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Monday, February 15, 2010
Compassion and Coerced Silver

Two versions of one parable, the interpretation thereof, and my recommendation of a good book.

I have two questions for you, then the answers. But first I must tell you two versions of the same story.

A Friend's Problem and Phase One of the Solution

A certain man living in a distant country took ill. He was not well-to-do. In fact, he was rather poor. A remedy existed for his illness, but it was frightfully expensive and so was among the many things he could not afford. That its safe application required a doctor's watchful eye merely compounded the impossible expense.

At first the man managed to conceal his condition and its effects from his neighbors and friends, but gradually it progressed, until finally he could conceal it no longer.

An old friend from another city, a minor merchant, arrived to do business in this poor man's town for several days. On the evening he arrived, he looked up his old friend and paid him a visit. He was shocked and troubled to witness his friend's condition and correctly discerned that the man was near death, because of the untreated disease. Upon learning the nature of the sickness and hearing of the expensive remedy, he told his poor friend that he lacked means of his own to provide it, but was determined to find a way to obtain it, to save his friend's life. His friend thanked him, but doubted it could be done.

The merchant managed to conclude the week's worth of business he had planned in the town by the end of the following day, only a little less profitably than he had hoped, due to his haste. With his receipts gathered on a table before him, he calculated for a few moments. Finally, he divided the money into two piles. One was for his expenses, plus enough to live very modestly until his next influx of revenue. The other pile of money was for his friend's medicine. It was not nearly enough, but it was a start.

He sat back, contemplated the two sums solemnly for a few moments, then reached out and moved a few more coins from his pile to his friend's.

Tomorrow morning, he would set about gathering the rest of the remedy's price.

Phase Two

The merchant began by visiting his friend's physician, to confirm the disease and the remedy, as well as the price of the physician's necessary supervision of the treatment, and to negotiate a discount on the physician's fee for treating his friend. He learned that his friend had reported the diagnosis and the remedy correctly, including the proper dosage. The physician agreed to reduce his fee by 30 percent, with the merchant's guarantee of payment.

Then he went to the local pharmacy, where he found the pharmacist surprisingly forthcoming. He identified the needed remedy to the pharmacist and asked its retail price and its wholesale cost. The pharmacist told him both. The merchant understood that an establishment cannot sell everything at cost and long remain in business. He proposed that, in this case, the pharmacist agree to sell the remedy not at cost, but only a few percent above cost, forsaking most of the usual 20 percent profit margin this one time -- to save a poor but good man's life, he explained. The pharmacist hesitated, but finally agreed.

With both these errands completed -- and successfully, to be sure -- the merchant knew exactly how much money was needed to save his poor friend's life. It was a very great deal more than he had set aside the night before, but this was no surprise.

Phase Three

Next, he called upon the pastor of the neighborhood church, which his friend did not attend. The pastor knew of his friend, but had never met him and was unaware of his need. The merchant asked if there was anything the church could do to help his friend. The pastor explained that he collected funds every week from his congregation -- none of whom were well-to-do -- to help the poor and needy, and he tried to keep a reserve fund for seasons when needs exceeded contributions. In principle, he was willing to help a local man who was not a member of his congregation, but at the moment even the reserve was gone. He had spent it all to help some families who had recently lost everything in a fire. He had even pleaded with his congregation on each of the last three Sundays for extra generosity. They had responded selflessly and well, he thought, in view of their circumstances. But the bottom line was, the money was spent, the reserve was gone, and he didn't think his congregation had anything left to give for a while. So the church could not help the merchant's friend. He wished it were otherwise. He made a modest personal contribution.

The merchant thanked him sincerely and left. Night was falling, so he returned to his rented room, after a spartan supper, to plan the next day's effort.

Phase Four

The merchant spent the following day going from door to door in his friend's neighborhood. In so doing he met many of the pastor's parishoners, and he also saw where the fire had been. At each door, he explained his friend's circumstances and need, and said, "I know you have probably already given generously to help others, lately, but if you can make even a very small contribution, you will help to save a good man's life." Many of the housewives went to their cupboards, emptied the dishes in which they kept their loose change -- in no case was there very much -- and gave it to the merchant to buy medicine for his friend. Someone gave a spare blanket -- at least, he hoped it was a spare -- and several households offered food.

One man listened to the merchant's story, reached into his pocket, extracted his only coin, and gave it. The merchant thanked him, shook his hand, and turned away, but the man called him back. He explained that he was to be married on the weekend to a beautiful bride, and that he had secretly saved for months to buy a new suit for the wedding, as a surprise for his bride. The suit had been delivered that very morning; he hadn't even unwrapped it yet. However, his bride still knew nothing of it, and she loved him well enough in his old suit. He handed the new suit, carefully wrapped, to the merchant and told him of a second-hand clothing dealer who would give a good price for it, especially to save a dying man.

The merchant hesitated for a moment, then took the suit, thanking the man again, more quietly than before.

With the money neighbors had given and the price he received for the suit -- far less than the original price, he was certain -- the merchant found, when counting that evening, that he was still far from his goal, very far indeed.

