Being Good and Doing Evil

January 12, 2013

Government, Philanthropy, Social Work

Social Workers

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

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About Malcolm Greenhill

Malcolm Greenhill is President of Sterling Futures, a fee-based financial advisory firm, based in San Francisco. I write about wealth related issues in the broadest sense of the word. When I am not writing, reading, working and spending time with family, I try to spend as much time as possible backpacking in the wilderness.

View all posts by Malcolm Greenhill


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39 Comments on “Being Good and Doing Evil”

  1. NicoLite Великий Says:

    now there’s one with a few angles… when good people take the reigns, run for the hills, because they will impose their version of “good” on you, and you probably don’t conform to that version.

    It sounds rather familiar. Islam – well the islamists, to be precise – just want what’s best; after all, they want everyone to get into Allah’s Paradise. Those who die in Allah’s name are blessed, and if they were infidels, well, that’s their fault, not the islamists, right? It’s the most extreme of that kind of logic, which proves you right on that account, but there are less extreme examples that show that people with good intentions can do good things. The secret is not to be judgmental. Well unless someone has committed a crime, but that is what a good system needs. Not the crime, the proper consequences. I digress.

    I would consider the Founding Fathers good, non-judgmental people. After all, judging people for their social and cultural backround is contrary to the freedom they wanted everyone to experience in the New World. Not every leader of the US has done a swell job, but the Founding Fathers foresaw that that might happen, so they put legal mechanisms in place to balance the offices/government’s power with the people. Of course, the recent War on Terror tells your story of zeal from the US Government, surely good people 😉 when it comes to national security. There is symmetry in this…


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Thank you for this thoughtful comment. Yes, the Founding Fathers did have good intentions and did do good things, but what they did was to design a system of government that enabled individuals to pursue their own idea of the ‘good’ rather than imposing a uniform vision of the good on everyone.


    • Argus Says:

      Considering Nico’s comment above: delete ‘Islam’ and in its place insert ‘Christian’ and it remains as accurate (actually almost any organised religion would fit the bill).

      Can’t agree with the non-judgemental part either. Judgement is absolutely essential in everything—we surrender our judgement only at our own peril. Brrrr!

      If I had to ‘impose’ a vision of the good on anyone I’d take a leaf from the Wiccan Creed, words to the effect “If it harms no-one, do as you wish”. The first 4/5 words of course being the operative ones (that most people choose to overlook).


      • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

        Thank you for joining the discussion. I think when Nico said the Founders were ‘non-judgmental people’ he meant that they were tolerant, at least by the standards of the time. This gels with your own description of the Wiccan Creed too.


      • NicoLite Великий Says:

        Tanks, Malcolm, for appreciating my definition of judmental. Of course, I was referring to judgmental in the sense of prejudiced and quick to judge. While they may be useful functions of our psyche in the short term, like in immediate danger, they are detrimental in the long run to our society. Being able to accurately judge character by – probably mostly sbconscious – hints and evidence is substantial to us as a species and civilisation.


      • Argus Says:

        Sadly a word can often be misinterpreted — still, we must “Judge not lest we be judged”, no?

        No~! In spades, No!!! Judge as is your very future depends on it (it does). Judge and act appropriately. Even in a benign sense to encourage unsophisticated minds to be ‘non-judgemental’ is to sow the seeds of misinterpretation.

        As Nico says, to the effect that prejudice is wrong I wholeheartedly agree—but some prejudices are justified. Bitten twice by a big hairy dog I might well become prejudiced against big hairy dogs; a defensive mechanism from experience.
        From experience, note—disliking/fearing big hairy dogs because I’ve been told (indoctrinated?) to hate them is not good. (Mind you, I’d be in no hurry to go trotting over to pat a large crocodile if ever I saw one ambling along the creek—and I have no personal experience of crocodiles.)

        It’s a large topic but vital: We MUST Judge … as best we can.


  2. chr1 Says:

    Malcolm, great post.

    Rent-seeking is natural, and the social worker’s rents are paid by the State, or by other people who work. I wonder if such folks as they come up against human nature, haven’t wondered if and how much they are really helping, how much they’re worth, and how much they can really do.

