The folly of benevolence

TheGlobeandMail.com – news/commentary/opinion
Published Monday, Aug. 15, 2011.   Neil Reynolds

In Australian philosopher David Stove’s What’s Wrong with Benevolence, no question mark is required. This essay is assertive: Here’s what’s wrong with benevolence – specifically, the benevolence of governments taken to its nth degree, its uttermost limit.

Mr. Stove retrieves a narrative tale from a 19th-century storybook to make his point: “A solitary Indian in his canoe … has been fishing many miles upstream from Niagara Falls. Despite all his local knowledge, he makes some slight misjudgment of time, or wind, or water, and finds himself surprised by the current. For hours he puts forth all his strength in trying to reach the shore. … [Eventually] he passes a point at which his diminishing strength, and the increasing strength of the current, make further resistance vain. He then ships his paddle, lights his pipe, and folds his arms.”

From Mr. Stove’s perspective, England’s Poor Laws are historically comparable to the metaphoric moment when the current of the Niagara River begins surreptitiously to speed our solitary Indian toward the Falls. Enacted in Elizabethan times, the Poor Laws originally gave succour to the poor, the sick and the elderly by means of a modest tax levied at the parish level. With the passage of time, the civic administrators noted a perplexing paradox: “It was found,” Mr. Stove writes, “that the proportion of the population receiving money under the [Poor] Laws (and consequently, of course, the burden on those who paid the tax) always increased.”

By 1800, the number of poor, sick and elderly people who qualified for the dole had increased several-fold, rising to one person in seven (which, coincidentally, matches the proportion of Americans who qualify for food stamps). The Poor Laws tax on the other six had risen disproportionately. By 1817, when one pound equalled 20 shillings, the dole necessitated a tax of 18 shillings per pound of income: an effective tax rate of 90 per cent. Thomas Malthus, the famous English demographer, derived two lessons from this experience: The Poor Laws increased the number of poor people, and they impoverished the working poor (or, as they were once known, the independent poor).

The benevolent solution? In 1834, England began to nationalize the dole, finally finishing the task with the establishment of the National Health Service in 1948. But the paradox persisted. Government help invariably increased the proportion of people who needed help. The result was a spiral of spending and taxation that – taken to its limit – now threatens to render everyone needy in one way or another. The eventual consequence, Mr. Stove says, is “a nation of paupers.”

He cites the Soviet Union as an extreme example of the consequences of benevolence. Marx, he says, was truly motivated by humanitarian concerns. Indeed, he proposed to eliminate human suffering. As for Stalin: “Given a monopoly of power, as he was, any consistent disciple of the Enlightenment would have done essentially the same things as Stalin.” The primary difference between communism and the welfare state, he says, is the speed at which the wealth of a country gets consumed and its people impoverished.

The national welfare state is not, of course, the end of all this. Now benevolence has been internationalized. Mr. Stove, who died in 1994, did not live to witness the euro-zone spiral in which richer welfare states sacrifice themselves to save poorer welfare states – ultimately moving the world (he argues) to global impoverishment and global terror. But he anticipated it.

What’s Wrong with Benevolence is remarkable – disturbing and haunting and, at the same time, marvellously acerbic. (Government can’t help red-headed people, Mr. Stove says, without hurting black-headed people.) His message is straightforward. Benevolence is a virtue when practised, without coercion, one on one; or when it is kept separate from the state. When it’s made universal and disinterested, it’s folly. By Mr. Stove’s reckoning, it’s time to ship the paddles, light our pipes and fold our arms. The Falls are dead ahead.

Andrew Irvine, a professor of philosophy at the University of British Columbia who edited a just-published revised version of Mr. Stove’s book, tries hard for a more hopeful note in his introduction. All we need do to avert Mr. Stove’s bleak expectation, he says, is restrain the growth of government.

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