“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”
As the inequality gap grows, there is an ideological battle unfolding in the West.
On the one hand, there are those who think government can fix things. It must do more, tax more, spend more — even if that means spending money it doesn’t have. On the other hand, there are those who think government should stand aside, cut its spending, and let the private sector create the growth we’re told we need.
It is this issue that’s at the heart of the so-called austerity debate in the U.K.; it’s this issue that’s at the heart of the clash between Germany and southern Europe; it’s this issue that’s at the heart of the furor of debts, deficits, and the tea party movement in the U.S.
Is increased government spending — what some call “Keynesian economics,” though I wonder whether Keynes would now approve — the way out of this crisis? Or could it actually be the cause?
Let’s boil it down to a simple moral question:
If you are the government and a man is hungry, do you:
(A) Give him fish?
(B) Give him a rod and teach him to fish?
(C) Mind your own business?
I imagine most would instinctively go with B. That way you “feed him for a lifetime.” (By the way, the saying isn’t, as many think, Chinese, but has its roots in Mrs. Dymond, a 19th-century novel by Anne Ritchie, daughter of William Makepeace Thackeray.) Let’s consider the alternatives.
A: What happens if you give a man a fish?
On the plus side, he is fed. The risk of him starving has gone.
But this essentially well-meaning act has unseen consequences and raises all sorts of moral hazard:
- Where do you get the fish from? You have to take them from someone else. Whom? Why should they have their fish taken from them?
Or you have to pay someone to catch it for you. In which case, how do you pay for this? You have to take money for this from someone else — again, whom?Then there’s the risk your “government fish catcher” will interfere with the livelihoods of other fishermen.
- If you go on giving him fish, our man — without the pressure of necessity — is less likely to learn how to fish for himself. He’ll then need more fish to be given to him, which will require further fish to be taken from others. This might affect his self-respect. He may even come to expect free fish as his right.
- Those that are having their fish taken from them are now forced to catch more than they need. This might be at the expense of other areas of their life — their partners may have to start fishing too, for example, or they may have to put off other projects, such as starting a family. Annoyingly for them, many of the fish they hand over to government get lost or wasted.
- Giving our man fish absolves his family, friends, and community of the responsibility of either teaching him to fish or feeding him.
- If other people see free fish on offer, many will not see the point of fishing for themselves and will stop. This might lead to a breakdown in social cohesion between those fishing and those not.
- The people who redistribute the fish may not do so efficiently. They will also need some fish for themselves. If they are handling lots of fish, they may even be tempted to keep some extra for themselves.
- If you give a group of people free fish, this group is likely to flourish and expand, when surely you want the fish-needing demographic to contract.
All in all, giving people free fish can create more problems than it solves.
So on to B… Do you give him a rod and teach him to fish?
The advantage of this in theory is that if, as the saying has it, you feed him for a lifetime, he becomes independent, self-sufficient, and so on.
A combination of A and B has, I believe, been the ethos behind the policies of pretty much every Western government of the last hundred years or so. They felt they could give people fish and then give them rods and gradually teach them to fish for themselves, until they no longer needed assistance.
But it hasn’t happened like that. People are now more dependent on and expectant of government than at any other time in history. More free fish, rods, and lessons than ever before are being given out. And the more that are given out, the more those free fish, rods, and lessons are expected, indeed, relied on.
There are all sorts of moral hazards. What about the cost of all the teaching and equipment? It’s even greater than cost of the free fish. Who pays for it? The same people that have already had their fish taken from them? Is that fair — they’ve already had a load of their fish taken from them, after all? These people will then have to devote even more time to fishing, which means they have even less time and resources for their own families and communities. This extra burden risks pushing them into the realm of people who will need fish, fishing lessons, and equipment.
Over time, the group of people expecting fish, equipment, and lessons expands as the group supplying them gets smaller. This is the very opposite of what was originally intended.
What about the fact that all this equipment and fishing again also absolves family, friends, and communities of what would otherwise have been their responsibility? What are the negative effects of this? And of the fact that communities are now divided — some having to fish more, some not at all.
Who decides what fishing methods to teach? What if the teachers and methods aren’t very good? Who is the government to impose its own fishing methods on people, anyway? Who decides what rods get supplied? What about those equipment manufacturers that don’t get chosen?
You quickly fall into a vicious, spiraling cycle.
So we come to C. Government minds its own business.
This might seem the most callous and heartless of the three alternatives — but it might also be the kindest. The fear is that many might go hungry. Some may even perish. Then again, they might not. They might actually become stronger.
- Sure, hunger can kill, but it’s also a great motivator. People will have to learn to fish pretty quickly or they will go hungry. Circumstance will enforce improved practice.
- Those who can fish will no longer have their fish taken from them, so they will have greater resources — more fish, more time, more energy, more capital. Some may fish for fewer hours, freeing up time and resources for other endeavors. Some might sell their excess of fish and invest their profits, perhaps in some venture that those who can’t fish excel at. Their partners may not have to fish anymore if they don’t want to. They’d now have time, energy, and capital to start families younger if they wished.
Many might even use their increased resources to help those in the community who are without fish. It is human nature, after all, to want to help people.
- Family, friends, and communities will have to come together to help those unable to fish. Communities and families will bond and strengthen as a result. Indeed, these groups, acting on a local level, knowing local idiosyncrasies, might actually be a more efficient supplier of fish, fish teaching, and fishing equipment than government.
The assumption is that if government doesn’t help, many will starve. This is not necessarily so, particularly if communities are prosperous. In fact, the more prosperous they are, the less chance there is of people starving.If government doesn’t help, communities, families, and other cooperative groups will. And they will be in a stronger position to do so if government is not taking from them. Communities will also be in a stronger position to deal with any sudden disasters, should they occur.
- Ultimately, the nonfishing demographic will contract, which is better for society as a whole. It becomes stronger, more efficient, more self-reliant, and better bonded.
The amount of free fish we currently give out has been made possible by man’s increased productivity in the 20th century. But there will come a point at which the group expecting fish has grown so large and the group supplying it so small that the latter will no longer be able to support the former. The numbers won’t add up. That time is, I suspect, not far off.
Who knows? Governments may even try to disguise this from their people by printing fish, if you see what I mean…