Harming By Helping

To seek to help others is, for the vast majority of individuals, a basic human instinct.  We want to comfort the afflicted, aid the helpless, protect the vulnerable, shelter the homeless, and feed the hungry whenever this is humanly possible.  This laudable aspect of our humanity combines with our simple desire for self-preservation to produce many of our governmental structures and policies, and we have typically—but not always—demanded some degree of self-reliance and personal responsibility in exchange for all manner of aid and protection.

However, as much as some might fervently wish it to be otherwise, no government yet devised can protect us against the consequences of every tragedy, personal mistake, fear, or plain discomfort. We cannot outlaw natural disasters or man-made stupidity, although we can—and should—always try to lessen their impacts upon both individuals and communities.

Therefore, the many catastrophes caused in American today by all the “help” our government provides are truly a Greek tragedy of mind-boggling proportions.  Our prideful efforts to provide the most perfect forms of government possible have instead produced family dysfunction, community chaos, state fiscal crises, and national gridlock—all with the added “benefits” of punishing personal initiative and rewarding irresponsibility.  Sophocles would be proud.

Over the past half-century of liberal hubris, we have watched as government in all its glory has pursued a variety of well-meaning but ultimately misguided policies.  These have caused the costs of housing, education, and medical care to spiral out of control while supposedly improving affordability, simultaneously increased both taxes and public debt, and screwed up capitalism so badly that now young people somehow now find socialism an attractive alternative to our present punitively expensive system.  In addition, half of our nation seems to be angry at the other half, our public schools fail to adequately educate the majority of our children, and the legacy costs of big and bigger government—retiree pensions and healthcare—are bankrupting many of our cities and states.

The problems are basic.  Compassion exercised by individuals, private charities, and faith communities is compelled to live within dollars and cents realities that government can easily circumvent by continually raising taxes or taking on more public debt.  In addition, the heavy hand of government tends to alter the cost/benefit ratios of a whole range of human behaviors, which later requires yet more government interventions to “fix” the problems its own programs created in the first place.  The old adage that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” has never been more true than when the wonders of government goodness are involved.

In American we see this cycle most vividly within the four walls of our own homes—and the brunt of the problems are borne by our children.

The U.S. Census has amply quantified the astonishing increase in single parent households (most of which are headed by women) over the past fifty years, and this has repeatedly been correlated with worsened educational, emotional, and economic outcomes for children who grow up with only one parent.  This trend has been accelerated by all manner of public aid that has served to allow one of the parents—typically the man—to shirk financial and parental responsibilities owed to their children by forcing the taxpayers to raise the offspring whom those parentsconveniently forget.  By decoupling reproduction from responsibility, government “help” has perversely only helped generations of families to deal with yet more of the dysfunctions that are typically—but not always—inherent in single parent households.

The net outcome of the startling increase in the number of single parent households—enabled and accelerated by the government assistance that makes this living arrangement possible for parent and child—has been the equally startling growth of government programs and bureaucracies set up to battle the many problems caused by those other government programs and bureaucracies that initially supported the maintenance of single parent households.  Got that?  This self-reinforcing loop of government “help” has now destroyed families and communities on a scale that would make even the cruelest tyrant proud, and the perpetuation of single parent households across generations continues to wreak havoc and compels taxpayers to subsidize an ever-widening circle of personal injury and societal harm.  Now that roughly 1/3 of American children live with either a single parent or an unmarried couple—a separate arrangement that provides its own unique blend of issues and insecurities—we should not be overly surprised by the many problems afflicting our nation’s young and their overwhelmed parents.

As the number of single parent households has risen, we have seen the inexorable march of the pathologies associated with the poverty, instability, and trauma that often impacts both parent and child.  Rates of anxiety, depression, suicide, drug use, physical and sexual abuse, hunger, homelessness, self-harm, and sexually-transmitted diseases have reached epidemic levels for both children and adults.  Although many times these problems can be attributed to unique personal circumstances or local economic conditions, their sheer number speaks to the rot within the foundation of our society—the family unit.  If families fail to thrive, it is impossible to for a community to flourish.  The most expensive home in the world will collapse if it is built upon sand.

