America is a rich nation with seemingly limitless compassion, partially evidenced by our $5 trillion failed effort to eliminate poverty and dependence. After 30 years of failure, we might start asking some questions about the nature of our compassion toward the poor. The most important question is: should we show animal or human compassion toward the poor, and which is better?

Compassion toward animals includes making sure the animal has adequate food and water, medical attention when needed, suitable shelter and a toy or two for entertainment. In addition, that compassion must be extended to the animal’s offspring. A zookeeper or pet shop owner could supply us with a list of other necessary provisions. Animal compassion bears none of the hardships and complexities of human compassion. You don’t have to instill lessons of independence. In fact, independence is a negative. What zookeeper or pet owner wants his animal getting up one day saying, “The hell with you and your paternalism; I’m leaving!” With animal compassion, you don’t have to worry about teaching the difficult and often heart wrenching lessons of deferred gratification, planning for the future and bearing the burdens of unwise decisions.

Human compassion goes beyond animal compassion. Provision of physical needs alone is insufficient. Moreover, behavior that’s compassionate toward humans may qualify as cruelty to animals. For example, if you were to supply a human with a week’s supply of food, and he ate it in a day, letting him do without for the remainder of the week would be a good lesson as well as just desserts for his lack of foresight. Expecting an animal to defer gratification, plan for the future, and bear the burden of unwise decisions is cruelty. Animals live day to day.

What would we think of a parent who provided incentives for his child to focus his attention on today’s gratification to the exclusion of the future and let the child know that if he dropped out of school and couldn’t provide for himself the parent would care for all his needs? Or what if the parent told a daughter who’s made the mistake of having an illegitimate child, “Here’s $500. Come back next month and there’ll be another $500 and if you have another illegitimate baby, you get $600.” I doubt whether there are many people who would see that parent’s behavior as responsible much less compassionate, but it’s precisely what we do to the poor.

Today’s welfare debate should focus on our pretense of human compassion. How compassionate is it for us to let people know they can disregard education and be virtually useless to employers and still be fed, housed and clothed? How compassionate is it for us to let young men know they can make a girl pregnant and walk away from their responsibilities? What kind of incentives do we create for illegitimacy when young ladies know they can become pregnant with impunity? When we create these incentives for one generation, what’s the message sent to the next?

Human compassion towards the poor cannot be engineered in Washington; it’s even doubtful at the state level. The job of helping poor people to become accountable, independent and successful can only happen at the local level through charities, civic organizations, community and families. Also, it will take a willingness for us too see some people in some pain. After all forcing people to bear the burden of unwise decisions is part of the lesson not to make unwise decisions. The most important component of human compassion is forcing, demanding and helping people to learn they can be better than animals.

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Walter Williams

Walter E. Williams is a professor of economics at George Mason University. Born in Philadelphia in 1936, Walter E. Williams holds a bachelor's degree in economics from California State University (1965) and a master's degree (1967) and doctorate (1972) in economics from the University of California at Los Angeles. In 1980, he joined the faculty of George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., and is currently the John M. Olin Distinguished Professor of Economics. He is also the author of Race and Economics: How Much Can Be Blamed on Discrimination? and Up from the Projects: An Autobiography. The awards and honors Williams have received are many. These include the National Fellow at the Hoover Institute of War, Revolution, and Peace; the Ford Foundation Dissertation Fellowship; the National Service Award from the Institute for Socioeconomic Studies; and the George Washington Medal of Honor from the Valley Forge Freedom Foundation. In 1984-1985, he received the Faculty Member of the Year Award from the George Mason University Alumni. He is also a member of the American Economic Association, the Mont Pelerin Society and is a Distinguished Scholar of the Heritage Foundation. Williams participates in many debates and conferences, is a frequent public speaker and often gives testimony before both houses of Congress. This editorial was made available through Creator's Syndicate.

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