    Nevertheless, they go back to work, pay the bills, have professional development classes, network, and find ways to meet the budget so they can get funding for next year.

    Of course it’s worth it, for them. And the institution and incentives they’ve created will go on until they can’t go on, only being challenged by those who put up a political fight to keep what they’ve earned and raise their own families.

    Such a narrow definition of the public good is subsidized by everyone else, and keeps on growing toward some ideal that shall never be reached.


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Chris, thank you and well said.

      “And the institution and incentives they’ve created will go on until they can’t go on”

      Am I too optimistic in sensing that we may be reaching that point? If so, then deflation wins.


  3. Raunak Says:

    Love the post, Malcolm. Initially I was reminded of Plato’s vision of a Republic where he proposed that the wise and learned men drive the vision of the republic and live a life of seclusion and asceticism.
    Individuals, no matter how intelligent and wise, lose their sense of judgement in midst of a crowd. This was one of my arguments against democracy, and I feel that it applies to many other domains, including social work.


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Raunak, thank you. You raise a great epistemic point here. If the wise and learned live in seclusion they cannot know the kind of local knowledge that individuals need to achieve their goals. That is why even ‘intelligent and wise’ people in government make stupid decisions that have unintended consequences.


  4. johnrchildress Says:

    Another great and thoughtful post, Malcolm. We need more statistics like 224 to get out to more people, who just don’t have a clue how much of a burden big government is.


  5. bravesmartbold Says:

    Really, I wasn’t going to keep reading if it were anyone else. I mean, taking down the idea of the greater good and sacrifice? How dare you! However, I’m glad I did. I not only agree with you but teach the same to my students every year.


  6. becwillmylife Says:

    If I’m honest, I struggle with this. I absolutely believe that you shouldn’t rob Peter to pay Paul and the larger the government becomes the more that very thing happens. On the other hand at the core of my Christian beliefs is the call to help those in need- without judgment. As you suggest, I guess this is my job and not that of our government- true separation of church and state.


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      “at the core of my Christian beliefs is the call to help those in need- without judgment.”

      The question then becomes what is the best way of ensuring that this happens. When penniless immigrants came to America with no occupation or language skills they were employed in sweatshops and were said to be exploited although over time they improved their condition and made sure their children received the education they lacked. Could the government have provided employment to all those immigrants? Hardly. The government’s action was to require that each immigrant have a certain sum of money, thus cutting off the most needy from help. Later the government rationed immigration through quotas leaving millions to perish in Europe rather than having the opportunity to move to freedom even at the lowest rung of the ladder. Things are never what they seem.


  7. campfirememories Says:

    Social work has widened its net since the 1980′s. There seems to be a correlation to the mentally ill hitting the streets, (because Institutions could no longer hold them unless they committed themselves.) In most Universities, therapy degrees are now in the school of Social Work. The theory is to treat the entire social context of a person’s dysfunction, not just their mental health. The result is that many people seeking welfare need mental help, not vocational help. Those needing vocational help are funneled into a welfare system that cripples them. The welfare system has become our way of dealing with mental illness. The two need to be separated because neither is efficient or effective.


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Thank you for this knowledgeable clarification of what is happening in the social work arena. So the government creates one problem and then government is asked to fix the problem that was originally created by government. Such is the Kafkaesque world we live in.


      • A Gripping Life Says:

        Campfirememories is exactly right. I have a masters degree in Mental Health Counseling – my background is strictly mental health. I can assess, diagnose, write treatment plans, provide therapy, etc. but the Social Workers of America have many more lobbyists in Washington than those representing Mental Health Counselors. The government, thanks to the lobbyists, recognizes and allows Social Workers to play the role of therapist, too. Insurance companies will recognize a Master’s level Social Work degree, but not a Mental Health Counselor degree, even though the counselor is far more equipped to deal with issues of clinical mental illness. It’s maddening.

