The world of “problems” and “solutions” makes for a fascinating exploration of human conceptual space. The tendency to view some unsatisfactory condition as a “problem” to be “solved” is intriguing all by itself. Some such conditions are so persistent and so deeply embedded in the history of Man that it would be more reasonable to call them aspects of our nature. That, of course, doesn’t impede the do-gooders. Neither does it deter the social engineers determined to demonstrate that no “problem” can defeat their unsurpassed ingenuity.
Constitutional lawyer Alan Dershowitz once cited a bit of Hebraic folk wisdom that has relevance here: “If your idea is so good, then the old rabbis, who were much smarter than you, must have thought of it first. But if the old rabbis, who were so much smarter than you, didn’t think of it first, then it can’t be such a good idea.” (Yes, when he cited it he was expounding on the power of precedent in legal contests, but what of that?) Never mind the specious logic; it’s the sort of rejoinder innovators particularly hate to confront.
To return to the main point, not only do we separate some conditions out and call them “problems;” we also partition the space of “problems” into “solved” and “unsolved.” The partition allows for a gray zone: “problems” we have “kinda-sorta solved.” Those are cases where the problem is considered ameliorated but not completely dealt with. Maybe we’ve made some advances, but we intuit that we could do better. Social engineers meet such an observation by grinning, rolling up their conceptual sleeves, and proclaiming “And by God we will!”
That’s usually when the trouble starts.
This morning, in one of his typically fine essays at American Greatness, Anthony Esolen quotes from an old Taylor Caldwell novel:
The scene is from Taylor Caldwell’s 1980 novel Answer as a Man, about the suffering we bring on ourselves and our fellows. It is 1912, and a young Irishman, the manager of a new hotel in northeastern Pennsylvania, recalls a conversation with his grandfather long before. “When a politician,” said the grandfather, ever angry with God but even angrier with selfish, foolish, ungrateful, cruel, and treacherous man, “anxious for office, talks of ‘reforms,’ it’s time for citizens to inspect their guns. Something dirty is afoot, and dangerous.”
When the grandson asks whether there’s any politician to trust, the old man says no, there isn’t, though he adds that he’d be less suspicious of someone “who talked of the ‘ancient verities,’ such as patriotism, honor, sobriety, hard work, respect for authority, constituted law, decency, manhood—if there’s any of that left in this country.”
What about tender care for the less fortunate? The old man won’t have any of that, either. “Beware of the rich man who cries for the poor! He is a cannibal. Like the tearful walrus who ate all the trusting oysters in that book Alice in Wonderland.”
Taylor Caldwell was both a fine writer and clearsighted about the nature of politicians and their rhetoric. Another fine and clearsighted writer, Isabel Paterson, mirrored the sentiments expressed above, with an extra helping of insight into the “philanthropist” mindset:
If the primary objective of the philanthropist, his justification for living, is to help others, his ultimate good requires that others shall be in want. His happiness is the obverse of their misery. If he wishes to help “humanity,” the whole of humanity must be in need. The humanitarian wishes to be a prime mover in the lives of others. He cannot admit either the divine or the natural order, by which men have the power to help themselves. The humanitarian puts himself in the place of God. [From The God of the Machine]
Casts a rather peculiar light on the social engineers of our species, doesn’t it? But is it arguable, or have we enough experience with their efforts to regard the matter as settled?
We’d like for “problems” to move smoothly from “unsolved” to “solved.” Sometimes they do, albeit after spending a term in the “kinda-sorta solved” part of the Venn diagram. Consider the heating of a residential building. Time was, we knew of only one way to do it: a fire burning in an open hearth. That did constitute a valid approach, though it did involve a significant amount of labor on the part of the homeowner. Still, for a long while we could do no better. Then came the enclosed boiler, and a succession of fuels from barely better than wood all the way to natural gas and heat pumps. These more recent approaches have reduced the homeowner’s labor to near zero and have elevated his comfort considerably.
Might there be improvements yet to be made? It’s possible. If someone were to figure out how to use the radiation from spent nuclear fuels to heat a house, we’d really have something. But at this time, the natural-gas boiler / heat-pump combination is considered the best solution available. Nor does any rational man expect that going back to wood and coal would be preferable, barring the surprise unavailability of natural gas.
But some problems do come “unsolved,” at least to the extent of returning to the “kinda-sorta” category. In nearly every case, the reason is government: interference by officious types determined to have their way with us, if only to demonstrate how much cleverer and more important they are than us poor peons.
One of the “problems” with which the do-gooders have bludgeoned us for centuries is that of the “poor.” (Yes, yes, today they prattle about “income inequality,” but very few decent persons take them seriously. Decent persons, I said. That excludes just about everyone who draws a government salary.) He whose continued existence is endangered by current circumstances, whether or not they’re at all within his control, is regarded as a “problem” that can only be “solved” by government action. Never mind that under the official definition of poverty, millions of people who are already adequately fed, clothed, sheltered, schooled, and otherwise cushioned against the slings and arrows of temporal existence are deemed “poor” and therefore in need of “assistance.” Once a “problem” has been politicized, Charles Murray’s Three Laws kick in with irresistible force:
- The Law of Imperfect Selection: Any objective rule that defines eligibility for a social transfer program will irrationally exclude some persons. [And will irrationally include some others – FWP]
- The Law of Unintended Rewards: Any social transfer program increases the net value of being in the condition that prompted the transfer.
