Musing Between Theory and Practice

Original Post (with comments)
Yesterday’s column raised some eyebrows. I got a few notes from folks who felt it was totally out of character and even somewhat irrational. They were concerned that I was standing atop one of the slipperiest slopes known to man. Indeed, they were right. I am, but it’s no cause for alarm. It seems to me that the difference between conservatism and liberalism is often the difference between theory and practice, and predictably, I come down somewhere in the middle. I really think it’s possible to be a compassionate hard-ass.

Bertrand Russell is my favorite philosopher – hands down; it’s not even close. The things he observed and codified about humanity were so prescient that it’s somewhat eery to read them this many years later. One thing he harped on a bit was the treatment of criminals. In a brilliant little book entitled What I Believe (1925 – I have it as an essay in the book, Why I Am Not A Christian – 1957), he wrote:

I merely wish to suggest that we should treat the criminal as we treat a man suffering from the plague. Each is a public danger, each must have his liberty curtailed until he has ceased to be a danger. But the man suffering from the plague is an object of sympathy and commiseration, whereas the criminal is an object of execration. This is quite irrational. And it because of this difference of attitude that our prisons are so much less successful in curing criminal tendencies than our hospitals are at curing disease.

Now, Russell was not so naive as to overlook the valuable deterrence that comes with criminal punishment. His point was, however, to say that, “The vindictive feeling of ‘moral indignation’ is merely a form of cruelty.” This is where I’m coming from in suggesting that even the most economically conservative among us should be careful in simply dismissing the bad decisions of the poor and ignorant as “their problem.”
The liberal theory, the one that underlies much of Russell’s thinking (he had serious socialist tendencies), is that it is unfair to hold people responsible for all of their actions if there are mitigating circumstances. The conservative practice is that this is exactly what we must do if it is an orderly society that we seek. I think there’s middle ground here.

What often gets lost in these kinds of discussions is the fact that the history of the human condition has been most characterized by Mother Nature and social groups holding individuals accountable for their actions, regardless of circumstances. Either you provide for yourself or you die. This is the harsh reality of our animal heritage. And while it is a true that it is now possible for people who do nothing toward their own self-preservation to survive and even prosper, we should only see this as an achievement if it does not unravel the system that gave rise to it. This is where practicality rules the day.

It is clear that the rule of law is the tie that binds a free society. If we lean too far left, it is the rule of law that perishes, even as the wards of the state (and the guilt-ridden achievers) applaud the victory of theory over practice. When we distort the nexus between actions and consequences with proximate causes, we subvert the role of our criminal justice system and invite chaos into order. Practicality, therefore, requires us to be compassionate hard-asses when it comes to attitudes about economic stratification.

We should think of our economic system as an anonymous one – anonymous in terms of individuals operating within the system and anonymous in terms of the forces that shape the free market (the invisible hand). Capitalism, by taking advantage of human nature, is based upon this very idea. We recognize at the outset that there will be winners and losers, but we also recognize that our system produces more winners than any other ever devised. The question is what to do when anonymous losers become real people with real problems.

Lefties will, whether they know it or not, advocate changing the system to eliminate losers entirely – this is the vision of the welfare state. It is, quite obviously, impossible, which is why liberals are so often accused of living in fantasy land. My recommendation is that we come up with a means by which we deal with losers once they appear on our radar screen. We should consider it an ancillary benefit that capitalism will alert us to the existence of those who are not faring well under it, not as indication of its cracked foundation. We cannot control a person’s starting point in life, which means we will inevitably come upon folks who cannot make the wise decisions that are the prerequisites to economic success in a free market society. This is not a bad thing. It’s a reflection on reality. What we do next is what matters.

I am vehemently against handouts of pretty much any sort, except in extreme cases. I think a good quid pro quo beats a handout most every time, so despite my compassion towards those who are hurt by our system, you’ll never hear me argue for more welfare benefits. The solution, I believe, starts with separating the truly needy from the able but mentally unprepared. The truly needy, the insane and disabled, are the exceptions to the handout rule. If they cannot reciprocate, compassion dictates that we help them anyway. It is the able but mentally unprepared who have no business getting handouts in my book.

This is where the time horizon of maturity concept comes in. If we can say that the primary feature of being mentally unprepared to thrive in a capitalistic society is being unable to envision and internalize the consequences of future actions, and I think we can, then disdain has no place in these discussions. “Their problems” are our problems, in more ways than we think, which means it is incumbent upon us to try to solve them…without disturbing the economic incentives that underlie our system.

We must introduce a quid pro quo function into the provision of welfare benefits, and I’m not talking about means testing. Means testing will tell us if someone needs help, but it will not tell us why, and it will not tell us what kind. The trick is to provide benefits that sustain life, but with a catch – they diminish unless educational milestones are met, but not just involving traditional concepts of education. The curriculum must, first and foremost, be designed to resolve the time horizon problem. This is the first filter, so to speak. We can’t forget that among the losers in our society, there will always be able-bodied individuals who do not possess the time horizon problem but simply will not act on their own behalf. (If we must dole out disdain, and I’m not saying we must, it is to these souls that it should be aimed.) I am convinced that most people, if properly grounded in the actions/consequences concept, will rise above their plight. The right kind of education is the first step.

The test will come when we then become hard-asses, forcing them to do what it takes…like everyone else. Those who pass, meaning they take responsibility for their lives, get to become anonymous again. Those who do not then go through another evaluation to determine if they’re really needy or just shiftless. The needy get the handouts; the shiftless get to experience the consequences they care so little about. It’s not perfect, but it’s ethical and, most important, it’s fair – we can’t change the system for a few bad apples, but we can at least be rigorous in the separation.
The tricky thing about straddling the line between theory and practice is that solutions often come out half-baked. I’ll admit that this one is. But it’s still better than considering the non-achievers among us as losers without a second thought. We’re better than that, so I’ll hold out hope that a fully-baked solution, one that embraces compassionate hard-assism (please add another hokey coined phrase to my credits), avails itself in due time.


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