Sunday, May 25, 2008

Ironies of Activism...

Tübingen: Outlook on an Insight
(Image from Wikipedia)

I'm still reading Bruce Bawer's While Europe Slept: How Radical Islam is Destroying the West from Within and finding that Bawer has remarkable insights on a number of issue, one of these being an insight into an especially pernicious side effect of Europe's generous social welfare system. In commenting on Europeans' bystander passivity, their tendency to stand aside and do nothing but watch during antisemitic attacks on Jews or gay-bashing of homosexuals, Bawer noted:
How to reconcile this kind of unresponsiveness -- this colossal lack of what Americans call civic responsibility -- with all the proud rhetoric about "solidarity" and "community" that fills Western European political speeches and newspaper editorials? Well, I realized quite a while back that this rhetoric, far from having anything to do with cultivating among citizens a feeling of mutual support and neighborliness, was, quite simply, welfare-state sloganeering. Western Europeans have been brought up to think of solidarity with one's fellow man not as something they have to attend to themselves but rather as something mediated through state bureaucracies. (Bawer, While Europe Slept, page 149)
I recall a conversation, sometime around 1990, that I had with a Pakistani-British woman in a coffee shop in Tübingen, Germany. She was very critical of Britain's Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and argued that the British were becoming more conservative and thus more selfish, less concerned with community or with helping others. I politely disagreed with the argument that turning conservative meant that one was becoming more selfish, and I said that reliance upon the state might actually discourage individuals from personally acting to help others and therefore might tend to undermine community.

That was 17 years ago, and I've since had similar thoughts. Just yesterday, Michael Bauman and I exchanged emails on this point. I wrote first, sending a note of thanks for sending me some articles and books that he had authored:
As for the other books that you sent, previously, I've read everything that you wrote . . . and some things written by others. All were quite enlightening. I find myself more motivated to defend free markets as I grow older, so reading more about their defense is useful.

Just yesterday, I was telling my wife that the Korean protests against American beef were "irrational." Eventually, she saw my point -- especially when I pointed out how much more she was paying for Korean beef[, which is protected from a free market,] when the risk of mad cow disease from American beef was, roughly, one in one-hundred million.
Michael replied:
I think you are quite right about the failures and foolishness of interventionist economics. It simply does not work. The closer you get to government control of a market, the closer you get to the poverty of places like North Korea, or the hyper-inflation we mentioned on your blog last week. I am continually astonished by the ignorance of Christians like Jim Wallis, who want to exercise compassion for the poor, but who don't know the first thing about how poverty is defeated or how wealth is created.
On the point about misdirected compassion, I replied:
I think that the ethical intuition usually directs us to do something active to help the needy, whereas laissez-faire economics advises us to do nothing, counter-intuitive if anything is.

The irony is that the social-welfare state trains its citizens to be passive. The moral intuition to help gets directed toward the state, which vicariously takes on the role of moral agent . . . but without the ability to enjoin responsibility on the part of those whom it 'helps.'
Or so things seem to me, for with the years comes clear the irony of unintended consequences as we find ourselves living them out in our own lives.

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At 7:59 AM, Blogger Hathor said...

It is the assumption about the poor, that somehow that they aren't quite intelligent as to have a say upon how they would be truly helped. So when they the programs are put together by do gooders it is only to make themselves feel good not to really help. The empathic feelings of Americans did not disappear after Roosevelt's New Deal, but when a nihilist generation was trying to find its soul, taking on sociology, to strike all the evil and poverty. They thinking; the little slumming they did actually gave them knowledge.

There was no "teach a man to fish" just give him the fish from the liberals.

The laissez-faire crowd would do nothing and say let them eat the scraps that fall from my table.

I don't think that citizens begin to rely on the government to be responsible as so much as they rely on others.(not my job) The modern world have no civic values.

Hope this is not too much of a rant. I realize that Europe is different than America, but I think some values are actually passed down through the family, rather than determined by the state under which you live. Otherwise how would any body recognize tyranny and injustice. I don't think one has to be religious to do so either. I think one would have more success finding why a society would create such selfish children, who are unable to empathize and to take action.

At 3:04 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Hathor, you make good points. Families play a role, positive or negative. Society also -- the sort of things that the society values will influence the young, for good or ill. And do-gooders who think that they know what will help . . . but don't (or sometimes do).

