The other day I was referred to a government social worker whose father had died leaving her a small inheritance. She makes approximately $100,000/year plus benefits, and although this is not a great deal of money by Bay Area standards it was enough to get me thinking about the nature of her work. It was not always like this. The great religions of the world recognized that dedicating one’s life to helping others was not something everyone could do because the world would literally starve to death if nobody was producing. Recognizing this fact, life was made very difficult for anyone wanting to devote themselves exclusively to service, and they were required to give up most of their worldly possessions, abstain from marriage and worldly pleasures and take a vow of poverty with the only hope of reward in the life to come. In this way the almoner proved his or her vocation and demonstrated that no personal benefit would be received or comfort taken from the privation of others.
As individuals, when we help others using our own time, effort and money, we are understandably very cognizant of the wisdom of the old adage that if you give a man a fish, he will eat for a day, but teach him how to fish, and he will eat for a lifetime. Compare this to the government social worker who is living on a comfortable salary, and disposing of funds taken from other people that could have been used to take care of their own families. The social worker’s interests are directly contrary to those of the people he or she is paid to help. After-all, if nobody was in need the social worker would be out of a job. Clearly this is not the same thing as saying that all social workers want people to remain in need, a statement that is patently untrue. However, there remains the fact that government social workers do have an institutional incentive to keep people in a state of dependency rather than weaning them off the public teat.
What qualifies the social worker to know what is good for people in need? Have they studied at the ‘School of Hard Knocks’? Have they been selected for their wisdom, people skills and practical knowledge by their local community? Or have they simply passed a government mandated test which automatically ‘qualifies’ them to know what is best for people? Is it true that poor people always want to be helped, always want someone to do ‘good’ to them? There was a time, not that long ago, when most poor people were described as living in a state of ‘respectable poverty’, meaning that while they lacked resources, they were still proudly independent. Social workers have deliberately worked to erode this reluctance to accept welfare benefits with the inevitable result of increasing dependency.
The harsh contingencies of everyday life will always be with us. Certainly, personal benevolence is not regular or consistent like welfare benefits, but it does have the advantage of not fostering a culture of dependency. Furthermore, if working people did not have to toil even some of the 224 days out of the year to meet all of the costs imposed by government, they would assuredly have more funds available to take care of themselves, their families and their communities. If we took all the benefit that government social workers have ever done for the poor would it even come close to matching the benefit provided by Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, two individuals who never had any intention of benefiting the poor? What does this say about the real causes of poverty and the best way to alleviate it?
Reflect on the fact that throughout history most of the harm done in the world has been caused, not by individual acts of violence, but by governments attempting to do good. Even the noblest sentiments of the 18th century Enlightenment deteriorated into the Robespierre Terror once the revolutionaries gained control of the state. In only a few years between 1930 and 1947, in the area that encompasses what is now Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Belarus, Ukraine, and western Russia, 14 million people were killed outright, intentionally starved or deliberately worked to death in the interests of the volk or the proletariat. History teaches us that the moment good people, of any ideological persuasion, gain control of the apparatus of the state and attempt to use it to impose their version of the ‘good’ rather than enabling citizens to pursue their own diverse goals, it’s time to run for the hills. Got your boots ready?
“If I knew for a certainty that a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good, I should run for my life…”
Henry David Thoreau