All Commentary
Monday, May 1, 1995

In Praise of Pain

The Compassion Lobby's Claim to Moral Concern Is Fraudulent

Mr. Bidinotto, a staff writer for Reader’s Digest, is a long-time contributor to The Freeman and lecturer at FEE seminars. Criminal Justice? The Legal System Versus Individual Responsibility, edited by Mr. Bidinotto and published by FEE, is available at $29.95 in cloth and $19.95 in paperback.

In recent months, we have heard daily alarms concerning legislation proposed by the new Congress.

Babies will starve, modern Chicken Littles warn, because teenage mothers will be deprived of “their” food stamps. Little children in schools will go hungry, because the new Scrooges on Capitol Hill will rob them of “their” school lunches. The elderly will lose “their” Medicare and Social Security. Opera enthusiasts will lose tax-subsidized encounters with Wagner and Puccini, and preschoolers the daily inspiration of Barney the Dinosaur, all because of plans to close down “their” local public broadcasting stations.

Never mind that none of this unearned largess is truly “theirs.” Never mind that no one has a right to that which he has not produced–that no one can lay legitimate claim to goods and services belonging to others–that all of those “entitlements” entail legalized plunder of the taxpayers. In addition, none of the claims by special interests is even true.

Babies won’t starve, because welfare programs aren’t going to end: they’re only going to be dumped by Washington in “block grants” onto state governments. School lunch subsidies are actually scheduled to rise, and likewise be sent to governors to administer. Ditto, spending on the elderly: all that will decline is the rate of increase in projected spending. As for public broadcasting, the only portion of its budget targeted for trimming is the meager 14 percent supplied by federal taxpayers. Clearly, Barney is in no danger of extinction.

You’d never know this judging by the cries of impending doom echoing across the land. Yet despite the claims of the Compassion Lobby, few redistributionist programs are on any politician’s chopping block; even fewer will be gone when the political dust settles. As I anticipated in my January column, most of the modest reforms passed by the House are being bottled up in the Senate.

The block-grant approach symbolizes the weakness of the proposed reforms. Instead of ending programs that plunder Peter to pay Paul, Congress is proposing only that Paul receive the loot from his governor, rather than his congressman. The apparent “principle” here is that robbery is more efficient if done at the local level.

As revolutions go, this one is boringly bloodless. In fact, many self-styled revolutionaries are trying to keep it absolutely painless—when a little pain is exactly what recipients of the unearned need to experience right now.

Yes, you read that correctly.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not endorsing the Stoic view that pain builds character. Nor am I a Social Darwinist arguing for “survival of the fittest.” Pain and suffering are not ends in themselves, nor is the collectivist goal of social purification a valid rationale for allowing harm to befall the weak.

But pain and suffering do have a vital purpose. They are invaluable signals to us, warnings that something is amiss–that we need to change course.

Mistakes and irresponsible behavior unavoidably lead to destructive consequences. Yet if we could not feel their impact, we’d have no reason to alter harmful behavior. The experience of pain warns us we’re doing something injurious. Pain is nature’s invaluable teacher; without it, we could not survive, because we’d never be deterred from self-destructive paths. A child learns not to put his hand on the stove, because it hurt the first time he did it.

Capitalism is a profit and loss system, one that rewards those who successfully produce valued goods and services, while punishing those who fail to do so. If profits were guaranteed and automatic, and losses impossible, there would be no motive for anyone to produce the things we need. Poverty and want soon would be everyone’s fate.

That’s precisely the impact of welfare statism. By trying to eliminate all suffering, it obliterates all incentives and motives to act wisely. It buffers people from the injurious consequences of error and irresponsibility, depriving them of the painful but vital lessons of life. It thus allows people to believe they can continue down destructive paths with impunity.

But even if they are buffered from pain, the destruction they have caused doesn’t disappear: it’s merely transferred onto others. To spare some people painful lessons, the welfare state forces innocent and responsible taxpayers to bear the pain and suffering instead.

To protect an unwed teenage mother from experiencing any discomfort from her folly, her married, working neighbors must deprive their own children to support hers. To protect American bankers from stupid investments, American workers must raid their own savings and cover the losses. To protect “family farmers” from the reality of supply and demand, urban American families must squeeze their own budgets and fund subsidies and supports.

Again, the welfare state doesn’t eliminate pain and suffering: it merely transfers them from one person to another. It’s a measure of modern corruption that this sordid policy is defended as embodying “compassion.” But it’s a curiously selective compassion: compassion only for the deserved suffering of the irresponsible and foolish, and simultaneous indifference toward the undeserved suffering of the responsible and wise.

In truth, the Compassion Lobby’s claim to moral concern is fraudulent. There’s nothing compassionate in transferring pain and suffering from those who caused it onto those who didn’t. It is cruel injustice. Yet that’s the operative moral premise of the welfare state.

Because people make mistakes, pain is always unavoidable. The question is, who should bear it: those who cause it, or those who didn’t? Likewise, the idea of a painless revolution is an oxymoron. Change is always painful; but keeping our present welfare state is also causing pain. Whose pain should be our concern?

For too long, in order to spare some the hardships of self-responsibility, we have been willing to batter and burden millions of decent, hardworking citizens. They are the real victims today, and their unjustified suffering must end.

To salvage the moral initiative we must have the courage to look the Compassion Lobby directly in the eye, and refuse to blink. Rejecting their phony compassion, we must state bluntly:

“It’s high time you did feel some pain. Better you than those self-responsible people who have been too long compelled to support you in your irresponsibility.”