The defenders of our expansive social welfare state will, of course, assert that they are doing God’s work by helping those who cannot otherwise help themselves.  It is an interesting “chicken or egg” argument: Has government helped to create dependency or merely helped those who must depend upon the government?  

One could use the pernicious persistence of generational poverty, for example, to argue either side of the issue.  Those who support the programs that provide food, healthcare, and housing to the poor will whistle up all manner of learned experts who will confidently proclaim that entrenched and pervasive inequality condemns many to lives filled with desperation, and it is the role of government to relieve their suffering.  However, others might point out that programs that provide for all the needs and wants of the poor without the bother of work are a disincentive to developing the self-reliance and self-discipline necessary to provide for oneself and one’s family.  In specific circumstances both viewpoints likely have some validity, and the endless haggling over the shape and scope of welfare reform that has consumed so much attention over the decades points to the near-impossibility of both discontinuing government programs once they are started and convincing people that work is better than sloth when there is little or no price to pay for living life on the couch.

I sometimes see the broad outlines of this debate when I listen to educators bewailing the many difficulties of teaching children and adolescents raised in our nation’s many troubled homes.  Many of these students walk into the classroom completely uninterested in the curriculum being offered because they cannot connect with the idea that education is the key to a better future for reasons that are obvious to them—“we’re doing just fine right now with the checks my family has been getting from the government since before I was born.”  Therefore, why should they bother reading a book, writing an essay, or solving a math problem?  Having had few—if any—examples in their lives of adults engaged with the real world of work and taking pride in their own accomplishments, school is at best an opportunity to hang out with friends and at worst an incredible irritant.  

To this extent, those who blame families for the failures of their children are correct.  As much as many may denigrate the notion of role models, we can unfortunately predict much—but not all—from observing the adults who influence a child’s daily life.  For this reason, teachers can play a key part in changing the lives of these children by opening their eyes to a world of possibilities that have heretofore been closed to them—but this is too often a sad struggle against a host of familial and parental influences that are pulling in exactly the opposite direction.

Government can protect the public in a variety of ways that provide a bulwark against disasters that can be neither foreseen nor readily prevented.  However, government and its representatives must be keenly aware that the more they help—and the longer the duration of this help—the more likely it is that harm will be the final outcome of their best efforts.  Worse yet, this harm will continue throughout the generations yet to come.

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Our Many, Many Addictions

This year the World Health Organization decided that playing too many video games is a bona fide addiction deserving of medical treatment. This newest certified addiction is tagged onto a very long list of daily behaviors and activities that have over the years joined alcohol and drug use as problem behaviors. We can apparently now be addicted to eating, collecting, cleaning, gambling, anger, sex, golf, clutter, work, pornography, sunlight, sleep, exercise, shopping, guilt—and so much more. However, our many “addictions” raise a variety of questions regarding our self-perceptions and how these impact our own lives and the lives of those around us.

In addition to the more recognized addictions to drugs and alcohol, which have spawned massive rehabilitation industries that provide little in the way of actual long term cures, we seem incredibly anxious to define more and more of our daily lives and life outcomes as the inevitable results of one addiction or another. Although many behaviors provide pleasure or reward and can readily turn into habits that are difficult to break, I worry that our ever-expanding list of addictions is a symptom of our society’s pernicious flight from the concept of personal responsibility. Although it is certainly more comfortable to blame our failures on forces beyond our control—particularly when “experts” absolve us of all blame—our desires to shrug off our individual responsibilities is ultimately both self-defeating and self-destructive because it excuses a willful avoidance of adult behavior that continues to infantilize our nation and culture. Moreover, an inability to take responsibility for oneself also paralyzes the ability to take responsibility for the well-being of others—which has had a catastrophic effect upon our nation as a whole.

It is impossible, for example, for an irresponsible man or woman to be a responsible parent. If a parent is irresponsible, the burdens of child rearing are typically transferred to grandparents and government—often working in desperate tandem to ameliorate the damage done by parents who are unable to adequately care for themselves or their suffering children. By the same token, those irresponsible adults will be disasters as neighbors, spouses, and employees because they will continue to perceive themselves as being unable to take full control of their own lives.

As unpleasant as the truth may be, most of the time people screw up their lives because they excuse their own immaturity and stupidity on the grounds that self-control and self-regulation is unachievable. This lack of personal agency—continually reinforced by cultural norms that insist on framing basic irresponsibility as an outcome of addictions—is a prescription for wasted lives that lay further waste to everyone else with whom they come into contact.

