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This section was my workspace for philosophy essays between July 2006 and April 2008. I call this "Prehistoric Kilroy" because it gave me practice for more disciplined essays in Kilroy Cafe. Also see my philophical blog and Twitter feed.

Issue #46, 12/13/2006

The Problem of Dependence

By Glenn Campbell
Family Court Philosopher

Once you have enough resources to serve your own needs, it is natural to want to give to others. The only question is how to do it effectively—to maximize the total good from what little you can give. In simple economic terms, we might want to contribute $1 million now in such a way as to save society $100 million in the long run. If we decide to be charitable with our money (or our time), then we ought to accomplish the most we can with it.

Getting the maximum output from our charity requires some form of force multiplication. This is a system that amplifies the future effects of what we do now. Education is generally seen as a force multiplier, as is children's health care. If we invest a little on these early interventions, we are usually saving society a lot more in the long run. Instead of trying to deal with crime, drug abuse or homelessness in adulthood, we will probably get more "bang for our buck" by attacking the root cause of these things in childhood.

There are complicating factors, however. One is that you can't ignore current problems entirely without impacting future results. If you fail address to drug abuse in parents, then this is going to affect their children and perhaps undo any advances you make in education or health care. Everything is an integrated system, and you can't overlook one social problem without influencing all of the others.

Another complicating factor—perhaps the biggest—is something I call dependence. Whatever it is you give, the system tends to adjust to it and expects you to keep giving. Soon, the system is dependent on you; your total returns start decreasing, and you become trapped into giving indefinitely. This is the single most difficult dilemma in any kind of charitable intervention—from feeding the pigeons to raising children to toppling a dictator.

Dependence is inherent in any charitable intervention. Let's say the Gates Foundation gives a grant to a backward, under-funded school system (like, say, Clark County's) to buy computers for classrooms. It sounds like a noble effort, right? But then the School Board says, "Hey, we don't have to worry about computers anymore," and obviously they won't fund it themselves. Propped up by the Gates Foundation, the school system might have less motivation to pursue local funding sources, and it seems to be doing better than it is. Over time, the Gates contribution becomes expected; more public money is used for roads instead of education, and the net effect of the giving may be zero.

No charity or government agency wants to be caught in a situation where they are dumping endless resources into a problem and getting nowhere. Unfortunately, this is the end point of many a noble effort. You help someone, and they are grateful at first, but then they come to expect your help; their gratefulness and initiative fades, and pretty soon, you're giving, giving, giving and getting nothing in return.

It's a natty problem requiring constant vigilance and creativity. You want to improve people's lives, but you don't want to create dependence. To achieve this, you may have to go into a sort of combat mode that isn't always friendly. You'll let them suckle on the teat for only so long before you have to cruelly push them away.

Raw charity is when we see an emotional need and immediately respond to it. People are hungry, so we feed them. Unfortunately, the unintended effect may be that people become dependent on our food. Having found a reliable source of it, they may be less likely to seek it on their own. Raw charity always has a high dependency danger. For this reason, it should not be pleasant at the receiving end. If a Salvation Army soup kitchen were made as comfortable as a shopping mall food court, then no one would ever want to leave. There has to be some roughness to it.

Likewise, you wouldn't want state intervention to be particularly pleasant when, say, a child is taken from their parents because of the parents' drug abuse. We'll try to give parents the services they need to get off drugs, and we will adequately care for the children in the meantime, but no one, including the children, should be coddled or pampered. Otherwise, the transition back to self-sufficiency will be impossible.

You have to shelve any utopian plans for creating perfect families (like the Myrna Torme Williams Complex). The most that any intervention can hope for is to relieve a specifically targeted problem, like the drug abuse. Inevitably, any child welfare system will be returning some children to parents who remain grossly inadequate. Any other solution would risk dependence and exceed the state's resources.

Any charitable activity is like going to war: You not only need a plan for winning the battle; you also need an exit strategy. People tend to forget about this when they give generous gifts or volunteer for something: How do I get out? The Gates Foundation needs to consider this, and so do each of us whenever we decide to play Santa. What sort of expectations are you creating with your gift? How are you disrupting the natural ecology of the social environment?

Think of how the world got into the ecological mess it is now in—nearly seven billion people and growing. This all arose out of good intentions, by bringing modern medicine and food production to "primitive" parts of the world. "Saving lives" ultimately turned into condemning far more lives to a living hell.

Every silver cloud has a potential dark lining, and if you ever hope to help the world, you must always be aware of it.

—G.C.



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