Helping People Who Cannot Help Themselves: What is Government’s Role?

In the previous segment, I talked about the role of government.  Helping people who cannot help themselves, is typically considered a key role of government.  First, let me state that I think helping people who truly need help is generally a good thing.  Most people are good people and we want to help the needy.  We all know people, good people, who depend on government assistance.  Without this assistance, they might not have the basic necessities of life.  On the surface, it seems that only a cruel, selfish person would question if government should be providing this assistance.

We all see the positive benefits of government aid.  What, however, are the negative effects?

The key phrase to keep in mind in analyzing this, or basically any, issue is “You Get What You Reward”.  (See my previous post  Whenever we say we will help people who are helpless, we are rewarding helplessness.  As a consequence, we get more helplessness.  For purposes of discussion, lets not talk about people who may or may not be able to help themselves such as an unemployed worker who might or might not be able to get a job.  Let’s talk about a very young child whose parents c,annot or will not provide basic necessities such as food and shelter.

If the government takes care of the child of a neglectful parent, the problem isn’t that we are rewarding the child.  The problem is that we are rewarding the neglectful parent.  For example, we have two single mothers with very limited money.  Mother A uses her money for food and clothing for Child A.  Mother B uses her money to party and have fun.  Without intervention, Child B will starve.  If the government takes over and feeds Child B, then both Child A and Child B are fed.  Mother A though has no fun and Mother B has fun.  We are rewarding Mother B’s neglectful behavior.

When we look at an entire population, people don’t easily divide into two groups.  Rather, we have a spectrum.  In this case, at one end of the spectrum are mothers who will take care of their child on their own, no matter what, and would not accept any aid.  At the other end are mothers who won’t care for their child, no matter what, and will party and have fun without regard to the child.  Most mothers fall somewhere in between.  The more aid government provides, the more likely the mother is to have fun and leave the care of the child to the government.

The same analysis can be used with any kind of government aid.  Whenever we provide more aid, due to the inherent rewards, we get more people who need the aid.  In short, society has in essence three options when it comes to people who can’t help themselves.

  • Society can provide no aid and let the truly helpless people starve.
  • Government can provide aid to helpless people and as a result, we will get more helpless people.
  • Charities, friends, and family can provide aid to helpless people.  This might seem to be the best solution, but what then if private individuals can’t provide enough aid?

In short, there isn’t a good option here.  So is it the proper role of government to help people who can’t help themselves?  I’m still torn on this one.  I know that government aid in the long run often does more harm than good.  On the other side, I am sickened when truly helpless people can’t get the basic necessities.  There really isn’t a good answer.  In the real world, however, none of the above isn’t one of the options we have to choose from.

I would say that whenever possible we should look to friends, families, and charities to provide aid.  This should be the first choice.  As a last step, I do think government does need to have a role in helping people who can’t help themselves.  Any government policies need to be fully aware of the negative consequences of government aid and should be designed to at least attempt to mitigate these consequences.

Is this a good approach?  No, it isn’t.  I do think though it is the least bad of all of the bad approaches available.

The Role of Government

In my previous posts, I came to this conclusion:

We need government because it is in everybody’s best interest to have an institution that handles the situations where having everybody acting in their own best interest doesn’t work.

With this in mind I suggest that four areas are definitely in the role of government:

  • Public Safety – On the national level, this is national defense.  On the local level, this applies to police and fire departments.  On a broader level this would include building inspections and sanitation inspections.  It would be totally impractical before stepping into any building for each person to make an individual inspection to verify that it is safe.  We rely on government for this function to protect us all.
  • Infrastructure – We can’t individually build each road we travel on.  We rely on government to provide the core infrastructure that we all share.  This includes roads, public transportation, and utilities.  Government does not need to provide these services directly.  It can contract them out to private companies.  We all benefit from a good infrastructure, even from the parts we don’t use directly.  I may not ride a certain subway line, but I benefit when, for example, the person who cooks my meals in a restaurant can get to the restaurant because of the subway.
  • Public Investment and Amenities -I group these together as it is often difficult to separate them out.  A public park is an amenity but it also is an investment as it makes the community more attractive to others who may move to or invest in the community.  The chief form of public investment is education.  I benefit not just from the education of my own children but in the education of all children.  To qualify as a public amenity/investment is should be available to most people and it should be recognized as desirable through a majority vote.
  • Enabling a free market – Society benefits whenever there is a voluntary transaction, where both parties believe they will be better off from the transaction. Government does have a role in enabling this free market.  The government needs to provide a adjudication system to settle disputes.  The government can regulate that the transaction must be framed in a matter where both sides understand it and that there is no deception.  The truth in lending law is an example of how government can help make the transaction clearer.   The government can also protect us from involuntary transactions.   When a factory pollutes, the factory gets the reward and the neighborhood bears the cost.  This “externality” is an involuntary transaction.

The level of government for each of these services should be the level that affects most people using the service.  It is appropriate for the federal government to fund the interstate highway system.  If is not appropriate for the federal government to fund local roads.

There is one other role of government I have not yet discussed:  helping people who cannot help themselves.  That will be the topic of my next blog entry