As we approach Thanksgiving, the national holiday of gluttony, it seems appropriate to talk about one of the finest adages that western civilization has given us is: Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. This little nugget is right up there with the golden rule. Everyone learns it, and everyone knows it’s true. So when you ask most Americans which is a better method of supporting the less fortunate, it’s not a surprise that people answer correctly: teach him to fish.
Now that Saint Nick of Communism, Karl Marx, would have given you a different answer. In 1875 he wrote his most famous line: From each according to his ability, to each according to his need. This is the opposite idea. According to Marxism, if somebody needs fish, the guy that already knows how to fish should fish for them. Not surprisingly, most Americans disagree with this statement and with good evidence. The failure of communism in the 20th century illustrated that if you force a fisherman to give away his fish, eventually he will just stop fishing and get his fish for free like everyone else.
But if your Thanksgiving dinner includes some contemporary progressives, the conversation might include a third answer.
Me: Which is better, a fishing lesson or a fish dinner?
Liberal lawyer who makes his own beer: “A fishing lesson AND a fish dinner!”
Me: “I’m sorry, but that wasn’t an option.“
Fellow in thick glasses wearing a hat at the table: “Sure it is. How can you expect someone to learn anything on an empty stomach? Give him a nice plate of Dover sole – heck, make it fried carp for all I care – then get him a good night’s rest and tomorrow you can talk tackle!”
ME: “The question specifically implied that you have to choose one or the other. Assume that there is some physical impossibility in providing both.”
Lawyer’s wife: “Fizzie what? This is the real world. Of course we can do both!”
ME: “But they both cost money – especially in the real world. The purpose of the question was to determine which was a better use of the limited funds we have?”
Bernie Sanders (OMG, you are having Thanksgiving dinner with Bernie M-Fing Sanders!) : “Funds aren’t limited! Find some more. Look how frickin’ hungry that guy is. We need to get him some dinner! We’ll borrow it if we have to!”
Me: “But even if we borrow the money, won’t he be hungry again in the morning?”
Hostess, getting annoyed: “So borrow some more money tomorrow and feed him again. What are you, some kind of monster? Help the fella out for chrissakes! You are not invited back next year.”
Herein lies the challenge. Americans know the right answer but when faced with making the decision, the right answer seems unkind and no one wants to be unkind. Further harshing the toke, the right answer appears to offer mercilessly little more than the opportunity to remain self-sufficient. Still, even a crappy fishing lesson is more appreciated than a five dollar gift certificate to Long John Silvers. One of the smartest men in America, Arthur Brooks said “the greatest controllable factor to happiness is earned success through work.” In other words that fellow even wants to catch his own fish!
Tough love may be harder to dish out than it is to receive. In an effort not to appear mean, we avoid requiring self-sufficiency and helping in-need people get there. Instead of investing in job training we throw borrowed money at stimulus programs, jobs bills, and extend unemployment incentives indefinitely. We make free fish dinners the standard and avoid delivering the fishing lesson to those who want it. We choose not to look into the wet eyes of the currently unemployed and say “I am sorry, but the job, house, or retirement you must accept is not as good as the one you had before – but it will return you to self-sufficiency,” even though we know that is the right answer, and things will improve for that guy. Instead, we leave the bad news for generations to come later, people who we don’t know and whose eyes we will never have to look into and apologize for anything.
It’s time we change the strategy. Government assisted training, and work for aid programs need to gradually replace welfare as the default safety net. We all know that it is better to teach a man to fish and we all know that giving him a fish has only temporary benefits. Americans often fail to understand that we can’t have both, but that must change. The current course will only grow the number of families reliant on government handouts while pushing increased expenses into the future. That’s not fair to those in-need today or those picking up the tab tomorrow.