Tomorrow would be another day.

Phase Five

He arose early the next morning and wrote out very clearly and neatly on a sheet of paper the cost of the medicine and treatment, the discounts offered by the physician and the pharmacy, and the contributions of the pastor and neighbors. He spent day carrying this paper from one business to another in the town, explaining his friend's situation and what he had done so far to raise the money, and asking for donations. Most gave a little. A few gave more than a little. Three or four merchants who knew his friend credited his accounts, so that the friend could obtain food and other necessities more economically at their establishments for a while. At nearly every business, the merchant collected something, in addition to good wishes.

This activity occupied the entire day and the following morning. When he had been to all the local businesses, the merchant reflected that people had been generous, on the whole. Ordinarily, perhaps, he would have to have regarded his fund-raising efforts as a great success. In this instance, however, the cost of the remedy was very great, and his collections so far reached only about halfway.

So there was one more visit to make. He had hoped to avoid it.

Phase Six

A wealthy but misanthropic spinster lived in a large house on a hill at the edge of town. He knew her by reputation, to be sure, but he had also had dealings with her many years ago, and had rejoiced thereafter every time he came to the town on business, that he did not have to see her again, because she rarely left her home, and he had no cause to visit her there.

He was admitted to her drawing room, but it was nearly an hour before she herself appeared. When she entered the room, he studied her face for some indication that she recognized him from their dealings many years ago, but saw none. He explained his friend's condition and need. She interrupted before he was quite finished, berating him for thinking he could just come begging at the richest door in town for whatever he wanted, without a second thought. Did he think he was the first?

At length he managed to tell her of his activities of the last few days, and of his limited but still somehow impressive success in those activities. She seemed to soften gradually, until finally he finished his narrative, and she said she could see that he had done everything he could, and that he must be a fine friend. But if she tried to answer every need around her, to give to everyone who asked, she would soon be a pauper, too. Her butler would show him out.

He stood, thanked her for hearing him, and said that, perhaps, the half of the needed remedy that he could afford would prolong his friend's life for a while. He wished her good day.

As he and the butler reached the front door, a bell rang from within. The butler invited him to wait, then disappeared for some minutes. At length he returned with a slip of paper, which he gave to the merchant, saying it was from his mistress.

It was a check. He examined it and found that it was for a great deal more money than he had requested. He explained this to the butler, who answered that it was the lady's wish that he redeem the bridegroom's new suit and return it to him, pay for his friend's treatment, and present the remaining funds to the pastor whose charitable reserves were exhausted.

The man asked the butler if he might see the lady again for a moment, to thank her properly. The butler said no, but that he would convey the message. And there was one condition to the lady's gift, he added. When he went to the local bank to cash the check, he must ask for the bank president, so that no one else would know, and he was not to tell anyone else of her donation.


He hurried to the bank to make the necessary arrangements before closing time. On the following day, happier and much relieved, he saw to his friend's needs, redeemed the wedding suit, arranged for an anonymous contribution to be delivered to the church, and prepared for his departure early the next morning. On his next visit to his friend's town, he was pleased to discover that the man who had been dying was now in robust health.

Alternate Reality

In another small town in another distant country, a similar situation occurred: a good but poor man took ill and could not even remotely afford the medicine that would save his life. The friend who came to his rescue was not a merchant, but a lawyer with aspirations to government office. His approach to the problem was somewhat different, but required equal energy. Rather than negotiating voluntary discounts from the pharmacist and physician and soliciting voluntary contributions funds from the neighbors, the church, local businesses, and a wealthy local resident, he drafted an ordinance for the town council, then set about lobbying them to pass it.

This ordinance instituted a tax on everyone to pay for medical care for those who could not afford it, and it forced physicians and pharmacists to lower their fees substantially. Naturally, anyone who could not or would not pay the tax, and any physician or pharmacist who got caught charging higher prices, was jailed. When this happened, the offender's property was also seized to compensate the government for the costs of enforcement and incarceration, and to increase the available funds for medical care.

You can predict the future in this instance. The number, quality, and training of physicians will decline; the available medications will be fewer; research into new remedies will be much slower; and the next happy bridegroom will not be able to save for months to buy a wedding suit, because that money will go to pay taxes. The new program will proceed with characteristic bureaucratic efficiency (between 30 and 40 percent). Oh, and one more thing. The lawyer's friend will die before the legislation and bureaucracy can be put in place and the program begun. But the lawyer himself will be elected to office on a wave of popularity, for his efforts in making health care available to all the people. Of course, he may not be re-elected, if voters eventually discover the full cost of his actions. But one battle at a time, y'know?

My Questions

I realize that my stories cannot be extrapolated to encompass a whole society without some modification, but that is beside the present point. The point is . . .

Who showed compassion in the first scenario?

Who showed compassion in the second scenario?

My Answers

In the first scenario, the merchant, the physician, the pharmacist, the pastor, the neighbors, the business people, and the rich spinster showed compassion. Possibly, the banker did, too, in doing his part by keeping his mouth shut. There may have been others.

