A Rising Tide Lifts All Boats—Or Does It?

A Rising Tide Lifts All Boats—Or Does It? June 18, 2014

Recently the US Conference of Catholic Bishops has been calling for an increase in the minimum wage. I don’t like to argue with the bishops, and I’m not going to do so now; but I worry about efforts to use the Big Hammer: to try to fix social problems by fixing the “system”, rather than by helping individuals.

It’s true that our society has systemic problems. It is clear that we have problems in the area of poverty and access to healthcare that, strictly speaking, we don’t need to have. The problem is getting from hither to yon. You can either make little changes, one individual at a time, or you can make big changes, like increasing the minimum wage. The latter is the kind of thing I call the Big Hammer; and the Big Hammer always hits more than you expected it to.

Consider the story of the ten blind men and the elephant. Each of them felt a different part of the elephant, and came to a different conclusion about what the elephant was like. But the story has a little-known coda. One of the wise men, the one who felt the elephant’s trunk and thought it very like a snake, decided to bring the snake home with him to keep down the rat population in his hut. So he grabbed the “snake” and gave it a big yank; and the elephant, justly distressed, gave a leap and trampled him and several of his colleagues.

That’s the Law of Unintended Consequences. (As a more practical example, consider the known tendency of the welfare system to split up families: because intact families aren’t eligible for welfare.)

So I have a mistrust of big fixes.

Still, big fixes can be worth trying. There’s a proverb: a rising tide lifts all boats. If we can make the system fairer, if we can make the country more prosperous, life will be better for everyone. A healthier society, a healthier economy, is better for all concerned. I’m all for it.

But even assuming you can find a Big Hammer that only does good, that helps many and harms none, the proverb is still overly optimistic. A rising tide lifts all boats—except for the ones with holes in the bottom. Those just get swamped and then sit on the bottom; and their passengers drown.

And that’s one reason why Jane and I support Elizabeth House and similar local charities. Elizabeth House isn’t trying to use the Big Hammer, isn’t trying to fix society, isn’t trying to make the tide rise; Elizabeth House is trying to keep individuals from drowning, and to help them patch the holes in their boats.

Even if we were able to perfect human society, there would still be those in need of this kind of help; and I maintain that it is best done person-to-person, hand-to-hand, face-to-face. Bureaucracy is the enemy of love.

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