L. Neil Smith's
THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 255, January 18, 2004
"Life Goes On ...."
Trolling for Government Programs
Special to TLE
One of the things that makes the Internet both helpful and enjoyable is the ability to "talk" with those with whom you've got something in common. Like many people, I'm a member of several e-mail groups for just that reason. But, just as we've all had to learn to deal with "spam" if we want the convenience of e-mail, both e-mail and news groups have had to learn to deal with "trolls" (for those of you who don't know, "spam" is junk e-mail, and "trolls" are those in groups who exist almost solely to say things the majority of the group will find highly objectionable and, if the troll is really lucky, even incendiary).
Of course, there are those rare and wonderful occasions when a piece of spam you receive in your in box proves to be an advertisement for a smokin' deal on exactly the thing you've been needing or wanting. In much the same way, there's the occasional instance where a troll has a valid point. Even scarcer are those times the troll has a valid point that actually tempts you to backtrack from your own position, even one which you know is right. Recently, I've been exposed to that very situation. Though I'll never admit it to the e-mail group, I thought I'd share my feelingsin confidence, mind you!here.
There are many libertarian-leaning e-mail groups and news groups on the Internet, a few of which I personally frequent. It doesn't matter which specific group I'm talking about here, because it could be happening on any of them. And what's happening is this: there's a troll who insists that libertarian ideas aren't good ideas because some people aren't smart enough, responsible enough, or motivated enough to make it through life otherwise. Cutting to the chase, we may as well just admit right here and now that the troll has a point. And it doesn't take much more of a stretch to think that there needs to be somethingsome program, some group, some somethingto save these people from themselves.
Certainly, the troll says, we wouldn't wish for children to be homeless simply because their parents were too lazy to work, or for elderly people to live on cat food because Social Security didn't exist to buy them groceries. Would we? Of course, no one in this groupor, I suspect, anywhere elseactually wishes children to be tossed out on the street or senior citizens to starve. The majority of group members have been very reasonably responding to the troll with notions of private charities, churches, and assistance from family members not in such dire straits as being a better solution than government. But, says the troll, can any of these organizations handle the vast numbers of those too stupid, too irresponsible, and too lazy to make it on their own? The answer to that question, whether the group members are inclined to readily admit it or not, is: probably not.
The simplest solution is to fix the problem entirely rather than treating the symptoms via government or private organization intervention. And as far as I can see, the real problem isn't the fact that these people apparently need help. It's that the "help" they're given is creating more people like them.
Consider this: I know that there are a lot of people out there who aren't as smart as I am (there are plenty out there who are smarter than I am, too, but let's leave that aside for the moment because I'm making a point). Accordingly, they make some stupid choices and end up in difficult circumstances because of those choices. It probably would have been better for them if I had been given the authority to choose on their behalf. But, like a small child learns to walk only by falling down, or as a pet learns a trick by anticipating a treat as a reward, stupid choices teach lessons and good choices offer rewards. How long do you suppose it would take a toddler to learn to walk if mommy carried it everywhere so that it couldn't fall? And what would happen to a dog who never received praise or a biscuit for executing that new trick?
I don't mean to compare the homeless with small children, or the elderly with a clever collie. In fact, I deliberately picked two things with brain power substantially less than that of even a below-average adult human being. Why? If a kid and a collie can learn, why not somebody else? More importantly, if a kid and a collie can be prevented or discouraged from learning, wouldn't it be wrong for us to do such a thing, even if our intentions were good or, at worst, ambivalent?
By offering government welfare programs, we don't encourage people to provide for themselves. In fact, we offer a larger reward to those who do nothing on their own behalf than we do those who at least make an effort to improve their lot in life (I'm personally aware of more than a few people who only needed a little help to supplement their incomes, and instead were told they had to quit their jobs to qualify). Social Security may have had good intentions at its inception, but now it has largely enslaved the work force toward supporting retirees. They were, in turn, themselves robbed of enough money for Social Security that they had far less to invest in more successful private ventures. Worst of all, the promises made by Social Security don't bear much fruit (checks are subsistence wages at best) while they impressed upon many who didn't know better that there was no need to save any additional funds for their golden years.
The troll is right: some people aren't motivated, and some people aren't too smart. But the troll is wrong about the government being the entity to take care of the problem. It's the government that's perpetuating the problem! Welfare should be eliminated in its entirety, and people willing to work should be able to do so without penalties from the government (there are entry level jobs widely available for those willing to start at the bottom and work their way up). Social Security should be phased out, and people permitted to plan their own retirements. Will some lazy people still refuse to get a job? Sure. Will some not-so-smart people fail to plan for old age and end up in poverty accordingly? Almost certainly. But those numbers will be far smaller than those of today, and would be within the capabilities of private organizations. As a bonus, they'll also serve as object lessons for those not-so-motivated and not-so-smart folks on the sidelines awaiting their turn to make bad decisions of their own.
If I told the troll all this, I don't think my arguments would persuade him or her because that's one mind that's already clearly made up. But they've persuaded me not to be tempted by the notion that I'm smarter or better qualified to make decisions on someone else's behalf than they are. It may be true in some instances, but it's also cruel to prevent someone else from learning and thus becoming more than they would have been without the experience. Good intentions are enough of a justification for some, but all the good intentions in the world won't make people learn to help themselves. Negative consequences however, are usually very successful at doing so, albeit often painful.
Our pesky group troll is also, by the way, quite fond of government schools. By the same token, the troll seems unable to understand how it is that so many people out there aren't capable of doing the math on their own investments, or who haven't the skills necessary to get even some minimum wage jobs. I'd love to explain to the troll that this is yet another example of a government solution proving to be the problem, but I'm in too much pain. The irony is killing me.
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