The Samaritan's Dilemma: Should Government Help Your Neighbor?

The Samaritan's Dilemma: Should Government Help Your Neighbor?

by Deborah Stone

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780786721702
Publisher: PublicAffairs
Publication date: 07/01/2008
Sold by: Hachette Digital, Inc.
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 464
File size: 364 KB

About the Author

Deborah Stone is a Research Professor of Government at Dartmouth College and a founding editor of The American Prospect. She is the author of three previous books, including Policy Paradox: The Art of Political Decision-Making, which has been translated into five languages and won the Aaron Wildavsky Award from the American Political Science Association for its enduring contribution to policy studies. She has taught at M.I.T. and Brandeis University, and as a visitor at Yale, Tulane, University of Bremen, Germany, and National Chung Cheng University in Taiwan. Her essays have appeared in The Nation, The New Republic, Boston Review, Civilization, and Natural History. She has held fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and Harvard Law School, was a Phi Beta Kappa Society Visiting Scholar, and is now a Senior Fellow of Demos.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1


A few years ago, at the tail end of a harsh New Hampshire winter, our local mewspaper carried a story headlined, “Panhandler Concerns Residents.” It seems that every day, a man stood at an intersection in the small town of Henniker holding a sign reading “Hungry.” Many residents complained to the selectmen and asked them to do something about it. When the topic came up at the next selectmen’s meeting, the chairman asked, “What are you going to do, arrest him and then give him a meal?”
Sixty years ago, that would have been precisely the response to a hungry vagrant in small-town New Hampshire. He would have been taken to the jail if there was one, to an inn or a private home if there wasn’t, and there he’d be fed. Thirty years ago, a local official might even have helped him sign up for food stamps or welfare. But now, feeding a hungry man would seem to be trouble waiting to happen, for one of the other selectmen advised the townspeople, “The best way to avoid the problem is not to give out free food.”
Times have changed. To be sure, common morality still calls for feeding a hungry man, yet today, when I tell this story and ask audiences what they think the selectman meant, everyone seems to know. It’s as if I’d asked a kindergarten class the color of the sky.
“If you give out free food, the man will just keep coming back for more.”
“If you give him food, he’ll become dependent.”
“Other poor people will come to the town, knowing that there’s free food.”
“If you help him, you’re just enabling him.”
“Better to teach a man to fish.”
These answers pretty well summarize the new conventional wisdom: “Help is harmful. Don’t do it.” What’s worse, these answers inform the minds and policies of our politicians and are written into the moral code of government. Taken together, they express our reigning public philosophy. Help is harmful. Giving is bad. Compassion is a form of self-indulgence—it makes us feel better but worsens the problem. Helping people enables them to slack off their personal effort. Sharing opens the door to freeloaders. We must teach personal responsibility. Self-reliance is the best way live.
But shouldn’t we make sure we understand the question before we come up with stock answers? We ought to wonder what exactly is the problem we are trying to avoid, in Henniker or anywhere else. Is it that a hungry man is begging on our town streets, disturbing the residents and making passers-by uncomfortable? Or is it that he’s hungry? If he’s hungry, perhaps we should feed him first and tend to his moral education later. Common morality still calls upon us to help a person in distress.
Americans are caught in a war between these two views of help. In one view, self-interest is the only motive that spurs people to work and contribute to society. Too much help makes people passive and dependent. Therefore, government should help citizens as little as possible so as to stoke their ambition and prod them to self-reliance. Citizens, for their part, should restrain their compassion, just as the Henniker selectman advised, and rethink their support for government helping programs. A nation that coddles its weak becomes a weak nation. Help is harmful.
In the other view, the Good Samaritan stands as moral hero. His moral code is simple: Help When Help Is Needed. It’s always wrong not to help. In everyday life, people help their friends and families and they often help strangers. They help because they believe no one is truly independent and that help is usually helpful. Most of all, though, people help others because they care about others. “Care” is another way of saying that our interests are hopelessly intertwined and that anyone’s self-interest includes the well-being of others. In this view, people believe they have an obligation to care for others and they think government ought help them do it. They think a community is only as strong as its weakest link.
Our deepest political struggles aren’t over the mechanics of government or the details of policy, but over the moral code we steer by. The two views of help are two moralities pulling in different directions. For twenty five years or so, the country has been pulled toward the first view. In a great political upheaval, the political center moved rightward and turned the Good Samaritan’s moral code inside out. Instead of “Help When Help Is Needed,” our public philosophy proclaims “Help is Harmful.”

Table of Contents

Chapter 1: Help and the American Malaise

Chapter 2: How the Good Samaritan Became Bad

Chapter 3: Why Good Samaritans Make Great Citizens

Chapter 4. The Good Samaritan Shows The Right Way To Help

Chapter 5: The Good Samaritan’s Boat Holds Everyone

Chapter 6: The Good Samaritan Gives Economics Lessons

Chapter 7: The Good Samaritan Answers To A Higher Law

Chapter 8: Help for a Nation in Trouble

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