It is no accident that the Golden Age of Addictions and the Golden Age of Big Government have arisen simultaneously—each serves the interests of the other. The more irresponsibility is excused by our supposed addictions, the more government programs must be created to “cure” those addictions and lessen their real world consequences. On the flip side, the more government programs that are created to shield individuals and families from the irresponsible behaviors caused by their “addictions”, the more entrenched government becomes in the daily lives of our families and communities in order to hide the continued consequences of childish self-absorption. It is the perfect symbiotic storm of waste and stupidity—and taxpayers foot the bill.

There are, of course, addictions that are exceedingly difficult to break, and great personal struggles are involved. However, the signal difference between addictions and diseases is that you can stop engaging in bad or self-destructive behavior. One can, for example, stop drinking too much, but you cannot simply stop having cancer. However, now that we routinely conflate addiction and disease (these two words are even now linked in Google searches), this distinction is often lost in our day-to-day discussions of ruinous personal behaviors.

This confusion also serves the interests of our nation’s many incredibly lucrative rehabilitation programs—and the corporations and agencies that run them. These have embraced and promoted medicalized models of irresponsible behavior because they can both offer the prospect of a “cure” and demand that private and public insurance programs pay for “treatment”. Unfortunately, the treatment will typically fail because the “patient” is continually told they are in the grips of a disease instead of plainly speaking a harsher and less welcome truth—you’re screwing up your own life and the only one who can change your life is you. However, given there is money to made with extended and expensive courses of monitoring and care that offer little prospect of a cure, and which are often repeated multiple times over that individual’s lifetime, it is little wonder that addiction treatment programs continue to spring up like poppies after a heavy rainstorm. The business model is a license to print money.

Very costly treatment programs are typically justified as being less expensive than the prison sentences, healthcare needs, or job losses that might result from an addiction, but it might be reasonable to ask whether spending vast sums of money to shield people from the consequences of their irresponsibility or poor choices actually impedes the development of the self-examination and self-control that is a necessary precursor to positive personal changes. Pain is a powerful motivator, and having to deal directly with the train wreck that you’ve made of your own life is about as powerful a wake-up call as life can provide. Although a night spent in jail and a screaming spouse the next morning are infinitely less pleasant than a sympathetic addiction counselor carrying a plateful of banana-nut muffins, it could well be the case both of these are far more efficacious pathways to long term improvement than any soothing, blameless, and protracted course of expensive counseling and treatments could ever be.

Adulthood is rough, maturity often comes after a few hard knocks have been delivered, responsibility occasionally gets in the way of sleep, failures are the fuel for success, and sometimes a good kick in the pants is the most effective lesson possible. All this is true, and we forget life’s realities at our own peril. Perhaps, as awful and wrenching as it might be for some, now is the time for our nation to ditch our addiction to our many, many addictions and resolve to finally grow up.

A Supreme Problem

The three co-equal branches of the United States government—executive, legislative, and judiciary—each have their roles to play in the management and mission of our nation. However, the federal judiciary and its judges, whose role current Chief Justice John Roberts famously (and perhaps disingenuously) characterized as one of simply “calling balls and strikes” regarding the matters before them, has until recently clung to an air of impartiality—but those days are now gone.

People who study the Supreme Court assert that 5-4 split decisions are no more common than they once were, but now every close or controversial decision has become another component of the partisan battles that are the background music of our hyper-politicized nation. Moreover, the celebrity, notoriety, and visibility of today’s Supreme Court justices invites speculation regarding their personal and legal agendas. Unfortunately, the near anonymity that the justices once cultivated has been replaced by a public advocacy for which those are both sides of the many issues dividing the Court and our country are equally culpable.

It would have been much better if the late Justice Antonin Scalia has been a little less fond of celebrating his own conservative viewpoints and linguistic cleverness in his speeches and writing. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg—the “Notorious RBG” to her fans among liberals—foolishly interjected the Supreme Court into electoral politics in 2016 by openly criticizing the candidacy of Donald Trump and joking about moving to New Zealand if he were elected.

