Sympathy Deformed: Misguided Compassion Hurts the Poor
Sympathy Deformed: Misguided compassion hurts the poor
To sympathize with those who are less fortunate is honorable and decent. A man able to commiserate only with himself would surely be neither admirable nor attractive. But every virtue can become deformed by excess, insincerity, or loose thinking into an opposing vice. Sympathy, when excessive, moves toward sentimental condescension and eventually disdain; when insincere, it becomes unctuously hypocritical; and when associated with loose thinking, it is a bad guide to policy and frequently has disastrous results. It is possible, of course, to combine all three errors.
No subject provokes the deformations of sympathy more than poverty. I recalled this recently when asked to speak on a panel about child poverty in Britain in the wake of the economic and financial crisis. I said that the crisis had not affected the problem of child poverty in any fundamental way. Britain remained what it had long been—one of the worst countries in the Western world in which to grow up. This was not the consequence of poverty in any raw economic sense; it resulted from the various kinds of squalor—moral, familial, psychological, social, educational, and cultural—that were particularly prevalent in the country (see “Childhood’s End,” Summer 2008).
My remarks were poorly received by the audience, which consisted of professional alleviators of the effects of social pathology, such as social workers and child psychologists. One fellow panelist was the chief of a charity devoted to the abolition of child poverty (whose largest source of funds, like that of most important charities in Britain’s increasingly corporatist society, was the government). She dismissed my comments as nonsense. For her, poverty was simply the “maldistribution of resources”; we could thus distribute it away. And in her own terms, she was right, for her charity stipulated that one was poor if one had an income of less than 60 percent of the median national income.
This definition, of course, has odd logical consequences: for example, that in a society of billionaires, multimillionaires would be poor. A society in which every single person grew richer could also be one in which poverty became more widespread than before; and one in which everybody grew poorer might be one in which there was less poverty than before. More important, however, is that the redistributionist way of thinking denies agency to the poor. By destroying people’s self-reliance, it encourages dependency and corruption—not only in Britain, but everywhere in the world where it is held.
<Big snip worth reading about the author’s experiences of the effect of insta-wealth on residents of the Gilbert Islands and socialism in Tanzania>
Thanks to foreign aid, a large bureaucracy grew up in Tanzania whose power, influence, and relative prosperity depended on its keeping the economy a genuine zero-sum game. A vicious circle had been created: the more impoverished the country, the greater the need for foreign aid; the greater the foreign aid, the more privileged the elite; the more privileged the elite, the greater the adherence to policies that resulted in poverty. Nyerere himself made the connection between privilege and ruinous policies perfectly clear after the International Monetary Fund suggested that Tanzania float its currency, the Tanzanian shilling, rather than maintain it at a ridiculously overvalued rate. “There would be rioting in the streets, and I would lose everything I have,” Nyerere said.
Long years of living under this perverse regime encouraged economically destructive attitudes among the general population. While I was impressed by the sacrifices that Tanzanian parents were willing to make to educate their children (for a child to attain a certain stage of education, for example, a party official had to certify the parents’ political reliability), it alarmed me to discover that the only goal of education was a government job, from which a child could then extort a living from people like his parents—though not actually from his parents, for he would share his good fortune with them. In Tanzania, producing anything, despite the prevailing scarcity of almost everything, became foolish, for it brought no reward.
When I returned to practice among the poor in England, I found my Tanzanian experiences illuminating. The situation was not so extreme in England, of course, where the poor enjoyed luxuries that in Tanzania were available only to the elite. But the arguments for the expansive British welfare state had much in common with those that Nyerere had used to bring about his economic disaster. The poor, helpless victims of economic and social forces, were, like Ophelia in the river, “incapable of their own distress.” Therefore, they needed outside assistance in the form of subsidies and state-directed organizations, paid for with the income of the rich. One could not expect them to make serious decisions for themselves.