Monday, July 1, 2013

Memoir on Pauperism

Everything you need to know about poverty and why public welfare does little to alleviate it and often makes it worse all in 36 pages written 178 years ago by one of the most insightful observers in the history of the world - Alexis de Tocqueville.

If you're concerned about truly helping the poor you really should read Tocqueville's essay, the full title of which is Memoir on Pauperism: Does Public Charity Produce an Idle and Dependent Class of Society? He writes it after studying poverty in England, the most affluent nation in the world at the time.

Here are a couple of quotes. Talking about how poverty is a relative condition he writes that:
" the [medieval period] the number of those not totally absorbed in self-preservation was extremely small. Their life was brilliant, ostentatious, but not comfortable. One ate with one's fingers on silver or engraved steel plates, clothes were lined with ermine or gold, and linen was unknown; the walls of their dwellings dripped with moisture, and they sat in richly sculptured wooden chairs before immense hearths where entire trees were consumed without diffusing sufficient heat around them.

I am convinced that there is not a provincial town today whose more fortunate inhabitants do not have more true comforts of life in their homes and do not find it easier to satisfy the thousand needs created by civilization than the proudest medieval baron."
That is orders of magnitude more true today of the people we call poor than it was in Tocqueville's day. Poor people today, at least in the western world, have every physical need met and have access to comforts and luxuries that would have been the envy of the richest aristocrats in Tocqueville's world. He also observes that,
"There are two incentives to work: the need to live and the desire to improve the condition of life. Experience has proven that the majority of men can be sufficiently motivated to work only by the first of these incentives. The second is effective only with a small minority."
Finally, in explaining the difference between private and public charity and why the former is far better than the latter he says:
"Individual alms-giving established valuable ties between the rich and the poor. The deed itself involves the giver in the fate of the one whose poverty he has undertaken to alleviate. The latter, supported by aid which he had no right to demand and which he may have had no hope of getting, feels inspired by gratitude. A moral tie is established between the two classes....

This is not the case with legal charity (i.e. public welfare). The latter allows the alms to persist but removes its morality. The law strips the man of wealth of part of his surplus without consulting him, and he sees the poor man only as a greedy stranger invited by the legislator to share his wealth. The poor man feels no gratitude for a benefit which no one can refuse him and that cannot satisfy him in any case."
Every one of the Memoir's thirty six pages is laden with Tocqueville's wisdom borne of careful observation and is as relevant for our times as it was for his. I urge readers to give it a look if they're interested in an excellent primer on why public welfare does more harm than good. The sooner we end it, at least as it is currently practiced, the better everyone will be.

Debasing the Discourse

The other day Texas Democrats, led by a senator named Wendy Davis, filibustered the state senate in order to prevent a vote on a bill that would have put several restrictions on a mother's right to kill her unborn child. The restrictions were uncontroversial except one that would have prevented late term abortions when the child is able to experience pain. Senator Davis evidently felt that it's an injustice to prohibit women from relieving themselves of an unwanted child, even if the child is able to feel itself being ripped apart.

Anyway, Governor Rick Perry had this to say about Senator Davis:
Who are we to say that children born in the worst of circumstances can’t grow to live successful lives? In fact, even the woman who filibustered the senate the other day was born into difficult circumstances. She was the daughter of a single woman, she was a teenage mother herself. She managed to eventually graduate from Harvard Law School and serve in the Texas senate. It is just unfortunate that she hasn’t learned from her own example that every life must be given a chance to realize its full potential and that every life matters.
I don't know about you, but as I read those words they sounded more to me like a gracious compliment bestowed upon a political opponent than some horrid insult. But that's not how some progressives have interpreted his statement which seems to have induced an acute case of the vapors among a number of pro-choice lefties. NRO's David French cites some examples:
“Perry Launches Vicious Attack On Texas Lawmaker” — so declares the Huffington Post on its front page. The story itself claims Texas Governor Rick Perry jabbed new feminist hero Wendy Davis “for being a teen mom.”

Davis herself reacted with outrage, declaring in a statement: "Rick Perry’s statement is without dignity and tarnishes the high office he holds,” she said. “They are small words that reflect a dark and negative point of view. Our governor should reflect our Texas values. Sadly, Gov. Perry fails that test.”

Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood, was similarly upset: "Rick Perry’s remarks are incredibly condescending and insulting to women,” Richards said. “This is exactly why the vast majority of Texans believe that politicians shouldn’t be involved in a woman’s personal health care decisions. Women are perfectly capable of deciding whether to choose adoption, end a pregnancy, or raise a child, and they don’t need Rick Perry’s help making that decision."

Daily Kos writer Joan McCarter: "Texas Gov. Rick Perry is digging his hole deeper with women, and decent people, with his War on Women, and he’s making it really ugly, and really personal about his new nemesis, Sen. Wendy Davis."
"Vicious attack"? "dark and negative"? "condescending and insulting"? "war on women"? "ugly"?

It's hard to believe that any of these ladies to the time to read what Rick Perry actually said. If they did, and this is how they understood him, then perhaps we need to question their reading comprehension skills. If they did read his words, and comprehended them but responded in this fashion for political advantage, then they're dishonest and mean-spirited. If they didn't read him but just said these unflattering things about him because they consider him an ideological enemy, then they are both mean-spirited and simple-minded. In any case, there's no charitable way to interpret what these women write.

This, though, is what we've too often seen from contemporary liberalism. The tactic is to avoid engaging one's opponent in a spirit of mutual respect, but rather to attack, distort, smear and destroy. We've recently seen this employed even on the Supreme Court. In the majority decision handed down in the Windsor case which overturned at least part of the Defense of Marriage Act last week, Justice Kennedy, rather than make an erudite argument based on the Constitution, chose instead the path of personal invective by labeling anyone who disagrees with him on the issue of gay marriage as deserving of contempt. This, despite the fact that DOMA was voted for by most congressional Democrats, signed by Bill Clinton, and supported, as one commentator put it, until the day before yesterday by Barack Obama.

Nevertheless, the defenders of traditional marriage, the august Justice Kennedy sniffed, are motivated by nothing more than a “bare ... desire to harm a politically unpopular group” and thus, he concluded, DOMA does not deserve to stand.

His brilliant colleague, Justice Antonin Scalia, offered an incisive riposte to Kennedy's smear in his minority opinion:
To defend traditional marriage is not to condemn, demean, or humiliate those who would prefer other arrangements, any more than to defend the Constitution of the United States is to condemn, demean, or humiliate other constitutions. To hurl such accusations so casually demeans this institution. In the majority’s judgment, any resistance to its holding is beyond the pale of reasoned disagreement… It is one thing for a society to elect change; it is another for a court of law to impose change by adjudging those who oppose it hostes humani generis, enemies of the human race.
Unfortunately, people like Kennedy and the women who attacked Governor Perry don't seem to care about all that. Their tactic works, after all. It gives them a frisson of moral superiority while crippling their foes and relieves them of the burden of having to construct compelling arguments. The fact that it degrades themselves, their institutions, the political process, and our public discourse is evidently not a matter of much concern to them.