They Must Be Fed

There’s considerable debate these days about the role of government. This is nothing new, really; Ronald Reagan famously declared that “government is not the solution to our problems, government is the problem,” and the 1932 presidential election was essentially a referendum on whether or not the federal government should intervene in the Great Depression. However the rise of the Tea Party in the United States has now brought the old questions back to the fore, and they are always worth discussing — in particular the use of government funds to feed the poor.

First, let me say that I am not automatically a huge fan of government.

Governments, after all, are capable of perpetrating enormous crimes. The greatest murderers on record — Josef Stalin and Mao Zedong — were not exactly libertarians. Without going to such extremes, however, every government perpetrates small crimes against its citizens: “the insolence of office, the law’s delay,” Hamlet laments in his famous speech, and anyone who has dealt with the DMV or dealt with legal proceedings knows what he meant. And, perhaps nearest to the Tea Party’s heart, governments almost universally insist on that redistribution of wealth called taxation. As Terry Pratchett put it, if you steal a small amount of money, you’re a thief; steal millions and you’re probably a government. [Paraphrased from “Going Postal,” pg. 10]

My own government, which theoretically represents me and works for me, is of course no exception. It does not tax on the scale of Sweden or Denmark, but its demands have gone up over its history. Its bureaucracies are not riddled with the corruption that plague many other lands, but they have multiplied and grown, and generally harassed and annoyed the very people they were created to help. And while its most grievous crimes are not on the scale of Stalin’s, the US government does begin wars, the worst of all possible crimes save one, and it has a history with that one worst crime as well. Genocide, as a term, had not yet been invented during the Indian Wars, but it was definitely official government policy toward the First Nations.

Particularly galling are the US government’s hypocrisies. “Dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” it may be, but it has also tolerated and even defended slavery, segregation, and discrimination by gender, sexuality, and class. Its citizens may be guaranteed the right to freedom of speech, but the government has notably silenced dissent by labeling it “sedition” on numerous occasions, and expanded “free speech” to mean spending money, leading us to the conclusion that all of us are free to speak, but some are freer than others. The American press is theoretically also unfettered, but the government has placed considerable restrictions on the media, especially during wartime, and also has stood idly by — or even abetted the process — as the press has passed into the hands of a few conglomerates.

So: I am not automatically a fan of government.

Now, some services that some governments can provide are almost indisputably good. The Seattle area, thanks to the publicly-funded Medic One paramedic system, is one of the best in the country and the world for emergency response; while our roads and highways are nowhere near such quality, I can’t imagine how much worse our traffic would be without public funding. Only the most virulent libertarians are going to assert that fire departments, road construction, and sanitation should be privatized.

All of the above considered, therefore, you might peg me as mostly libertarian, or perhaps a “localtarian,” a supporter of some practical limited civic government but nowhere near so enthusiastic beyond the regional level. This, however, does not factor in the moral code that I strive to live by.

Whether or not I am a Christian is still debatable, but I am still deeply influenced by Jesus of Nazareth, particularly when it comes to treating the poor. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is essentially the universal ethical code, found in one form or another in almost all religions and embraced by agnostics and atheists as well. But the Nazarene was particularly articulate on who the “others” are, and what “doing unto them” looks like. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus spelled out explicitly that we are all neighbors to each other; even our enemies must be our neighbors. Therefore all people are “others.” And Jesus was extremely clear on what exactly it is that we must “do” unto these neighbors: we must love them. In other passages, he showed that the poor are our neighbors too, the most needy and therefore the most in need of love.

Billions of people live on less than a dollar a day. Billions live under the poverty line. Even here in the still-prosperous-by-comparison United States, 14.3% of Americans were living below the official poverty line in 2009. American children are disproportionally poor — 25% of the population, but 35% of the impoverished population [National Poverty Center, 4/6/2011]. I could walk down the block and talk to the homeless men panhandling outside my local grocery store right now.

There are so many people barely getting by, lacking adequate food and education, many lacking adequate shelter. Billions are without clean water or even clean air. So many people. Therefore I’m faced with a real problem: by my ethical code, and in theory by almost everyone’s, these people have to be fed. How can it be done?

Well, here’s the thing: in the US today, there are roughly 44 million people on food stamps right now (or, in the modern parlance, EBT). That’s about one in every seven Americans. [Food Research and Action Center, 4/6/2011] And if you’re feeding or helping to feed over forty million people who can’t afford to pay you back, you’re either Jesus Christ or a government.

In all these debates currently raging about the role of government, and how much money the government should spend, I have a simple question to ask the Tea Partiers, the Republicans, the libertarians: if the government has no business feeding these people, whose job is it?

