This recent budget is probably the most fiercely discussed I can remember. Some of the most passionate and even violent language is being bandied about in our newspapers, on our televisions and radios and across the net. It seems to me that the worlds of finance, politics and economics are in the midst of a great big ideological clash.
On the one hand there are those who think government is the answer. It must do more and spend more. On the other there are those who think government is the problem, so it should do less and spend less.
Perhaps, it can all be boiled down to this.
If you are the government, and a man is hungry, do you …
(A) Give him fish?
(B) Give him a rod and teach him to fish?
(C) Stay out of it and leave fish to him, his family and community?
This is all theoretical , of course. If a man is starving, somebody has to feed him. Not even the most extreme purist can stick with one of A, B or C all the time. I suppose the art of government is judging which to follow at any given moment.
I imagine most would instinctively go with B . As the Chinese proverb says, ‘Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime’.
But let’s consider the three alternatives.
A. What happens if you give a man fish?
On the plus side, he is fed.
But there are unintended consequences of this essentially kindly act.
1. Where do you get the fish from? You have to take them from someone else.
2. If you go on giving him fish, without the pressure of necessity, our man is less likely to learn how to fish for himself. He will need more fish to be given to him, which will require further fish to be taken from others. He may even come to expect free fish as his right.
3. Those that are having their fish taken from them are now forced to catch more than they need. This might be at the expense of other areas of their life – for example, their partners may have to start fishing too; they have to may put off starting a family or buying a house. And many of the fish they hand over to government get lost or wasted.
4. Giving our man fish absolves his family, friends and community of the responsibility of either teaching him to fish or feeding him.
5. If people see free fish on offer, many will not see the point of fishing for themselves.
6. If you give a group of people free fish, this group is likely to flourish and expand, when, surely, you want the fish-needing demographic to contract.
All in all, free fish puts you on some dodgy ground.
So to B. Do you give him a rod and teach him to fish?
The advantage of this in theory is that is, as the Chinese proverb says, you feed him for a lifetime. He becomes independent, self-sufficient and so on.
( Education and training as well as subsidies, tax incentives, legislation, foreign policy and defence [ie ‘protecting fish] are all part of B in my analogy ).
I believe this was the ethos behind Gordon Brown and others that preceded him in governments of both the left and right – and indeed of Obama and others in the States. They felt they could give people fish, then give them tackle and gradually teach them to fish for themselves until they no longer needed to be given fish.
But it hasn’t happened like that. People are now more dependent on and expectant of government than ever before. More free fish than ever before are being given out. And the more free fish that given out, the more are expected and indeed relied on.
There are other moral issues. What about the cost of all this teaching and tackle? Who pays for it all? The same people that have already had their fish taken from them? Is that fair – they’ve already had a load of their fish taken from them, after all?
What about the fact that all this teaching and tackle again absolves family, friends and communities of what would otherwise have been their responsibility?
Who decides what fishing to teach? What if the teachers and methods aren’t very good? Who is the government to impose its fishing methods on people anyway? Who decides what rods get supplied? What about those equipment manufacturers that don’t get chosen? Wat happens if our man demands better rods? And so on.
Many may learn how to fish, but prefer the free fish the government gives out. Or they are only prepared to fish for a certain number of hours per day for a certain number of fish. Others might come in from outside who are prepared to fish for longer, for a lower quality of fish leaving the non-fishing community with even less motivation to fish.
And we come to C. Government stays out of fish altogether.
The problem with this is that many might go hungry. Some may even perish.
C is I would suggest the most callous and heartless of the three alternatives, but, counter-intuitively, it might work out to be the kindest.
1. Hunger can kill. It is also a great motivator. People will have learn to fish pretty quickly or they go hungry. Circumstance will make improved practice inevitable.
2. Family, friends and communities will have to come together to help those unable to fish. Communities and families will bond and strengthen as a result. And actually friends, families and communities might actually a better supplier of fish (and fish teaching methods) than government.
3. Those who can fish no longer have their fish taken from them – so they will have more fish. They can work shorter hours if they chose, freeing up time and resources for other endeavours; or they can sell their excess of fish and invest their profits – perhaps in some venture that those who can’t fish excel at. Their partners may not have to fish any more, if they don’t want to; they now have time, energy and capital to start families younger, if they wish; partners can now stay at home and look after the kids, if they wish – or even, if they so desire, help those in the community who are without fish.
4. Ultimately, the non-fishing demographic will contract. Society will become stronger and more efficient.
This non-interventionist scenario of C, as well as being the most ruthless and inhuman is, bizarrely, also the most natural . It reflects the apparent heartlessness of the natural world. But that heartlessness is often better intentioned and more efficient than one realises.
This A, B and C is, I believe, at the heart of today’s ideological clash. The amount of free fish we give out has been made possible by Western man’s increased productivity in the 20th Century. But there will come a time when we can no longer afford to give out so many. Either there is not the natural resource or the money, so the numbers simply won’t add up. That time may well be now.
Who knows, governments may even try and disguise this from their people by printing fish , if you see what I mean … And that’s a power that needs to be needs to be taken away straight away.
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And please post any comments below as this is still a work in progress and something I have by no means finished thinking about …
How about we get “our” governments to hand out all the stuff they have been “fishing” with, so we can hold shares in some “fishing” enterprise near to us, and dear to our hearts. instead of each holding an unconsolidateable, irredeemable “stake” in a vast flotilla of leaky boats manned by unenthusiastic crew.
Aren’t stakes for vampireslayers?
Is it not true that wealth is improved by shareholders?
Is it rational to vote to supervise billions of decisions which will not affect me, rather than to vote to supervise the thousands which will?
Is it rational to compel me to either hold my “stake” for life, or else forfeit it? Why must I share the costs and benefits of pulling fish out, when I care about, and am knowledgeable about repairing boats?
Interesting & thought provoking. In option C.1 there is a third option other than learning to fish or go hungry, and that is to steal fish from others – too many people in SA are taking that option.
Hi, I just came across your work on the web and found it really interesting.
Congrats for the blog, work, interviews and writings!! They are great!!! =)
I just received this text and translated it to Portuguese to post on my blog (I´m Brazilian). As you know, it totally fits to Brazil´s economy and the thing is going so bad around here that if it keeps on the same pattern, expectations are that in 20 years, half of Brazilian´s population will be receiving fish, or as it is called here: Bolsa Família.
When I had already finished the translation, I came to check out the sources (and link them to my blog) and found this other text, that is similar, but not exactly the one I just translated. I suppose you edited it and would like to check if it was really you who did the editing, which I found on this link: http://lfb.org/today/how-many-fish/ , posted today.
Please write back an e-mail, since I won´t come here to check if you answered on this comment page.
Thanks for your attention.
Camila Wildberger Lisboa