American Samaritans

By David Swanson

There are probably three things necessary if the United States government is to better provide for the American people: First, expose as baseless and harmful the pseudoscientific theories that claim to show that helping people actually hurts them, that charity is cruelty, that a higher minimum wage hurts workers, that health coverage leads to poor habits and health, that altruism doesn’t “really” exist and therefore should not be engaged in, etc. Second, recount for people enough stories of actual altruism, both individual and collective, that they understand its power and are inspired to engage in it and promote it. Third, make some systemic changes in our government so that the will of the people, thus developed, can have some impact on it.

The first two requirements are accomplished in a wonderful new book called “The Samaritan’s Dilemma: Should Government Help Your Neighbor?” by Deborah Stone. She sets out to address the problem that many Americans do not think of government as a way to help anyone or do good in the world. Those who want to do good often choose to do so privately, and are often then frustrated by the much greater harm done by the government they’ve ignored. She traces dismissal of government as a way to help to claims of the past few decades that government aid goes to parasites who would actually be better off if forced to shape up and take care of themselves.

Stone agrees that there are many cases in which people are best served by showing them how to help themselves. But, she points out, “The problems that get people pumped up about politics are ones that are beyond the capacity of individuals to solve themselves, no matter how smart or skilled they are or could become and no matter how hard they try. Among these problems: health insurance; much if not most illness and injury; safe and affordable housing; steady work with sufficient pay and benefits to take care of a family; adequate retirement income; affordable higher education and effective primary education; broken, violent neighborhoods; transportation between where people live and where they work; and all the various forms of discrimination, in which people are treated on the basis of stereotypes, no matter what their merits.”

Stone even blames the Help-Is-Harmful ethos for the diminishment of community in the United States and the rise of bowling alone. Disagreeing with Robert Putnam, she writes: “I trace this withdrawal to a deeper moral source: People who think of themselves as kind and compassionate hesitate to belong to a club of meanies. When people are told not to reach out to other people because help is harmful, they have to harden themselves and act mean when they would rather be kind. If citizens don’t join groups, cooperate with each other, or participate in politics as much as we used to, it’s likely because we can’t get along with OURSELVES. The contradiction between our private and public moralities is too hard to bear.”

Chapter 2 is the key to Stone’s eight-chapter book. In it she lays out seven arguments against helping people and convincingly reduces them to laughable fairy-tales. These arguments tend, Stone shows, to be based on sleights of hand that occur prior to the arguments. Those in need of help are depicted from the start as not needy, not hungry, not suffering in any way. And help is defined from the start as a reward, not as alleviation of any sort of suffering. “To believe help is harmful,” she writes, “you have to think of it as something people can do without. You have to have already decided that they don’t really need it. And that is the big deception, the invidious moral claim at the heart of conservative logic.”

At the heart of libertarian logic, Stone suggests, is the notion that a government can only provide for anyone by ENSLAVING others. But, as Stone points out, we tend not to agree with this belief that we have been enslaved. In fact, despite the success of the help-is-harmful crusade in demonizing welfare, polls show that most Americans want their government to take some of their money and give it to those in need. When you’ve reached the point of alleging voluntary slavery, it’s time to check the battery in your BS detector!

Chapters 3 through 7 consist largely of accounts of altruism, most of them very small scale and personal. If you’re in search of debate talking points and syllogistic proofs you might be tempted to skip all of this and jump to chapter 8 to find out what any of it has to do with government. I would advise against doing so. We do not learn good behavior by syllogism, but by example. And these examples are not without several key lessons along the way. Through Stone’s accounts of altruism, we discover not only that many Americans are very altruistic, not only that we are ourselves altruistic in various ways, but also that we want to be more so, and that much altruism is discouraged by government policies that should promote it and shamed by public perceptions that ought to praise and honor it. Prominent are stories of home healthcare workers who are forbidden to have contact with their clients outside of official visits and forbidden to assist them in various ways, but who go out of their way to help anyway. Far from doing so to win praise, these workers take these steps with a sense of shame that they are weak and doing wrong, violating public morality. That’s a public morality I want no part in.

Stone does an outstanding job of debunking the rightwing application of theories from the physical sciences to moral prescription. Sadly, she then engages in a bit of it herself, arguing that neuroscience has shown that humans and other animals engage in altruism. Stone had already shown that sufficiently by her extensive account of the presence of altruism in our behavior. Playing along with the pretense that somebody with a microscope and a lab coat has to sanction our behavior by agreeing that it exists serves no useful purpose and only sets people up for a fall the next time some new scientific finding is alleged to discover the dominant presence of sadism.

But this is a minor note in a valuable book that goes on to show that people are most likely to be more altruistic if you tell them that they already are, give them credit for it, and give them responsibility for it. And the best way to give people responsibility is often to ask them to help someone else. The best programs and organizations for developing active citizens are not those that refrain from helping, but those that show people how they can help others. It’s not “Teach a man to fish” so much as “Teach a man to teach others to fish.”

Now, imagine that we work privately and through local and state governments to put our energy into helping people through programs that give them responsibility, show them how to help others, and develop in them the idea that they have an interest and a responsibility in government. We would be moving in the direction of influencing Washington. But we would still be miles away. It is very rare for majority opinion to carry the day in our capital. We would still be shut out of the corporate media, not because our ideas are less attractive than those of people who claim to oppose charity for the good of the poor, but because the corporate media is corporate. We would still have very little influence with elected officials, because a legalized system of bribery puts them in the pockets of wealthy interests. Winning over individual elected officials would still be of little value, since the two voices of two overgrown factions known as “parties” command the obedience of most so-called public servants at the national level. We would still be hard-pressed to elect real representatives without verifiable vote counting, elections on weekends, instant runoff voting, election day registration, and so many other reforms needed to make voting easier and more credible.

And we will never have money to spend on doing good as long as we are borrowing trillions of dollars to spend on killing people around the world. Sadly, Stone’s few references to war in her book are not helpful. She claims that what the United States is doing in Iraq is “trying to seed” democracy and attempting the almost impossible task of “protecting Iraqis from insurgent violence without killing innocent civilians.” Apparently oblivious to eternally stop-lossed contracts, she even proposes as admirable altruists the “experienced soldiers who stay with the armed services [“services” – a phrase she does not question] instead of switching to a private security firm to do the same dangerous job for ten times the military pay.” I’m sure Stone imagines it insignificant in a book on domestic ethics to swallow whole the Pentagon’s laughable propaganda, a pile of lies and nonsense that Stone would be more than capable of debunking were she so inclined. But she should consider the harm done when books on foreign policy or other topics mention in passing their complete acceptance of the hooey and bunkum that Stone has devoted her book to denouncing.

We will have to tackle all of these problems if we are to build a better world. Stone has given us several strong bricks to work with.

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