The abandonment of the circumspect silence that was once the glory of those who served on our nation’s highest court has thrilled some advocates, but this has also served to reduce the status and credibility of this branch of our government. This disintegration of the dignity once associated with the Supreme Court is evident in the ever more contentious confirmation battles over the past couple of decades. Supreme Court nominations are now yet one more piece of raw meat for partisan attack dogs to fight and growl over—and the perceived integrity of all our judicial processes are harmed as a result.

All of this makes me wary of the upcoming fight over seating a replacement for Justice Anthony Kennedy, who announced his retirement from the Supreme Court this week. Due to his unique position as the swing vote on so many cases before the court during his thirty year tenure, his replacement will likely become the deciding factor for a great many 5-4 split decisions in the years—and perhaps decades—to come. Given what is a stake, partisan fervor regarding the confirmation of President Trump’s nominee is likely to rise to levels that will make all our other fractious arguments seem mild by comparison. The net effect of this pitched combat will be to cement the public perception of the Supreme Court as just another governmental outpost of politicized and polarizing discord, which will likely irreparably damage its already tattered status and cause it to lose more of its most precious asset—the nation’s trust.

Given the vast and often unbridgeable social, political, cultural, religious, economic, and regional divides in our nation at the present time, it is not surprising that our nation’s courts have been asked to arbitrate the fights around the table at Thanksgiving. Because so many disagreements do not easily lend themselves to compromise—a women cannot, for example, have half an abortion—and communal values have been largely replaced by assertions of unfettered individual rights heretofore unprecedented in history, judges are more and more trapped in the unenviable position of acting as the arbiters of our nation’s morals. Setting aside the basic reality that humans tend to disagree about everything, this task is made yet more thankless and impossible by the fact that significant segments of our population are openly and loudly adverse the very idea of morality, viewing it as either a vestigial annoyance or a pointless guilt trip.

Courts can—and should—mediate regarding the application of laws, but can—or should—the courts continue to mediate in ever more granular and quotidian aspects of our daily lives? The evidence would tend to suggest they should not, but our nation’s courts have, nonetheless, tried their best to solve the conundrum of differing moral and ethical values by simply granting more and more “rights” that are divorced from any notion of responsibility. The problem with this approach—which has become more and more obvious over time—is that trying to create a civil society by allowing everyone to do as they please is like trying to fix the economy by printing more money. A period of euphoric happiness follows, but an inevitable and catastrophic crash will ensue—and the problems that follow are certain to be beyond easy or painless remedy.

We now live in a rudderless nation where we are free to be as self-centered, spoiled and entitled as we want without fear of either consequence or rebuke from individuals, institutions, or government. To express even the mildest disagreements with the behavior of others is today a sure sign of hateful intolerance—which must, of course, be adjudicated through the courts. To a certain extent I suppose inventing more and more rights is wonderful new business development for lawyers and judges, but it is also guaranteed to facilitate every sort dysfunction, infuriate those who act responsibly, and destroy any sense of community and common purpose by privileging the few at the expense of the many.

Supreme Court nominations matter. The tone the Justices set for the entire judiciary matters. However, unless the rulings by all levels of the courts re-establish some balance between what individuals contribute to society and what society can reasonably provide to individuals, expect the worse.

The Consequence Of No Consequences

If there is any connective tissue between the many scandals and strife that fill our world today, it is this: People sure do hate being judged.

This is, of course, a very human reaction. Trying to bluster one’s way out of difficulty by proclaiming your actions were either innocent or misunderstood—which is, of course, sometimes true—has probably been a facet of human behavior from the dawn of civilization. However, what has now become a conspicuous characteristic of our troubled times is that both a belief in our own blamelessness and an embrace of utter shamelessness are now woven into the fabric of our modern culture.

A component of this is certainly based on our ongoing societal and political efforts to relegate shame to the dustbin of human history. Given that we now pretty much determine for ourselves what is right or wrong because the concept of social norms tends to annoy many, the only way you can really find yourself in hot water these days is to be critical of another person’s behavior. To attempt to cause anyone to feel shame is—ironically enough—considered shameful. This circular bit of ethical entrapment disables any possible discussion of right and wrong because, as is now the dominant doctrine in many quarters, right and wrong are nothing but social constructs meant to oppress us. Thankfully, we seem at least able to agree that child abuse is wrong, although even this issue collides on occasion with our desperation to celebrate non-Western or non-traditional child rearing practices.

