When Helping Hurts

What is good for someone is not always what it appears to be.  Pain is often a necessary precondition to getting better, like the hypodermic needle that saves a life or the intervention that shocks an addict out of his/her compulsion.  Compassion dictates that we help others avoid pain, but in this case, we know that avoiding the injection or putting off the intervention will lead to more and worse pain.

Charlotte Beck in Everyday Zen makes this point exquisitely.  Compassion sometimes means not helping people. Wisdom is knowing when that applies.  In our private lives, this concept is not so difficult, but in the realm of public policy, the word “compassion” becomes a sanctimonious dart to be slung at all who oppose state-run social programs.  The idea that helping sometimes hurts has been off the table for decades.

Please don’t count me among those who harp indiscriminately on recipients of welfare or other state aid.  The venom that spews from the lips of some hateful rednecks is revolting.  Some people need aid through no fault of their own (though I don’t endorse state aid) and some are shiftless bums.  I don’t know about you, but I can’t tell the difference at a distance.

And that is the point.  The state can throw aid over a class of people like a giant wool blanket, but it cannot provide the mechanisms necessary to the growth and eventual escape from helplessness that private organizations can.  Pat Moynihan warned in the 1960’s that restricting welfare payments to single mothers would break apart underclass families.  Decades later, a family structure that survived everything fate could throw at it disintegrated courtesy of the state’s “help.”  The helping hand of government turned into a degrading slap across the face.

Dismantling the ineffective and often downright destructive welfare state is not exclusively a wish of drooling hate-mongers.  For many of us, it is the simple recognition that we as private citizens are better at helping others than the state is.  We know the difference between a victim and a moocher.  We know how to help without hurting and how to improve another’s prospects without crushing his soul.  Get the state out of the way and let us begin the real work of helping our fellow human beings.

About Terry Noel

I am an Associate Professor of Management and Quantitative Methods at Illinois State University. My specialty is entrepreneurship.
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