends to conceal the fact that it still is the individual who suffers hunger, disease, privation. It is the individual who needs a pur­pose in life and a way to earn his own living—a way to achieve his purpose. Populating the earth with purposeless creatures is a goal un­worthy of any human being; yet, this would seem to be the tendency inherent in most of the so-called charitable programs of the welfare state.

Aside from the case of hopeless cripples and invalids for whom others may care, poverty is a con­tinuing problem only (1), to in­dividuals who have no incentive to rise above that challenge, and (2), to those who take it upon themselves to perpetuate the situa­tion through irresponsible sub­sidies. Of these two aspects of the problem, the latter is probably the more serious.

Foot Notes

¹ See “Statism and the Free Market” by Sudha R. Shenoy, THE FREEMAN, May 1962, p. 44.

  • Paul L. Poirot was a long-time member of the staff of the Foundation for Economic Education and editor of its journal, The Freeman, from 1956 to 1987.