Think about the news or commentary that we all read on a regular basis. It is incredible how often the stories today are less about actual events and more about criticisms of the reactions (or lack thereof) by others. As a result, we find ourselves trapped in an echo chamber of denunciations, which allows us to avoid any thoughtful discussion of blame, shame, or culpability. If those who disagree with us are themselves bad—because they either criticized us or failed to properly exalt us—we are able to deflect any shame our actions might bring and be held blameless. This is, unfortunately, a perpetual motion machine of insult and outrage that contributes very little to problem-solving but does much—far too much—to degrade and demean our public discourse.

The net outcome of these deflections of blame and shame is that all discussions dissolve into debates about whose interests are being helped or harmed—our lives reduced to nothing but a series of transactions devoid of values—and no effort is expended examining the basic morality of the actions or intentions of the parties involved.

An example of the confines of our cultural and political norms at the present time is the anger that erupted over the passage of a package of federal laws known as FOSTA-SESTA that now holds websites liable for advertising sexual services online. Opponents of these laws lament that sex workers will find themselves at greater personal risk and suffer professional inconvenience because they can no longer advertise their services easily and cheaply through the internet.

Lost in all the discussion of the law’s impact, which has been immediate and substantial, was perhaps a more fundamental issue few wanted to discuss because it would be considered judgmental or—to use a favorite expression of many—“slut shaming” of a subset of women who are, after all, simply trying to make a living: Does our nation have an obligation to facilitate—and therefore tacitly legitimize—the world’s oldest profession, prostitution?

Is it possible in today’s America to simply say that prostitution is immoral and damaging to all involved? Would we ever expect those in charge of our major news and media outlets in New York and California to criticize or condemn prostitutes and prostitution in an effort to improve public and private morals and behavior? Such questions are considered so old fashioned and retrograde to those who sit at the pinnacles of our elite sources of opinion and commentary as to even be unworthy of note. Imagine if the New York City Police Department and FBI were to launch a crackdown on prostitution—which seems extraordinarily unlikely. Would The New York Times, for example, endorse this effort or resort to running sympathetic profiles of all the valiant women who were being persecuted by the police and prosecutors for simply plying their trade?

Morality is, of course, a tricky business, and over the past several thousand years of civilization we have expended incredible time and energy attempting to distinguish right from wrong. Our ideas of what is moral and what is not have certainly undergone some revisions—but much of the essential framework has remained the same. Ignoring discussions of morality and immorality because they might make some feel uncomfortable or judged for their beliefs or behavior is a foundational problem that afflicts broad swathes of our nation and might explain the persistence and magnitude of at least some of the issues afflicting many communities, families, and individuals.

There are, to be sure, many difficulties we must today address, but most will likely remain unresolved if even the most basic issues of right and wrong are banned from the discussions because they might make some feel excluded—or bad about themselves. Perhaps this needs to change.

The Blame Game

Roughly a decade ago, I found myself trying to answer a surprising question from a classroom full of my foreign students: Why do ladders in the U.S. have warnings plastered all over them informing users it is possible to fall off? They were honestly befuddled. Don’t Americans, they asked in their innocence, know that already?

I tried to explain the in-and-outs of product liability laws in our nation, but most simply shook their heads. It all just seemed very silly to them.

I am sitting next to a big yellow warning label right now on my bus ride to work: “Caution—Please Hold On While The Bus Is In Motion. Always Be Prepared For Sudden Stops.” This does not seem like unreasonable advice. I have seen passengers stumble and fall because of an unexpected lurch. One should always expect the unexpected. Our lives are full of “sudden stops”.

I spend a fair amount of my work day as a teacher doling out warnings, which I hope sound like sage professorial advice. “Don’t skip class. Don’t do your work at the last minute. Don’t trust Spellcheck. Don’t take zeros by failing to complete your assignments. Don’t just sit there if you have a question. Don’t. Don’t. Don’t.

My father filled my formative years with his own singular, all-purpose parental advice: “Don’t be stupid.” This wisdom had the benefit of both pithiness and infinite expandability, and it has served me well throughout my life thus far. I have, nonetheless, still engaged in a fair amount of my very own stupidity—both accidental and deliberate—but I have tried my best to keep this to a manageable minimum.

