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February 10, 2014

Do We Care If The Poor Don't Work?

Well, we should. Some of us don't. But we should.

But it’s also possible to argue that as a rich, post-scarcity society, we shouldn’t really care that much about whether the poor choose to work. The important thing is just making sure they have a decent standard of living, full stop, and if they choose Keynesian leisure over a low-paying job, that’s their business.

No, actually. No. It is not possible to argue this in front of anyone with a functioning brain, for more than three seconds.

Here's why: first of all, even conceding the very strange new notion that we are so wealthy we can let much of the population loaf, there is a thing on this planet we call adversity. Bad things happen. Industrial accidents, floods, economic devastation, massive crop failures, earthquakes, terrorist attacks. And so on.

Stores of excess wealth and widespread economic independence are good and necessary attributes to possess, when adversity strikes.

Douthat's assumption is that this is a time of plenty and things will carry on this way forever. This assumption has had a 100% guaranteed failure rate over the entire course of human history and will fail quite reliably in the future, probably very much sooner than we would like.

Dependents, or 'poor people' in Douthat's formulation, are absolutely defined by their inability to handle adversity. They have no stores of wealth. They cannot do a thing to help themselves, and this is a problem when adversity inevitably happens and the hands of capable people are full.

While the enormous wealth of a rich country may be able to keep millions of people floating on the dole for a good while in good times, bad times are another thing entirely. What you want when the sh*t hits the fan is a lot of scrappy individualists with skills and instincts and a productive acumen. People who are independent and helping themselves, their communities, and each other, directly.

Not a massive burden of helpless dependents, and its attendant slow, resource-hogging bureaucracy. The presence of a lot of dependents is not helpful when the prosperity of the country is not-so-prosperous, never mind downright endangered.

But against Douthat's central assumption is this; we are massively in debt as a nation. How can he say we can afford for people to loaf, when at the same time we are counting on their future productivity to pay down these bills? I'm at a loss to explain this massive oversight of logic.

And Douthat doesn't refer to these people as actually unable to work. He just says they are poor. So he's not talking about the profoundly disabled or infirm - people for whom publicly financed social services were originally intended. He's just talking about people who don't have enough money. Well how are they supposed to ever elevate themselves from this condition, unless they are encouraged or incentivized to work?

Douthat's assertion is nothing less than a green light for the continued willful and wide destruction of human potential. As if we haven't had enough of that in the last fifty years! Incentive is the mother of achievement, for almost all people. Remove the incentive, you destroy the potential greatness of the individual, and the future society that depends on such individuals, right in the cradle.

Finally there is the implicit insult in Douthat's assertion. The best way for me to elucidate this insult is to ask a question.

Faced with choosing between work, or being perpetual state-financed layabouts, what do you think Mr. Douthat would encourage his own children to do?

This is where cute philosophical fancies about 'the masses' crash with personal reality. Does anyone seriously think someone like Douthat would portray a life on the dole as an attractive lifestyle choice, to his own kids? I sincerely doubt it.

If some can be counted on to tell their own kids to go forth and achieve, while simultaneously telling others that they can sit home and collect a check, what is the real message here?

That it is hunky-dory if *you* never grow, earn, or discover the boundaries of your own success. We never really thought you had it in you, anyway.

Very sh*tty sentiment. Extremely so.

__________________

Just an aside: I asked the cobs what they thought of the Douthat column.

Dave in Texas:

Near as I can tell, the only point of this column is to be something that's supposed to sound smart to readers of the NYT. It's smart-sounding gibberish.

Gabriel:

I'm sorry, I couldn't really concentrate on it. I have no idea what it's about. It was boring.

Andy:

Rabbish!!!

When you realize you wasted hundreds of words on nothing.
Oh well.

At least it kept you and me occupied for a minute, right? Right.


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posted by Laura. at 08:38 PM

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