- The Law of Net Harm: The less likely it is that unwanted behavior will change voluntarily, the more likely it is that a program to induce the change will cause net harm.
Under political supervision, the “problem” of poverty has grown steadily worse. That is: More persons, both absolutely and as a percentage of the population, have been deemed “poor,” more bureaucracy has been added, and more money has been expended. It’s a perfect example of the perverse incentives that apply not merely to social transfer programs but to all government-arrogated “problems.” The political dynamics are irresistible.
Yet the problem was once regarded as solved:
In 1841, seven years after the enactment of the new Poor Law, when a whole series of amendments was being proposed to it by various members of Parliament, Nassau Senior, in an anonymous pamphlet signed merely “A Guardian,” came to the defense of the original act, and explained its rationale perhaps in some ways better than did the original report.
“In the first place,” he wrote, “it was necessary to get rid of the allowance system—the system under which relief and wages were blended into one sum, the laborer was left without motive to industry, frugality, or good conduct, and the employer was forced, by the competition of those around him, to reduce the wages which came exclusively from his own pocket, and increase the allowance to which his neighbors contributed.
“Supposing this deep and widely extended evil to be extirpated, and the poorer classes to be divided into two marked portions—independent laborers supported by wages and paupers supported by relief—there appeared to be only three modes by which the situation of the pauper could be rendered the less attractive.
“First, by giving to the pauper an inferior supply of the necessaries of life, by giving him worse food, worse clothing, and worse lodging than he could have obtained from the average wages of his labor. . . .
“A second mode is to require from the applicant for relief, toil more severe or more irksome than that endured by the independent laborer. . . .
“The third mode is, to a certain degree, a combination of the two others, avoiding their defects. It is to require the man who demands to be supported by the industry and frugality of others to enter an abode provided for him by the public, where all the necessaries of life are amply provided, but excitement and mere amusement are excluded—an abode where he is better lodged, better clothed, and more healthily fed than he would be in his own cottage, but is deprived of beer, tobacco, and spirits—is forced to submit to habits of order and cleanliness—is separated from his usual associates and his usual pastimes, and is subject to labor, monotonous and uninteresting. This is the workhouse system.”
The Royal Commission, in defending that system, had argued that even if “relief in a well-regulated workhouse” might be, “in some rare cases, a hardship, it appears from the evidence that it is a hardship to which the good of society requires the applicant to submit. The express or implied ground of his application is, that he is in danger of perishing from want. Requesting to be rescued from that danger out of the property of others, he must accept assistance on the terms, whatever they may be, which the common welfare requires. The bane of all pauper legislation has been the legislation for extreme cases. Every exception, every violation of the general rule to meet a real case of unusual hardship, lets in a whole class of fraudulent cases, by which that rule must in time be destroyed. Where cases of real hardship occur, the remedy must be applied by individual charity, a virtue for which no system of compulsory relief can be or ought to be a substitute.”
[Quoted in Henry Hazlitt’s The Conquest of Poverty.]
The Victorian workhouses were not without their own problems. Yet far worse has come from their abolition than the meliorists who shouted them down could have dreamed.
One of the routes to the “unsolving” of a problem is the broadening of its definition. For example, if “poverty” is defined in terms of survival, then the solution requires only the provision of survival goods in adequate quantities. But when the do-gooders set to work on the thing, they added to “poverty” the relief of many non-survival conditions, including the availability of many comforts and diversions. They didn’t do that by arguing explicitly that the “poor” have a “right” to cars, air conditioning, Xboxes, and so forth. Rather, they compared the overall environments of “poor” communities with those of the self-sufficient and made their goal achieving “equality” between them. Raising those communities to equality with working-class and middle-class districts became a matter of “compassion”…and, of course, more money. Little discussion went to why such communities exist, or why conditions within them rarely improve.
The relief of material need is only one example of this process. In the case of the Victorian workhouses, the do-gooders harped upon observable abuses of the system. In truth there were some, usually on account of lax supervision of certain workhouses by the public officials responsible for them. The replacement of the workhouses by “outdoor relief” – i.e., funds disbursed directly to the needy person or family – created more poor, and more suffering overall, than the abuses it extirpated.
In other cases, such as public education, the broadening of the definition was more explicit. Who could possibly forget about the push to include “health” education in the public curriculum? Or the drive for bilingual and “gifted and talented” programs? The broadenings made it impossible de facto for the public schools to do everything they’d been charged with. Tragically but naturally, the attention of education officials focused on those subjects to which the largest amounts of new funding were flowing, with catastrophic results for students’ literacy and numeracy.
Thomas Sowell and others have commented on the perverse incentives that pertain to government attention to conditions deemed “problems.” The evidence for the insanity of ever permitting a government to take charge of a “problem” should be overwhelming by now. But it is not so. The do-gooders, like the philanthropists in Isabel Paterson’s citation, cannot stop; their self-image would dissolve like a dream. The bureaucracies find the creation of “problems” a reliable engine for growth, and so they encourage the do-gooders whenever they can. And while governments expand without limit as they “unsolve” our “problems,” the functions legitimately delegated to them – the defense of the realm; the suppression of violent crime and crimes against property; the operation of an impartial justice system – grow worse daily, in accordance with the laws of anarcho-tyranny.
Where is the endpoint?
The Taylor Caldwell book I think is more applicable in this time is “The Devil’s Advocate”. I only wish there was a group that was doing what the patriots in that book were doing.