        I worked for a non-profit agency, Family and Children’s services. I didn’t experience any of my social worker colleagues pushing government services. I made many home visits, myself, and the rule of thumb was always to help families get on their own two feet with as little help from the government as possible. If they do get government assistance, it’s supposed to be monitored with the goal of getting them off assistance as soon as possible. At least that’s what I remember…? The push comes from the Government.
        Didn’t Obama do away with the work for welfare program that Bill Clinton had instituted? Talk about a crippling policy. More people are on food stamps and assistance under Obama than with any other president in history. (I think that’s what I heard.)


  8. Michael Denny Says:

    So true Malcolm…and the other sad part is that there is no love in the transaction for the giver or receiver. Through government intervention and force, what could be real charity is instead reduced to a cold and mechanical transaction without love and caring. The problem isn’t that there’s not enough to go around…although there will always be scarcity. The problem is there isn’t enough real love in our human interactions. And government intervention reduces it further every day as well as misallocating resources.



    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      “Through government intervention and force, what could be real charity is instead reduced to a cold and mechanical transaction without love and caring.”

      Mike, this is a great point that nobody has raised until now, including myself. Where force is used to take funds that are then distributed by a government bureaucracy there is no room for love, warmth, caring, forgiveness and other qualities that represent the best in human nature. As you say, the transaction becomes simply “cold and mechanical”.


  9. The Savvy Senorita Says:

    Great post Malcolm. Social Workers often have a bad rep in the UK, but not necessarily for encouraging dependency, but for not seeing the signs that help is actually required. There have been many cases of neglect, turning into grotesque child fatalities, which Social Workers involved with the families have simply missed the signs of. I do feel they have a difficult job to do though. They are constricted by Government guidelines and laws; they wish to help or make a change, but in reality they can do very little after wrangling with bureaucracy.
    I also agree with you on wondering what qualifies anyone to think they know what is best for someone. It is all relative; therefore a sweeping generalised policy made to help (on a generic basis) really misses out the point of helping out individuals. Need cannot be extrapolated from one stranger to another. What good is help, if it isn’t tailored?
    Also agree with ‘Robespierre Terror’ – Governments know what is best, well, they twist it to suit their own ideals of ‘best’.
    Bex 🙂


  10. Rhea Dorn Says:

    Oh Malcolm, you have a very limited view of the occupation, social work.
    This is from the web site
    Medium pay = $42,480 per year – $20.42 per hour.
    What they do:
    There are two main types of social workers: direct-service social workers, who help people solve and cope with problems in their everyday lives, and clinical social workers, who diagnose and treat mental, behavioral, and emotional issues.
    Where they work:
    Social workers work in a variety of settings, including mental health clinics, schools, hospitals, and private practices. They generally work full time and may need to work evenings and weekends.
    A bachelor’s degree is required for most direct-service social work positions, but some positions and settings require a master’s degree. Clinical social workers must have a master’s degree. Licensure varies by state. Clinical social workers must be licensed.
    This is a quick rundown on the this profession.
    Your view that the evil incarnate, government, has the goal to place us in a position of total dependence is limited at best.
    So, to think that a social worker lives as an arm of the power hungry rulers, eating off the plate of the citizens is just plain wrong.
    All kinds of mishaps can occur in our lives that could leave us in dire positions. Health catastrophes happen which places families in unbelievable circumstances.
    I pray all of us do not meet up with this.
    Thank goodness “we the people” look for a balanced approach between our social contract and our individual lives. It takes a person, a state, a country to work together and help the unlucky.


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Rhea, thank you for this. While I was mildly surprised at the salary, my post was not about whether social workers should be paid a few thousand dollars less or more but rather whether we should be paying them at all. Similarly, I was not questioning whether they should have even higher degrees but fundamentally challenging the view that any college based degree qualifies them for the work.

      “Your view that the evil incarnate, government, has the goal to place us in a position of total dependence is limited at best.”

      Please let me know where I wrote this as it is certainly not in the post. Actually, I made the opposite point, which is that good people, i.e. people who have no intention of harming others, end up unintentionally doing a great deal of harm when they use the apparatus of the state to impose their idea of the good on others.

      You say: “So, to think that a social worker … eating off the plate of the citizens is just plain wrong.”

      Please let me know who pays the salaries and benefits of government social workers if not the citizens?

      You say: “Health catastrophes happen which places families in unbelievable circumstances.”