As I have understood their arguments (and please correct me if I am wrong), the usual line is that poor people are poor because they are A) lazy, B) stupid, C) sinful, or D) any or all of the above. They seem to say that giving money to poor people, regardless of who’s giving the money, increases their laziness and/or sinfulness. In other words, their poverty is their own fault. They’ve made their bed and they need to lie in it.

The statistic I cited above, regarding children, gives the lie to that argument all by itself — how can they blame and starve a two-year-old just for having poor parents? But far more importantly, Jesus (and Moses, Amos, Francis of Assisi, Mother Theresa, Mohandas Gandhi, the Buddha, and many, many more) never once qualified his instruction to be generous to the poor. He never once said, “Love your neighbor if they deserve it.” He never once said, “Give all you have to the poor if they’ve met all the eligibility criteria.”

I’ve gotten the impression that many Republicans and Tea Partiers hold the man from Galilee in enormous respect. If that’s so, in order to maintain their own principles, won’t they need to come up with a method of feeding all these poor people? Again, if you’re going to feed billions of people who can’t afford to pay you in the process, you’re either the Messiah yourself, or you have the collected wealth of a country, the results of taxation: a government’s resources.

Without a Messiah handy, I would be enormously pleased to find an alternative.

Government would do a lousy job. In fact it always has — just ask the tribes on the reservations. It would be arrogant and complicated and tangled (and the food itself probably wouldn’t taste too good). But even doing a lousy job, the government might get the job done. I know of nothing else short of Heaven on Earth that even has that chance. And either Jesus of Nazareth was flat wrong, or the poor must be fed.

So who will do it?


5 thoughts on “They Must Be Fed

  1. For some reason, I perceive as if some error persists itself in your analysis. I think it lies in the scale of time you have chosen.

    By tomorrow indeed, nobody could replace state and expect much better results than Somalia has been enjoying. It is not, however, a question of feeding “them” (less commonly referred to as “us”) by such a hurried deadline.

    If a fairy showed up and proposed that it could abolish state by tomorrow, even I would find it hard to say an unconditional “yes”.

    Despite my political views, which are clearly against the existence of any power over others, or any dependence on others either, my answer would probably need to be: “Sure, but do it systematically. First supply everyone ability to manage without hierarchy. Then do abolish it all, preferably by persuasion so good as to render any force needless.”

    I’ve long realized that such highly cooperative fairies aren’t in a habit of existing.

    The question thus changes into: could reliance on state (and perhaps, in a wider sense, reliance on any hierarchy) be obstructing society from attaining a better form, one which could offer everyone more of highly regarded conditions, notable among them: freedom, justice, peace and prosperity.

    It is definitely not a matter of “tomorrow or never”. It is a question of whether the current social order represents perfection (in which case we should shut up and let it continue)… or whether something is wrong, and from there onward, whether a gradient exists in terms of power and benefit: whether more benefit lies towards more power in someone’s hands, or oppositely less power in anyone’s hands.

    As society is complex, it cannot be analyzed exhaustively, cannot be fully modeled and experimented with in the context of a mathematical model.

    It can regardless be analyzed. We know that multiple societies have historically tried, and multiple are currently experimenting with notably more power in fewer hands. We know reports and accounts from people who have been involved. Unless we are unattentive, we should know what roles they play, and how it typically works out.

    To compare, we have not heard equally many accounts of deliberately attempted anarchy.

    So few have they been indeed, that most people use the term interchangeably with chaos, assuming it must have arisen overnight without anyone really planning a transition to it… and must necessarily involve at least rioting and wanton violence, lack of comfort or outright disease and starvation, and which must inevitably end in the restoration of state.

    There is no patch of land currently on earth, where state has ceased existence as a result of people voluntarily choosing it. There exist a couple of places where it just failed. Nowhere do we have a sizeable sample of what would occur if it was willfully abandoned.

    It says something about people, and something about state.

    1) About people:

    For nearly the entirely of human history, people have been content with being ruled by authoritarian tyrants whom absolute laws grant ultimate right of choosing: who is right and who wrong, who must be allowed to continue their service of the ruling entity, and who punished with either loss of property, liberty or life.

    Admittedly, in the last three hundred years, and relievingly as an increasing trend during the last hundred years, changes have been appearing.

    While still not demanding lack of power, people have been increasinly experimenting with democratically controlled and more transparent power. While not seeking abolishment of laws and state, people have been repeatedly attempting to run their society without tyrants.

    It may have led to some amount of progress. However, equally often the fruits of democracy have been bitter, and the receiving end of the tyranny of the majority, or perhaps the dictatorship of the proletariat, or something else fancily named… are not much different than the receiving end of plain old tyranny.

    2) About state

    State has been persistent through history, because its very model includes a tendency to monopolize power, and an innate drive to fill any vacuum of authority. Any territory another state hasn’t claimed, states have traditionally been happy to claim sovereignity and jurisdiction over. The error of state forgetting to assert itself, only occurs within its borders and temporarily. Micro-societies which don’t recognize the state around them do delve in such vacuums, but they don’t represent a model which could expand, merely be copied until perhaps, critical mass is reached.

