BLOG: Help or Harm?

Is it wise to force people to be helpful?

The US Senate today rejected the "Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilites".  This convention is modeled after the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This article from Politico outlines some of the issues surrounding the treaty.

Before forming judgements on the wisdom of this action, it would be wise to read the convention, which is neither short, nor simple.  It reminds me of the PPACA in its length and lack of specificity.  As with the PPACA, I suspect that the convention will also have unintended consequences in those nations that ratify, and try to implement it.

Popular perception is that treaties like this convention are helpful, but this perception flies in the face of experience, both public and private.

As an example let's say you want to increase donations to charity at your workplace.  One approach would be to donate yourself, and then encourage your fellow employees to do the same.  Hold contests and parties.  Conduct fund-raisers and speak well of those who donate.  You will likely not get as much money donated as you might like, but participation will be viewed positively, and peer pressure can be made a useful tool in encouraging ongoing support.  If you take a leadership role, you can be proud of your role.

A second approach is to go to the boss and get authority to compel donations.  You could do this any number of ways.  You could just get the boss to deduct a percentage of everyone's paycheck.  You could even hold a vote.  You could also invite representatives of charities in to hold fundraisers, and then take notes on who donates, and who doesn't.  Tell the boss, who personally encourages the employees not donating enough to do more.  It is easy to imagine variations on this theme, and there is no doubt that the stronger "encouragement" to donate would result in more donations, but over time, the urge to donate would tend to wane.  You would be seen as more of a snitch than a leader, and over time, people would tend to find ways to dodge the "tax".

The latter is what we have done with the ADA.  The fact is that kindness cannot be compelled.  Once compelled, it is transformed into something else, and the virtue in it is destroyed.  Laws can provide short term gain toward the stated goal, but long term erosion of character - the very virtue that sustains charitable effort.

One of General Robert E Lee's first acts when he became President of Washington College after the war was to abolish compulsory chapel.  This was not a nod to agnosticism or some modern sensibility.  General Lee was a dedicated Episcopalian, and a believer in the power of example, not force.  As Lee put it: "As a general principle, you should not force young men to do their duty but to let them do it voluntarily, and thereby develop their character."

We do well to follow general Lee's advice.

(I recommend the book - Robert E Lee on leadership)

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Edward Anderson December 06, 2012 at 06:53 PM
So is it more virtuous for a society to compel its members to "donate" a portion of their earnings to fund the provision of food for children whose parents have a demonstrated incapacity to provide it--under threat of severe punishment for failure to comply? Or to allow those children to be undernourished, and as a result undereducated and underachieving? You can focus on the virtue of charity and the lack thereof of compulsory taxation, and that can provide fodder for some interesting discussions; or you can focus on the inescapable fact that there are people in need and how we as a society might most expeditiously help them. I would contend that at least some of the virtue lost when charity turns into taxation is gained back when a starving child sees an adequately nourishing meal appear on his plate. I like the free market as much as the next conservative, but I think a lot of us are slightly myopic when it comes to determining how wide our self-interests really are. Food--so to speak--for thought.
Donald Lee December 06, 2012 at 09:09 PM
There is a lot of "food" for thought in your post, which appears to boil down to something old and well known - the ends justify the means. Is that a principle we want to stand on? Thank you for posting.
Edward Anderson December 07, 2012 at 04:22 PM
I don't know, Don. I don't know whether the pain of seeing starving children or homeless people can truly be salved by the knowledge that at least I'm not trying to make the ends justify the means.


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