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A Guiltless Holiday

Kris Schnee

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could guarantee a comfortable lifestyle for every American? Wouldn’t it be nice if we had the ability to end all poverty forever?

Unfortunately, we can’t and we don’t. However, Eric Plosky, in last Friday’s column, “The Real Thanksgiving,” made the mistake of wishful thinking: he treated American wealth as inexhaustible and our government as our greatest benefactor.

Why is there poverty in America today? There are probably as many answers as there are poor people. Poverty is nothing new, but this last half-century has seen a massive attempt to fight it: food stamps, free meals for kids at public schools, free medical care, subsidized housing, and other kinds of handouts. How many hundreds of government programs already exist at the federal, state, and local level to help poor people?

Despite all our efforts, despite the “War on Poverty” and the “Great Society,” there is still a lower class. Government has made little progress towards solving the problem of poverty; it seems to be a natural consequence of a free market system, in which people who can’t or won’t work get no money.But throwing money at poverty will not make it simply go away.

“Structural problems demand structural solutions,” wrote Plosky. Must we always have “a class of beggars who must depend on charitable handouts?” He correctly pointed out that many Americans willingly donate their money and time to help the needy, yet suggested that government charity (bureaucratic and involuntary) is superior.

Have we come to expect the government to solve all of our problems for us? Politically-engineered “structural solutions” tend not to actually solve problems, but create a constituency of dependents who quickly redefine charity and announce that it is their “right” or “entitlement” to take by force what they did not earn.

This is not to say that welfare in general is undesirable. Like other forms of “wealth transfer,” such as public research grants, welfare involves a kind of theft from taxpayers, but it serves a useful purpose: it can act as a safety net for the temporarily unemployed and, if we feel generous, the permanently unemployable. The more we demand from government, however, the more it takes from us.

Part of Plosky’s justification for more public assistance is that some of us have too much wealth: many were able to enjoy Thanksgiving feasts while others went hungry; therefore, the well-fed should feel guilty. He called our prosperity “wretched” and “shameful.” Many people say that “money isn’t everything”; often, their next sentence is “Can I have your wallet?” Appeals to sympathy and guilt are the likely reason we have already allowed much of the government’s Byzantine wealth-transfer system to change from “charity” to “entitlement.”

Emotion often wins over reason when they conflict, but it is more productive to use both. We see poverty, and want to do something about it. One option is to throw yet another government program at it, with some lofty-sounding but insignificant goal like “ensuring a full Thanksgiving plate for every American.” As the saying, “If you give a man a fish...” suggests, such feel-good programs are not productive ways to achieve our overall goal of alleviating poverty. Instead, if we feel motivated to do it, it would make more sense to improve the welfare system we already have. The ideal system would be cheap and efficient, robbing taxpayers as little as possible, and would focus on helping as many people as possible to become independent, productive citizens.

If you feel compassionate, look for the best ways to help people with private and public effort, but don’t let guilt trips manipulate you into ignoring common sense or respect for other people’s property. Enjoy your holiday turkey without guilt, and then think of how to help the poor to help themselves. In the long run, they’ll be happier with that kind of planning than with knee-jerk sympathy. So will American taxpayers. So will you.