Montreal, November 15, 2008 • No 261


Bradley Doucet is QL's English Editor. A writer living in Montreal, he has studied philosophy and economics, and is currently completing a novel on the pursuit of happiness.






by Bradley Doucet


          Liberty is won and preserved not primarily with guns, but with ideas. Spreading freedom requires that we spread an understanding of the benefits freedom brings, that we explain to whoever will listen how freedom is really in everyone's best interest. In making the case for a truly free society, however, we will inevitably come up against a wide array of illiberal beliefs that keep others from embracing our vision of a better world. The more we seek to understand those beliefs, the better we will be able to counter them and address the concerns that underlie them. In this ongoing series, I address some of the issues we can expect to face, along with brief outlines of the kinds of responses I think can be helpful.


BELIEF # 19: We don't care enough

November 15, 2008

          We all like to think we are good, caring people. Of course, we all want to be happy ourselves, but I think most of us genuinely want others to be happy, too. We want to help others rather than harm them. We want to make the world a better, not a worse, place. But the question we really need to ask ourselves as a society is, "Do we care enough?" With U.S. President-elect Barack Obama set to require (he has since expunged this word) community service from secondary and post-secondary students, clearly he feels we need to care more.

          In fact, though, the evidence is mixed, for we do care quite a lot. We care enough to help people who are suffering, often without requiring anything of them in return. We are compassionate enough to take a small fraction of our great wealth (say, one half?) to provide a safety net for people in their times of need. We care enough to save people from the consequences of their own foolish actions, even if it means they (and others) will learn no lessons and be even more foolish in the future.

          Actually, "we" are so compassionate that we often make other people's decisions for them, saving them from being foolish in the first place. We are "compassionate" enough to force our more reluctant fellows to help each other, and moreover, to force them to help our way, according to our plan, regardless of the fact that our way and our plan have been shown to destroy wealth and create misery time and time again. Yes, we are generous enough of spirit to impose our plan through force of law when we prove unable to convince everyone to adopt it voluntarily.

          Do we care enough to provide education for every child (even if that education is substandard and infected with thinly-veiled government propaganda)? Yes, we do. Are we compassionate enough to make sure every child attends school (even when teachers' unions prevent focusing on quality and innovation as revenge for having to educate the unwilling and disruptive)? Yes, we are. Can we find it in our hearts to draft our fellow men and women into paying for the educational system (even when they don't want to use it because it values socialization more than learning and doesn't teach kids how to think)? Yes, we can.

          We, as a society, care so much that we are willing to force taxpayers to foot the bill for certain people to do work that is not required, and to do it inefficiently, instead of letting them find useful work at a price the market will bear. We, as a society, are so compassionate that we guarantee some people a minimum wage, or a rent-controlled apartment, even though it means others will not find work and the supply of apartments will dry up.

          We "care enough" to take profits from successful businesses to give it to the less successful as a reward for their failures. We are generous enough to take from the less-entrenched to give to the firmly-established and well-connected. We have the kindness of heart to support our farmers, paying them not to grow food and taxing their foreign competitors out of the market, even if this means we all pay more for food and those foreign competitors starve or become dependent on foreign aid or switch to cultivating poppies and coca leaves.

          Clearly, we are at least concerned enough to siphon off the profits of those big, bad pharmaceutical companies, even if it means hampering their ability to innovate. But do we care enough to regulate and litigate against them to such an extent that it is no longer worth their while to produce vaccines in sufficient quantities? Are we compassionate enough to tell them what they can charge for the products of their efforts, even to the point where we destroy their incentives to take on the risk of researching and developing new drugs and the whole industry grinds to a halt? Are we concerned enough to militate for a complete government takeover of the industry, given that governments have such stellar track records when it comes to choosing which new technologies to invest in? Only time will tell.

          Do we care enough about the fate of every single species and subspecies of plant and animal to exchange growth for habitat protection—and force everyone else to make the same choice, regardless of how poor they remain? Do we feel enough concern for our children and our children's children to want them to live in a world containing every subspecies of insect that exists today, even if it means children somewhere else will die in childhood from diseases the wealthy needn't worry about? This will be a real test of our compassion in the 21st century.

          Truly, we all like to think we are good, caring people—which is why the rhetoric of caring is so powerful. But "we don't care enough" is too often merely a tool for clouding thought on important issues. People are twisted into knots by the requirements of altruism, which are never fulfilled. When you believe in your heart that you belong to everyone but yourself, no amount of caring is ever enough.

          And the cold, hard fact about caring is that if it is not accompanied by thinking, it can easily do more harm than good. Anybody can have good intentions, but good intentions lead just as surely to hell as to heaven. The wealth we all want to spread around so magnanimously must first be produced before it can be shared, which makes of productiveness a more important virtue than charity. It is long-term, enlightened self-interest, operating within the context of a free market where property rights are strictly enforced, that has lifted huge swaths of mankind up from abject poverty, and that continues to do so insofar as it is allowed to function. To be effective in promoting the happiness and wellbeing of others, one must not merely profess to want to help them; one must care enough to find out how they might truly be helped.



Current Illiberal Belief >>>


18. Capitalism caused the Great Depression
17. Democracy is a cure-all
16. Self-sacrifice is good
15. Everyone is selfish—and that's bad
14. Free markets are utopian
13. Change is bad

12. You're either with us or against us
11. The environment is steadily deteriorating
10. Resources are limited
09. It's a small world
08. Morality must be enforced
07. The truth is obvious

06. Good intentions are enough
05. Charity must be enforced
04. We are our brothers' keepers
03. Theft can be justified
02. Order comes from above
01. Government is good