In the second scenario, no one showed compassion. (Did you think it was everyone?) Perhaps we might argue that the lawyer did, but, if so, his was a useless compassion. His friend died.

In fact, it was worse than useless; it was harmful. The next happy bridegroom, who could not afford a new wedding suit because of his taxes, suffered. So did his tailor. So did the church. So did everyone jailed for being unable to pay the new tax. So did everyone who might have benefited from the wealth that in this scenario went to pay the 60-to-70 percent overhead for the medical bureaucracy, instead of being put to some other purpose. So did everyone whose life might have been improved or prolonged by more and better-trained physicians and by the new medicines no one could afford to invent.

On another level, there was moral harm to everyone in the second scenario who might have chosen to be compassionate under different circumstances -- everyone who had neither the resources, the opportunity, or the need to be compassionate, because the government was taking the resources and assuming the responsibility to allocate them. We sometimes talk of welfare programs that demoralize the recipient, but they also demoralize . . . not the giver, because there isn't one, but the taxpayer, too, who otherwise might have been a giver.

I haven't even mentioned the harm unwise and impersonal welfare programs do to generations of recipients. Remember, today's question is, who was compassionate?

My Point

I've heard the argument a thousand times over the years, especially lately: nationalizing health care is the compassionate thing to do. A while back I heard a Utah woman on the radio. She said she knows that big government is a bad and inefficient thing, and she loves freedom and favors lower taxes, all else being equal. She's a conservative, she said. But she favors the proposed government takeover of American health care in spite of all these considerations, and despite knowing that it is deeply flawed, because, she says, people have needs, and some needs are going unmet, and she wants to be compassionate and thinks we all should be so.

To this nice lady and the many others arguing for impersonal tyranny in the name of compassion, I simply wish to say, voluntary compassion which springs from the goodness and empathy in an individual human heart is compassion. The taking of wealth by government, under penalty of law and threat of imprisonment, to answer human needs is not compassion.

These two things, the authentic, individual, human compassion and the alleged institutional compassion of a people whose government proposes to take care of everyone, are approximately as much alike as an ice-cold glass of my favorite root beer and a glass of hot tar. They may look a lot alike at first glance or from a distance, but their effects are vastly different, if I drink them.

There are compassionate ways to meet the needs, medical and otherwise, of the poor and needy. One reason advocates of the health care takeover think no one is proposing any -- if that's really what they think, if it's not just rhetoric -- is that the only solutions they can see, or in which they can believe, involve more government power exerting more compulsion on more citizens.

Unfortunately, there is not wealth enough to do both, to answer such needs compassionately and fully to fund the institutional alternative. There is not wealth enough to fund the alternative by itself, come to think of it. In the end, then, compassion -- somewhat organized but still voluntary compassion -- is the only viable, long-term answer.

It's not compassion when you're giving other's money and time. It's not compassion when you're extracting assistance at the point of a gun or by force of law. It's not compassion to bankrupt ourselves in pursuit of a solution which we already know doesn't work well in the long term. (Look at Europe!)

Perhaps We Should Read the Book?

I'm far from the first person to think this way, and this principle applies to more things than just today's proposed flavor of Obamacare. One of the more thorough treatments of the subject -- especially the history of compassion that preceded the welfare state -- is Marvin Olasky's The Tragedy of American Compassion. This book should be read and absorbed by anyone -- voter, legislator, or otherwise -- who proposes to act institutionally with the motive of compassion.

Here are the last two paragraphs of the book. They do not do full justice to the book as a whole, but perhaps they will persuade you to consider it at greater length sometime.

It's not a new book; it was published in 1992. Then again, it's not a new issue, either.

Change in poverty-fighting is needed, but Americans need to be clear about the reasons for the change. Governmental welfare programs need to be fought not because they are too expensive -- although, clearly, much money is wasted -- but because they are inevitably too stingy in what is really important, treating people as people and not as animals. At the same time, the crisis of the modern welfare state is not just a crisis of government. Too many private charities dispense aid indiscriminately and thus provide, instead of points of light, alternative shades of darkness. The century-old question -- Does any given "scheme of help . . . make great demands on men to give themselves to their brethren?" -- is still the right one to ask.

Each of us needs to ask that question not in the abstract, but personally. We need to ask ourselves: Are we offering not coerced silver, but our lives? If we talk of crisis pregnancies, are we actually willing to provide a home to a pregnant young woman? If we talk of abandoned children, are we actually willing to adopt a child? Most of our twentieth-century schemes, based on having someone else take action, are proven failures. It's time to learn from the warm hearts and hard heads of earlier times, and to bring that understanding into our own lives. (pp. 232-233).

Here's a useful rule of thumb, using Olasky's phrase: If the silver is coerced, the compassion is counterfeit.

Strong words, you think? I suppose they are. The times require strong words -- and "warm hearts and hard heads," to combat the cold-hearted, soft-headed trend towards outsourcing human compassion to government.

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