But the state can also harm in trying to help. The worst thing is for people to internalize victimhood. Growing up poor myself, I had to struggle against passivity and learn not just to wait for the government or somenbody to help me. I did get government help, e.g., for going to university, but I discovered that I didn't like emphasizing my 'disadvantaged' status in order to qualify for 'assistance.'

Government programs should always be set up with the aim -- as you put it -- of teaching people to fish, not of keeping bureaucrats in jobs.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:33 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It never fails to amaze me how even a Korean like your wife, married to an American and having had her own overseas experiences, needed convincing about the validity of the whole anti-US beef scaremongering. I wonder if it's because your wife, unlike you, has been bombarded with Korean media messages.

There was no "teach a man to fish" just give him the fish from the liberals.

Throughout our history, not all children have had the same opportunities to learn to fish at home, in school, and in the community.

I teach US and foreign born children of immigrant parents, some of whom are here legally, some not. Most speak limited English and have no formal education beyond secondary school, yet in spite of these limitations, they are able to find and keep jobs and manage their money well enough to support children and buy minivans, SUVs and the like. Some even own homes. To be fair, these families are not living solely off earned income. Their US-born children often qualify for food stamps, WIC, and free meals at school. However, these parents are modeling life skills by working and taking good care of their families.

While taking a course this summer, I had some interesting conversations with a middle-aged African-American teacher in an urban district. She grew up in a segregated mixed SES community that was tightly knit, a village that raised children together. After the Civil Rights movement, those who could moved out, leaving behind the less able.

Thus, many children in multigenerationally poor families in pathologically poor communities have no one to teach them how to fish. I recognize that permanent public assistance is enabling, but suddenly turning off the spigot would have disastrous social consequences.

At 3:40 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Sonagi, my wife reads The Hankyoreh and gives it the benefit of the doubt.

I don't read it but outright doubt it.

Thanks for the other details. Yes, suddenly shutting down the welfare assistance would not help, for the people still need to be taught to 'fish.'

And there will always be some people who need help climbing up out of the pit into which they've fallen, so a role for government (but also for private charity) still remains.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:20 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

my wife reads The Hankyoreh

That explains it. I look at the Hanky headlines a few times a week and disinfect my computer screen afterwards.

At 8:20 AM, Blogger Hathor said...

It is a good thing you are not going to school now, because there is no way to go unless you can find every loan, grant and assistance you can find.
When I graduated and saw the debt I was in, I realized just how poor I am. Generally in most good colleges, you wouldn't have to do the begging they will find it for you.

At 8:24 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Sonagi, does their website actually have viruses? Or was that not meant literally?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:26 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Hathor, are all schools now so expensive? I can imagine that some are still afordable . . . but perhaps I'm wrong.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 12:02 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


It was a joke.

RE: paying for college

My maternal grandparents, like most Americans in their generation, paid for college by working and saving money. This wasn't easy, but it was doable. Tertiary education has skyrocketed way beyond the rate of inflation. At first rises coincided with the introduction of government assistance programs like Pell grants and Stafford loans. While the government has drastically cut grants and low-interest loans, tuition continues to rise. Apart from scholarships for the very top students, the only affordable means of obtaining a college education would be to live at home while attending a community college for two years and then transferring. Not everyone lives within commuting distance of affordable community colleges and public universities.

Another factor driving up costs is higher living expectations. A few months ago, I read in the Boston Globe about new luxury housing being built for local college students who want the same amenities they enjoyed in their upper middle-class homes. Meanwhile, Korean students from economically secure families manage to make do in spartan dorms and tiny officetels. While I was teaching at Yonsei, there was controversy over expanding parking facilities on campus. One argument against was that with good public transport, students didn't need to drive and facilitating the use of cars would exacerbate divisions between haves and have nots.

College textbook sales are a whole other racket altogether, and one that was addressed previously on this blog.

At 3:24 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Sonagi, I thought that you might be joking, but with Korean websites, I'm never sure, for they often have all sorts of pop-ups, and my computer sometimes warns me (via Google) "website may harm computer," so I thought that I'd ask...

On the cost of education, I guess that I'm out of touch, but if things are so bad, then I despair of sending my two kids to college.

Jeffery Hodges

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