It All Boils Down to This

Tue, Mar 20, 2012 - 9:22am

This current UK budget is probably the most fiercely discussed I can remember.

Some of the most passionate and even violent language is being bandied about our in our newspapers, on our televisions and radios and across the net.

It seems to me that the worlds of finance, politics and economics are in the midst of a great big ideological clash.

But, as I see it, all the issues can be boiled down to this.

If you are the government, do you ...

(A) Give a man fish?

(B) Give him tackle and teach him to fish?

(C) Stay out of it altogether?

I imagine most people instinctively go with B. As the Chinese proverb says, 'Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime'.

But let's consider the three alternatives.

A. What happens if you give a man fish?

On the plus side, he is fed.

But there are unintended consequences of this essentially kindly act.

  1. Where do you get the fish from? You have to take them from someone else.
  2. Without the pressure of necessity, our man is less likely to learn how to fish for himself. He will later need more fish to be given to him, which will require further fish to be taken from others.
  3. Those that are having their fish taken from them are now forced to catch more than they need. This might be at the expense of other areas of their life - for example, their partners may have to start fishing too; they may put off having children or buying a house, for fear they won't catch enough fish. And many of the fish they hand over to government get lost or wasted.
  4. Our man may come to expect to free fish as his right.
  5. Giving him fish absolves family, friends and community of the responsibility of either teaching him to fish or feeding him.
  6. If people see free fish on offer, many will not see the point of fishing for themselves.
  7. If you give a group of people free fish, this group is likely to flourish and expand, when, surely, you want the fish-needing demographic to contract.

All in all, free fish may not be such a good idea after all.

So to B. Do you give him tackle and teach him to fish?

The advantage of this in theory is that is, as the Chinese proverb says, you feed him for a lifetime. He becomes independent, self-sufficient and so on.

I believe this was the ethos behind Gordon Brown and others that preceded him in governments of both the left and right and indeed of Obama and others in the States. They felt they could give people fish, gradually teach them to fish for themselves until they became self-sufficient and then they would no longer need to be given fish.

But it hasn't happened like that. People are now more dependent on and expectant of government than ever before. The more free fish they have given out, the more free fish is expected and indeed relied on.

There are other moral issues. Who decides what fishing methods are used? Who is the government to impose is fishing methods on people? What if your fish-teaching methods aren't that good? Who decides what tackle gets supplied? What about those equipment manufacturers that don't get chosen? There might be other, better fishing methods. The world of fishing might move on and modernize, while the slow-moving government is teaching outmoded and out-dated methods.

What about the cost of all this teaching and tackle? Who pays for it all? The same people that have already had their fish taken from them? Is that fair - they've already had a load of their fish taken from them, after all?

What about the fact that all this teaching and tackle-supplying again absolves family, friends and communities of what would otherwise have been their responsibility?

Many may learn how to fish, but prefer the free fish the government gives out. Or they are only prepared to fish for a certain number of hours per day for a certain number of fish. Others come in from outside who are prepared to fish for longer, for lower quality of fish leaving the non-fishing community with even less motivation to fish.

And we come to C. Government stays out of fish altogether.

The problem with this is that many might go hungry. Some may even perish.

C is I would suggest the most callous and heartless of the three alternatives, but, bizarrely, it might work out to be the kindest.

  1. Hunger can kill. It is also a great motivator. People will have learn to fish pretty quickly or they go hungry. Circumstance will make improved practice inevitable. (And a bit of hunger isn't always such a bad thing, particularly when your young, just my opinion of course).
  2. Family, friends and communities will have to come together to help those unable to fish. Communities and families will bond and strengthen as a result. And actually friends, families and communities might actually a better supplier of fish (and fish teaching methods) than government.
  3. Those who can fish no longer have their fish taken from them - so they will have more fish. They can work shorter hours if they chose; or they sell their excess of fish and invest their profits elsewhere - perhaps in some venture that those who can't fish excel at. Their partners may not have to fish any more, if they don't want to; they now have time, energy and capital to start families younger, if they wish, to stay at home and look after the kids, perhaps - or even, if they so desire, to help those in the community who are without fish.
  4. Ultimately, the non-fishing demographic will contract. Society will become stronger and more efficient.

This non-interventionist scenario of C, as well as being the most ruthless, is also the most natural . It reflects the apparent heartlessness of the natural world. But that heartlessness is often better intentioned and more efficient than you realise.

This A, B and C is, I believe, at the heart of today's ideological clash. The amount of free fish we give out has been made possible by Western man's increased productivity. But there will come a time when we can no longer afford to give out so many. The numbers won't add up. That time may well be now.

Who knows, governments may even try and disguise this from their people by printing fish , if you see what I mean ...