All Commentary
Friday, January 1, 1965

Lets First Mend Tommys Trousers


Dr. Paton is Professor Emeritus of Accounting and of Economics, University of Michigan, and is known throughout the world for his outstanding work in these fields. His current comments on American attitudes and behavior are worthy of everyone’s attention.

A story that was one of my grand­father’s favorites, and which he enjoyed embellishing with local color and varying details, needs retelling. The yarn, in a nutshell, was as follows:

Little Tommy was out on the street, very dirty and with both the knees and seat of his pants in tatters. A passing neighbor, noting that the youngster’s condition was somewhat more disreputable than usual, complained: “For heaven’s sake, Tommy, why doesn’t your mother mend your trousers?” To which query Tommy replied cheer­fully: “Oh, my mother is too busy to do that. She’s over at the par­sonage sewing for the heathen.”

The lesson to be learned from this miniature tale is quite obvi­ous, but nevertheless seems to have been widely forgotten—along with many other pearls in our accumulated stock of common sense—at this juncture. The point to be made, of course, is the de­sirability of putting one’s own house in order before tackling the chore of redding up either the place next door or a more distant establishment, at home or abroad. This bit of homely wisdom is age-old and is reflected in many fa­miliar adages and admonitions that have come down through the centuries. “Let every man mind his own business” is the blunt and restrictive way that Cervantes (and doubtless others before him) put it.¹ Biblical injunctions in this area range from the pithy “physi­cian, heal thyself” to the striking and unforgettable “cast out first the beam out of thine own eye, and then shalt thou see clearly to pull out the mote that is in thy brother’s eye.”²

A Man’s First Duty

The view that self-improvement comes before trying to remake the other fellow certainly has sub­stantial merit, and straightening out one’s own thinking and devel­oping one’s own character are such difficult and lengthy undertakings as normally to require many years of effort and growth—a lifetime for a lot of us, with the task still unfinished at the end. In other words, only a few ever reach the stage where they are fully justi­fied in “telling off” the folks whose ideas and actions they regard as objectionable. Not many are truly “called” to this task.

This is not saying that all teach­ing and preaching activities should be condemned. Family conduct is closely related to individual be­havior, and parents have and should accept the major responsi­bility for guiding the actions and molding the attitudes of their children, as well as taking on the humdrum job of providing food and the other physical essentials. Many persons are reasonably com­petent to give instruction to young or old in specific subjects such as algebra or piano playing.

But when we turn to the broad fields of economics, politics, and morals (to say nothing of soci­ology, and the burgeoning array of satellite pseudo sciences dealing with human behavior), the num­ber adequately qualified to teach—or preach—is painfully small. Anyone has a right to offer his services in these difficult and con­troversial areas, in a free market, but it is unfortunate when an edu­cational structure develops which in effect compels high school and college students to suffer under continuous dosing by instructors who have little more by way of strings to their bows than zeal for “social reform.”

Group Reformation

The lesson may also be readily applied to group policies and ac­tions aimed at inducing other groups, by persuasion or compul­sion, to change their ways. The outstanding current example, of course, is the massive “foreign aid” program of the United States, which bids fair to become a per­manent millstone on the neck of American taxpayers. How did we ever get this way? As one looks over the prevailing landscape in this country, and takes note of the conspicuous blemishes and blotches, it makes the sensitive person cringe with embarrassment when he considers the pose we have assumed of Santa Claus and mentor for the whole wide world. Yes, we have attained a high level of material well-being, but what else do we have to crow about, es­pecially now that our constitu­tional form of limited government is on the verge of going down the drain and a large part of our structure of liberty—freedom to assume responsibility and make decisions—has been washed away by the tide of socialist intervention?³

And look at the daily reports of increasing crime, including many grisly and terrifying cases (fostered in part by the prevailing policy of coddling lawbreakers, by social workers and the courts); the senseless slaughter on the highways (more than a third of all Americans who die between the ages of fifteen and twenty-five are killed in automobile acci­dents); the widespread outbreaks of rioting and looting, uncon­trolled for days at a stretch; the growing swarm of rude, dishev­eled, and otherwise obnoxious young people, to be found every­where, and now conspicuously in evidence on college campuses; the contemptuous brushing away of moral standards, in all levels and sections of American life, includ­ing top governmental officialdom.

Strength Through Struggle

It’s not a pretty picture, and as one contemplates the scene, he gets to wondering if affluence is superior to austerity as a condi­tion for mankind, for the long pull. There is considerable evi­dence that the pinch of poverty has merit as a character builder. In climbing the slope and over­coming obstacles the human being often exhibits amazing courage, persistence, and resourcefulness. But when he gets to the top, has it made, he doesn’t seem to know how to maintain either his energy or his integrity. At this stage he’s inclined to forget the factors required for material progress, and look to government, “Big Brother,” as a means of securing him in the enjoyment of his gains to date and at the same time pro­viding more and more for less and less effort. Can the race stand prosperity? is a truly basic ques­tion.

