The Stone City

Words Made to Last

Friday, May 20, 2005


In my recent post on the newly-immobile poor, Altruism, I discussed the relationship of a liberal pundit:
Mr. Drum, a writer, would not be significantly affected by broader unionization. He is a more likely millionaire than those whom he seeks to protect. Nowhere is there any hint that his advocacy is based on self-interest; so let us accept, in good faith, that it is not. He sincerely seeks to protect the less fortunate masses, but their problems are not his problems.
On the subject of criminals, rather than the poor, G. K. Chesterton had this to say [in "The Secret of Father Brown"]:
But what do these men mean... When they say criminology is a science? They mean getting outside a man and studying him as if he were a gigantic insect: in what they would call a dry impartial light, in what I should call a dead and dehumanized light. They mean getting a long way off him, as if he were a distant prehistoric monster; staring at the shape of his ‘criminal skull’ as if it were a sort of eerie growth, like the horn on a rhinoceros’s nose. When the scientist talks about a type, he never means himself, but always his neighbour; probably his poorer neighbour.... So far from being knowledge, it’s actually suppression of what we know. It’s treating a friend as a stranger, and pretending that something familiar is really remote and mysterious.
I believe there is an important commonality here. Mr. Drum, the best of his breed, is thoughtful, generous and intellectually honest. He is sincere about helping the poor, just as Chesterton's criminologists were sincere about apprehending criminals. But his designs to help are influenced by his perception of the poor as a separate entity, an empirical mass of strangers.

There is a failing on my own side, as well. Father Brown's secret was that he could adopt the criminal's views, warping his own judgement until he understood their thoughts and motivations. This true understanding is where true compassionate charity must start, and there is no reason to suppose that I possess it in any larger measure than does Mr. Drum. Where his weakness is entomology, mine is projection -- substituting my own feelings for others' in the largely wishful belief that they might be similar.

There are some positive externalities to this sort of projection. In particular, a policy designed to maximize opportunity -- the policy I would desire were I among the immiserated poor -- would have the effect of encouraging hope and endeavour.

Opportunity is, roughly speaking, the slope of the curve of reward as a function of effort. At a given fixed level of resource commitment, this slope can only be increased by lowering the bottom end of the curve; in short, by further immiserating the very poorest. I have written more about this dilemma here. Serious advocacy of personal responsibility for the poor must recognize this cruel effect, just as serious advocacy of social welfare must recognize its tendency to create a cycle of meaningless misery and casual brutality.