      Yes, and a significant part of the post argues that these catastrophes might be better handled by private philanthropy.

      You say: “It takes a person, a state, a country to work together and help the unlucky.”

      Most people think that way and it is certainly the way these things are currently handled. The point of the post was to suggest that government adds nothing to what could be provided more efficiently and effectively by the institutions of civil society.


  11. Boris Zaretsky Says:

    At the risk of sounding like Ayn Rand, I will postulate that business and trade are the greatest benefactors of society. So any wise society would encourage business development and, within reason, remove restrictions and allow businesses to prosper. Just yesterday I watched a documentary about the pioneers of aviation Bill Boeing and Donald Douglas. These guys were amazing! By intelligence, hard work and perceverance they built the entire aviation infrastructure in the US and their company employs more than a hundred and fifty thousand people today. Did they deserve to be filthy rich? You bet they did, they earned it. One entrepreneur who builds a successful business, thereby enriching (literally and figuratively) the lives of his suppliers, customers, employees and shareholders does more for the society than all the social workers combined.


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Boris, thank you. Your comment is right on the mark. Also, no need to apologize about sounding like Ayn Rand. Rand made big business entrepreneurs into heroes which, in many cases, as you mentioned, they were. However, big business also frequently attempts to get into bed with big government to gain special privileges and favors. When they succeed it’s a toxic mess like the banking and mortgage industry, and the taxpayer is left to pay the piper.


  12. gpicone Says:

    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…I’m still busy reflecting on a world with no traffic lights!


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      That’s good. It’s a thinking person’s blog 🙂


    • Robert-preneur Says:

      I enjoy your thoughtful posts gpicone although I don’t always agree. On this matter I think we should avoid accusing Malcolm of being an anarchist. But let’s play with the streetlight idea as an item of government largess to the masses for the betterment of society.
      1. Streetlights are not charity but are part of the government’s primary responsibility of providing for public safety which I believe Malcolm considers to be a legitimate role of government.
      2. Streetlights are a local government concern, not an example of a national welfare state.
      3. Ironically, traffic moves more safely when street lights are not functioning. People, in the interest of self-preservation mainly, take turns at the intersection in a very orderly manner. Of course, traffic moving at a snail’s pace is a royal pain in the rear but no one is careening through the intersection trying to beat the red light. So streetlights are necessary to keep traffic moving relatively safely at a certain rate necessary to maintain the flow of commerce.

      On the whole, I think we can all agree that government does things like streetlights pretty well. We all pay for the streetlights and the streetlights grease the gears of commerce. We can all regulate ourselves on the road if need be but wouldn’t have the adrenalin rush of putting the pedal to the metal at as the light went yellow.

      The question is does government do charity well over the long term? I think the weight of evidence in terms of social dependency and bureaucratic expansion support Malcolm’s contention. The government’s intent to do good over the short term morphs into a long term, ever growing drain on the society until the government itself is bankrupted.


  13. illero Says:

    When I read this post, I was in the process of posting my own comment re: the tyranny of the humanitarian. The body of my post is a timeless comment from C. S. Lewis 6 or 7 decades ago. Here it is:

    “Of all tyrannies a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. They may be more likely to go to Heaven yet at the same time likelier to make a Hell of earth. Their very kindness stings with intolerable insult. To be ‘cured’ against one’s will and to be cured of states which we may not regard as disease is to be put on a level with those who have not yet reached the age of reason or those who never will; to be classed with infants, imbeciles, and domestic animals. But to be punished, however severely, because we have deserved it, because we ‘ought to have known better’, is to be treated as a human person made in God’s image.”


  14. Argus Says:

    In NZ we call them ‘traffic lights’. What I didn’t twig at first was that the traffic /street lights in question were replaced by what we call a ’roundabout’. At first I thought simply removing the lights = double-plus ungood. In our land of shoaling individualists every inersection would quickly become a violent disaster zone.

    But replacing lights with roundabouts (where intersections are large enough) is logical and waaaaay overdue.

    Our own (NZ) rules are dead simple: let the buyer beware and give way to anyone already on the roundabout. No negotiations necessary, just (dare I say it?) judgement …


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