In any event, it is quite appar­ent that the astronomical hand­outs of more than one hundred billions abroad during the past twenty years have not won us either the friendship or respect of the handoutees. They take our money, and want more; but they don’t like us and they don’t change their political and social views and practices to conform to those we are supposedly trying to export. And possibly one reason Uncle Sam’s give-away program is a flop is that he doesn’t have his own house in order, doesn’t set a good example.

The foreign aid program is po­litical, widely publicized, even somewhat patronizing. There is much accompanying talk of “un­derdeveloped,” “backward” na­tions. If the folks abroad, in Latin America, in Africa, and elsewhere, find this annoying and become nastily resentful (to the point, at times, of offering violence to the giver), it should not be surpris­ing. Perhaps there is something to be said for the ideas and ways of life of these “backward” peoples, including the remaining primitive tribes of the deserts, jungles, and forests, even if they lack automo­biles, television sets, and central heating. Who are we to criticize and give way to the uplifting urge on the grand scale? Even if we assume that we are smart enough to run the other fellow’s life as well as our own, isn’t it a bit pre­sumptuous to attempt this, par­ticularly if the other fellow pre­fers to take care of his own af­fairs? Are we justified in inter­fering with the opportunity of others to realize the satisfaction that comes from accepting respon­sibility and climbing the slope in their own way?

The Helping Hand

Do these unfavorable comments on massive aid for the “heathen” abroad (and which are scarcely less applicable to governmental welfare programs and antipoverty drives on the domestic front) aim in the direction of condemnation rather than praise for the some­what instinctive urge to lend a helping hand to a fellow man in distress? Was the Samaritan of the famous parable on the wrong track? Having spent a substan­tial number of years of my life in a primitive farm community, where the helping hand was much in evidence, in the form of participation in barn raisings, husk­ing bees, threshings, and so on, as well as in connection with specific accidents, fires, and other misfortunes, I can’t escape the conclusion that there are circum­stances under which the individual may properly render assistance to neighbors—and strangers, too—and to that extent interfere in their affairs.

I recall the time that I was driv­ing the nine-mile trip to town with a team and bobsled, hauling a 5,000-pound load of baled hay. Snow was deep on the road, and there had not been much traffic since the last fall. As a result, probably, of a mite of careless driving, a runner went down in a soft spot and all the bales of hay, and myself, left the rack and were piled up every which way in the deep drifts along the road. Reload­ing 200-pound bales under these conditions is difficult, and I was much pleased when Irving Abbott drove up behind me and helped mightily with advice and muscle. (In this case, Irving wanted to get the road unblocked as well as to help me out.)

Six Suggested Requirements or Limitations on Aid

Giving counsel or other assist­ance is ticklish business, and if aid is to be constructively helpful, without bad side effects, there are severely limiting factors to be ob­served. First, aid should generally be on an individual rather than a group basis (although private as­sociation activity need not be ruled out); second, it should be strictly voluntary, not given at the point of a gun or under compulsion by government; third, it should be welcomed, if not actually invited, by the recipient; fourth, it should be related to specific difficulties and distresses (such as the per­sonal example just recounted ) and should not become continuing, habitual; fifth, wherever practi­cable the kind deed should be in the form of the needed service or goods (for example, helping a neighbor to repair tornado dam­age to his home, or providing emergency shelter); sixth, in gen­eral the giver of aid should be in close contact with the distress he is trying to relieve, or at least be familiar with the facts. Under these specifications the helping hand can be defended. But aid so restricted is a far cry from con­tributions to all sorts of domestic or distant “reform” and “welfare” programs and causes, about which the giver has no firsthand or de­pendable information as to nature or accomplishments. Aid to others in this framework, moreover, is completely at odds with massive and continuing programs of grants at the political level, for which we are compelled to dig down in our pockets to provide the funds.

The inherent obligation of each individual, to sum it up, is to im­prove himself intellectually, tech­nically, morally, to the utmost of his ability, and provide service to his fellow men primarily through the process of voluntary exchange, on the free market if such an in­stitution is available. He should not become so preoccupied with the faults or the wants of others, real or fancied, as to forget his own limitations, and that charity begins at home. At the same time he should be glad to lend a helping hand on occasions where tempo­rary assistance is clearly needed and will be welcomed. But he should always remember that every man deserves the precious opportunity to assume responsi­bility for his own course, whether he is swimming courageously up­stream or paddling lazily, with plenty of company, in the other direction.

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Foot Notes

1 According to Bartlett, from Lock-hart’s translation. The only statement along this line that I have found in my old copy of the Adventures of Don Quix­ote, a translation by Charles Jarvis, is the following: “Let everyone turn him­self round, and look at home, and he will find enough to do.”

2See Luke 6:41-42, for the complete parable.

3 Almost everybody, including most politicians, still give lip service to “free enterprise,” but the plain fact is that American business is seriously hobbled by an ever-expanding network of re­strictions, regulations, and interfer­ences, especially at the Federal level, and the mechanism of the market, indis­pensable to a free economy, is limping badly and no longer giving effective guidance in the utilization of resources.