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Heartless

About twenty years ago, I had occasion to work with a computer programmer named Carl. One day, for some reason, we discussed a lawsuit which had been brought against a national toy company. The toy involved was a plastic "sprinkler head," which was attached to the business end of a garden hose and, when the water was turned on, transformed the hose into a kind of whirling dervish, which spun around in the air, spraying water all over the place to the delight of summer children everywhere. Unfortunately, it seemed that some kid somewhere decided to place the device in his mouth, turn on the water and, predictably, the child drowned.

Carl had no sympathy. "Culling," he called it. Nature's way of weeding out inferior designs. While I was shocked at Carl's lack of compassion, deep down I had a gnawing feeling that perhaps he might be right. A single kid, among hundreds of thousands, and among perhaps millions of uses of this toy, was tragically killed because he thought it would be fun to jam it down his throat and open the spigot. The thought that this must have been an inordinately reckless, or inordinately dimwitted child, nagged at me for days. It did sound pretty stupid to do what he did, after all. On the other hand, kids do stupid things. Should the penalty for that be death? In any case, we agreed that the lawsuit brought by his parents was absurd. Hundreds of thousands of kids used that toy without a problem; one kid did something stupid with it and died, so that meant the toy should be taken off the market and its manufacturers should pay millions in damages? Obviously not; the fact that one individual out of so many suffered a negative result due to his own misuse of a product hardly rendered that product dangerous, despite the assertions of government and its legal system.

Over the years, we've all witnessed scores of cases such as the one noted above. Million-dollar settlements, products removed from the marketplace, idiotic warning labels on everything from Silly Putty to cattle prods. All of this to prevent people from doing stupid things and making foolish choices. Yet people continue acting stupidly, not just in regard to consumer items, but in all aspects of their lives. They smoke (sucking a solid into their lungs), damaging their health. They overeat, and don't exercise, ditto. They spend too much money and have more children than they can afford. This is all called freedom, and people can do whatever they want to do to themselves, as far as I'm concerned (but they shouldn't go begging to the state when they find they've screwed up, of course).

Culling, he called it. Social Darwinism at its most brutal. It's not that I don't have sympathy for people in dire straits, or even those in simple need. When I encounter a homeless person on the street, for example, I recognize that under different circumstances that could be me. I typically feel a ripple of sorrow, and sometimes hand over a dollar (although I fully suspect it will be used for alcohol, or worse). At the mall a few years ago while waiting for the elevator, I found myself standing across from a boy in his late teens in a wheelchair. He wasn't a bad-looking kid, but from his speech and mannerisms I realized he'd never have a normal life. Somehow this brought tears to my eyes and I had to walk away. This kind of thing doesn't happen to me often, but it’s necessary that I mention that little story because of what I must write next.

You see, I've reached the point where I have to agree with Carl. This is an unpopular position, to be sure. When discussing it with friends, it always ends up with my being labeled a hard-hearted hater of poor people. With me supposedly caring not a whit about all the children who never had the advantages I had. I'll admit I was fortunate enough to have had good parents, a husband and wife who loved each other, worked hard together, and tried their best to provide my brother and me with a decent lower-middle class existence. They made sure I did my homework and do as well as I could in school. Yes, they scraped together enough dollars and paid my tuition at an unexceptional, mid-city “commuter college” (in an era when, fortunately, it cost just $300 per semester), and they were supportive in many ways when I foundered in my career and my life.

While these don't seem to me to be extraordinary advantages, this is obviously better than having parents who are alcoholics, who are constantly fighting, who don't care about their kids, who berate them or beat them, who let them run around unsupervised so they can get in trouble, do poorly in school and fail to develop basic common sense or an ethical system, or the ability to solve the slightest of problems, or gain any skills for earning a living. Certainly most kids from such an environment will have more trouble than I did in attaining a modest, middle-class existence.

Not that it is impossible, however. As the book The Great Reckoning notes (quoting Economist magazine), poverty can be overcome fairly effectively if teenagers do just a few things: finish high school, don't have babies, and find a job and keep it. Two people working full time, each earning just $7.50 per hour, should have over $24,000 a year after income taxes. They could spend a third of that on rent and have enough left over to live decently, couldn't they? There could be some savings, too, if they shunned the X-box, cell phone, widescreen TV and the new car, right? They might not be living high on the hog, but they could live in a dignified way, and would be stable enough to improve their work skills, and get ahead, however slowly, wouldn't they? It seems to me that people need to live within their limitations; it’s simple: just don't spend what you don't have. Yet, "can I afford it?" is a question no one asks themselves anymore. “Do I really need this?” is another.

Like it or not, those groups who do not or cannot live within their means, act responsibly, perform useful work, provide for their offspring, save money for their future, etc. are supposed to wither away; their bloodlines are supposed to peter out. This is Nature’s way. Survival of the fittest. Culling. Yes, it sounds heartless, but it is inherent in life. The effective and competent members of a species survive and multiply and, furthermore, they instinctively limit the size of their families to match the availability of resources; those who cannot do so vanish, and the species as a whole becomes stronger. At least this is how it happens in all of the animal kingdom – except in a single case. Somehow, civilization (specifically its subset “government”) has altered this state of affairs where human beings are concerned, and has turned Mother Nature on her head.

By providing for and otherwise mollycoddling the incompetent, the state has ensured the survival of bloodlines that were not supposed to continue. It has given rise to “welfare queens” and unstable families, abused and forgotten children, illiteracy, crime, and all the rest. Groups whose “survival shortcomings” Nature did not intend to embrace are instead nurtured by the state, and these groups may even have birth rates higher than average. At the same time, the state taxes its competent citizens so painfully, that they are ill-disposed to help the less fortunate – especially since much of this taxation is already supposed to be doing just that.

While adults can, and should, be held accountable for their actions, innocent children can hardly be blamed, since their plight is due to the shortcomings of their ancestors, their families – in short, their bloodline. As a civilized people, we don’t want to see them suffer; we have empathy. I believe that most people in our society, if not taxed as heavily as they are now, would give a lot more money to various charities to help the poor, the less fortunate, all the down-on-their-luck folks. (I know I would annually donate twenty times what I do now.) Some might even “adopt a family,” not only giving money, but also providing guidance and education. The difference is that it would be voluntary and specific, not mandatory and expansive as it is now, and that makes all the difference in the world.

So, when I argue that government social programs and handouts should be scrapped, that it’s not my problem if some people don’t have health insurance, that it’s “tough luck” if the elderly reach retirement without having provided for themselves, that all of us are responsible for our own actions, for our own choices, and our own lives… I’m branded as heartless. The question is: do I deserve this label?

February 11, 2006

Andrew S. Fischer has worked in various fields.

Andrew S. Fischer