March 28th, 1999.
Last week's commentary provoked an intelligent reply. I received this e-mail:
Date: Thu, 25 Mar 1999 09:05:21 -0800|
Subject: "Alas, we part"
Having just read your commentary for the week ("A Right to House and Food"), I can't help but wonder who it is you expect to provide for the poor and disenfranchised. I am American, therefore may lack sufficient knowledge of the Canadian culture, so please instruct me as to the source of compassion these people often times need. There are real structural barriers in our country's which prevent even the best intentioned from enjoying equal opportunity and wealth. Surely, you agree? Perhaps further taxation should be focused away from the traditional recipients (middle/lower middle classes) and redirected to the wealthiest (i.e.. transnational corporations and their executives). We live as a collective, regardless of the physical and cognitive boundaries we erect to separate us from the poor. It is time we took Socrates' advice and remembered that our highest duty is the prevent the excesses of wealth and poverty within our community. I am a frequent visitor to your site and am grateful for the wisdom you share. In this instance however, I believe you've missed the mark.
Who, do, I, "expect to provide for the poor and disenfranchised?" I expect the charitable, not the coerced. If - and I say "if" - the government could do the job (and they demonstratively cannot) the result would be a far greater number of poor and disenfranchised. I subscribe to the moral sentiment theory and believe that government should stay out of the charity business.
I have written previously on "Charity" - I will now expand my views further.
Indeed, I do agree there "are real structural barriers in our country (U.S. or Canada) which prevent even the best intentioned from enjoying equal opportunity ..." As for wealth, a slippery notion in any event, I do not believe, even if it were possible, that each person should be "equal in wealth." To arrive at a state where everyone has an equal opportunity to pursue wealth or happiness, as might suit them, is a goal to which we should all strive, and, for the United States, it is a stated constitutional goal. That we have yet to achieve it, or that we will never achieve it, is, of course, no reason to give up the struggle which each of us, as individuals, must, in good conscience, make. (This notion of the collective, by the way, I reject -- there is no such thing; it is a banner under which, and by which, as history so plainly shows, despots proceed to secure and maintain for themselves and their cronies -- totalitarian power.) I believe we have made, at least in the "democratic" nations of the west, great strides in this grand goal of equality; we will move even closer to this admirable goal through education, not government coercion, i.e., taxation.
Compassion is a word that leaps forth from my friends' e-mail. But compassion is not something that can be exercised by government, it can only come from an individual who understands the object of his compassion: the dispossessed or sick person whom he or she then seeks to help. But none can make a claim for the compassion of another. By its very definition it springs forth in the heart of a person because he or she feels an emotion, entirely natural and human, which moves that person to have compassion for the suffering or distress of another, and by the desire to relieve it. It is, in a sense, a feeling expressed between equals or fellow-sufferers; this is shown towards a person in distress by one who is free from it, who is, in this respect, his superior. It, compassion, can only be exercised with a view to help the person or persons who are the object of our compassion. And, for certain, that person or persons, whom we seek to relieve, must, of necessity, be someone we have come to know, know not only from the present circumstances, but also, and, importantly, from the circumstances which led to the suffering or distress. Only then will compassion arise in a person's soul; and only then can a person lend a hand to another. Government and their paid agents, cannot, experience compassion; nor can they relieve the suffering or distress which we will find on the margins of our community. However, it is only natural for a person to reserve his or her compassion, or affection, for those whom he or she has come to know; it comes through his or her daily and personal involvement with them. It is pretty difficult, I should think, to have affection for a person in the abstract, no matter how that person be painted. We cannot legislate affection; we cannot construct benevolence on a logical scale; we cannot dictate to one what his or her duty might be. These are family matters; they arise spontaneously from the small personal group. If we try to raise these matters to too lofty a pitch of refinement we will find that such essential makings of society sink into callous indifference. But, I have said enough for this week. Next week I'll take up the subject, "The Family."