    Our society is still based on the premise that state has unlimited right to enforce its laws. That forcing compliance with even the most nonsensical law is technically correct even if one must resort to utmostly disproportionate violence. Put simply, that crossing an empty street under a red light can lead to jail if you even passively resist… which is not a too great improvement over laws whereby repeated begging by the poor was punishable by hanging.

    The human kind seems remarkably reluctant to act decisively against such a state of affairs. Abuse of official powers is criticized, yet few seem to identify the source of abuse as power itself, instead stopping their search at its wielder.

    A social system which could theoretically incriminate anyone of something, where pathways exist to ruin anyone’s life if needed, does not seem inherently so objectionable to us… it only becomes so when it starts to hurt specifically us.


    I am of the opinion that people need to extensively change:

    – to realize that state and could be a problem, as well as the likenesses and reflections of itself which it tends to promote in society

    – to suspect that abolishment of it could offer a solution, with at least equal comfort and peace, yet much greater freedom and justice

    – to realize that highly persistent and systematic work is needed to abolish such a prevalent model of organization even for testing, given its tendency to reappear, driven by multiple factors, especially notable among them:

    — dependence, actual needs which must be, for avoidance of relapse, otherwise met and satisfied, and…

    — our remarkably innate tribalism, a vulnerability of the prevailing attitude to “divide an conquer” and “not my problem”

    I propose that we can feed ourselves, and regulate how poor or rich we are, without building territorial monopolies of power. I do realize however, that it won’t be easy, since people have been building them for thousands of years, and it’s not the easiest habit to kick.

    I do however caution that power and dependence are partly rooted in our very biological profile (we decisively NOT autonomous at the beginning and end of our life cycle, and rather easily f***ed up by growing up in the wrong conditions), so a perfect or full lack of all power of anyone over anyone, and lack of all dependence is unattainable as long as humans remains as short-lived as we are, which results in many meeting death before they get a clue. Biological reality however, isn’t set in stone.

  2. I love bashing the government, but does that mean “government” is bad, necessarily? Sure, mine could use some fixing, all of “them” could. But the alternative to organized government is what exactly?

    Is bashing “government” a little like complaining about your boss? It doesn’t mean that all bosses are horrible. More than anything it means I’m venting the steam of frustration living in a system where I feel small.

    But is that “government’s” fault? Just a thought, since everyone seems to criticize but no one seems to know how to fix “it”.

    • Governments acquire and hoard power, as puzzle just told us — and power corrupts.

      It’s not really the fault of the government, it’s just kind of how people are.

      That’s one thing I’m hoping to change, if only a little.

  3. There’s really two different issues here.

    The first, and least interesting, is whether or not the Government can fix the poverty problem. The answer (Which is more interesting than the question) is pretty obviously that not all solutions are appropriate all the time. When FDR used socialist means to preserve capitalism in the 1930s, that was the right thing to do in his time, in that situation. When Reagan did the opposite in 1981, that was the right thing to do in his time, and in his situation. Neither option is viable now, because our situation isn’t theirs. Tax cuts won’t work now, and it’s becoming increasingly obvious that Government subsidies/bailouts won’t either. One size does not fit all.

    The other, more interesting question is about the validity of any form of government, whether the ‘state’ has a right to exist, and wield authority. The answer (Which is less interesting than the question) is that humans evolved as omnivorous pack-predators, not unlike wolves and dolphins (Minus the Omnivorous thing, of course) over the course of three million years, and that all pack predators are inherently hierarchical and tribal. Meaning that we, their descendents, are always gonna’ bond ourselves up in states, or clubs, or religions, or favorite baseball teams, or whatever, and declare war on people from other cliques because that’s how we’re wired. It’s how we’ve survived this long as a species.

    Good, bad, or indifferent, it’s not reasonable to assume people are just going to throw away 100,000 generations of survival and social instincts simply because its not fashionable.

    • Some might dispute that Reagan’s approach in ’81 was the right one, just as many dispute that FDR did the right thing with the New Deal. That said, I agree with you; I’m increasingly dubious not of just one party, and not even of the party structure, but the whole way we look at government and society.

      And I also agree that we’re pack animals who do best in a group. My main objection is to those groups treating each other absolutely horribly. Rather worse than predators, actually.

      Consider: in nature, when a stronger pack or a stronger animal is defeats others of its own species, it usually asserts dominance or drives the loser out. Death is usually accidental; the loser usually lives to try another day.

      When we humans defeat another group of humans, we fire up the gas chambers. Metaphorically, at least.

      We’re on beyond predators, by now. Well beyond. And I think we can and should do something about it.

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