As much as we might like to believe we can simply avoid problem situations or problem people, the sad fact of the matter is that both are unavoidable at times. In fact, one of the key—and most troublesome—issues that we continually face when it comes to developing and tweaking our social welfare policies is simply deciding to what extent individuals should be asked to bear the consequences of ignoring reasonable warnings of harm. Did your own carelessness or stupidity cause you to land right smack on your face—and should taxpayers bear the responsibility for picking you back up again?

If, for example, someone abuses drugs or alcohol, should taxpayers be asked to bear the cost of a liver transplant? If this individual persists in self-destructive behavior and causes yet more damage to their new liver, does society owe that person yet more expensive—and likely futile—medical treatments?

If someone who is receiving housing assistance is evicted for causing a nuisance or damaging their rental property, should taxpayers be responsible for finding that person or family yet another suitable shelter?

If a teenager decides to skip high school classes and so fails to learn how to read or write well enough to secure gainful employment, who should be responsible for paying for the Adult Education classes that will obviously be necessary later in life to remediate that person’s deficient academic skills?

Every life problem begs a question of personal culpability.

If we deem that a “second chance” is indeed reasonable to offer to those who find themselves in certain difficulties for which we feel they are blameless, do we also by default owe them third, fourth, and fifth chances as well if the same problems reoccur? When does compassion end and enabling begin? Is it possible that in some situations our innate human impulse to be kindhearted is actually destructive to others because we are rewarding irresponsibility and discouraging the development of independence or problem-solving skills?

I hate to write a long string of questions, but these are issues we still struggle to answer as a country, and the many debates that scorch our national dialogue at the present time often boil down to ones of how to best assist those who are unable—or perhaps unwilling—to help themselves. As these questions often hinge upon the failures of other governmental programs—perhaps public schools that failed to educate or family services that failed to keep the family together—the answers are rarely straightforward or simple. Problems caused by governmental inefficiency or neglect in the past many times turn into even worse problems today—so what should we do now? How can we right these wrongs, and how much time, money, and effort is reasonable? Yet more questions we must struggle to answer.

Some problems cannot be prevented, yet we still expect everyone to exercise good judgment and live with the consequences of the stupidity or carelessness that the average person would know to avoid. My foreign students found warning labels on ladders to be inexplicable and ridiculous—if you fall off, it is your own fault. If I stand up during my bus ride home later today, I will have no one to blame but myself if I fail to hold on to a strap and do a face plant when we round the corner.

Whether we decide that individuals should pay more heed to warnings or—as some suggest—our entire nation needs a warning label slapped on it due to its dysfunctions is one we have yet to adequately answer in many instances. Should we decide that foolish or deceitful individuals are causing society’s problems, that drives one set of solutions. If, however, one assumes that a discriminatory and cruel society is the root cause of the problems suffered by individuals, that pushes the discussion in a wholly different direction and alters the equation of blame and personal responsibility that drives the assessment of proposed solutions. Each possibility requires careful thought and sober evaluation when assessing individual or societal problems. Neither can, sad to say, be proven to be true beyond a shadow of a doubt.

And perhaps this debate over blame and responsibility explains our stark political divide better than any other metric we can use. Our problems may not be urban vs. rural, college educated vs. those who are not, or even Democrat vs. Republican. It could instead be the case that we cannot agree whether the individual or society as a whole are to blame for many of the problems that afflict our families and communities, so it is impossible to find the common ground necessary to formulate solutions that seem fair and compassionate to all.

Of course, as any effective physician, judge, or legislator knows, some measure of “tough love” is sometimes necessary in order to effect the best—but not, of course, perfect—outcomes for both individuals and our society as a whole. To lack the will or the spine to make hard decisions when they are needed will only lead to more problems for all later on, and to simply dole out favor where none is warranted is the worst of all possible solutions to the many problems facing us today because yet more problems are almost certain to spring from our “kindness”.

However, we are all ultimately to blame if we cannot cooperatively work to help those in need of help in a manner that balances personality responsibility and at least a smidgen of magnanimity—while also recognizing there is never a “perfect” solution to any of the perfectly awful problems afflicting our nation and its people.