Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Let's Go Fishing

This post was inspired by a discussion I had with some friends on the topic of economic inequality. We did not all agree with one another, but I'm not convinced we are as far apart from one another as it often seems.

Below I've extended a familiar metaphor to illustrate what I mean.

This is just a starting point. I am not making any particular assumptions about the roles of the market, private charity, or the government in addressing each point. I'm only claiming that each point in and of itself is something most, if not all, of us buy into.

And just look at how many points there are!


Here’s the starting point:  “Give a man a fish and he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime.” (The gendered language, which is ironic in the context of a blog post about equality, must be a topic for another day.)

We know people need fish to survive.

We want people to have the opportunity to fish so they can provide fish for themselves and their families. Simply giving people fish isn’t a viable long-term option.

We agree that we need to teach people how to fish, and we mostly agree on the idea of pooling our resources to do this.

We mostly agree that it is okay—even good, but at least okay—to give people fish while they are learning how to fish.

We understand that sometimes we’re not very good at teaching people how to fish. We also understand that sometimes people have a hard time learning how to fish.

We recognize that sometimes people don’t believe they can learn how to fish or that they can have an opportunity to fish like everyone else.

We understand that there are people who will never be able to fish, some who used to fish but can’t anymore, and some who can’t fish temporarily.

But we get frustrated with people who refuse to learn how to fish when they seem perfectly capable of learning or who refuse to fish when they already know how. We don’t like it when people take advantage.

It’s hard, though, to tell which people are which. And what’s truly going on underneath what we can see. How do we truly judge?

We recognize that we ourselves might not be able to fish one day. It could come sooner than we think. We may not be expecting it; we may not have had a chance to prepare for it. And if it ever does happen to us, we’d rather not feel shamed for it.

However we slice it, all of the people who aren’t fishing for themselves—many of whom have children—can end up without fish and risk going hungry. When it comes right down to it, all but the most cold-hearted among us believe children shouldn’t go hungry even if it means their parents get fish they might not deserve. Because we actually don’t like the idea of anyone starving.

Some people have to make difficult choices when it comes to balancing the time they should spend fishing with the time they should spend taking care of their children. Sometimes those choices seem impossible.

We generally support the idea of people having equal opportunity to fish, but we know we fall short of that ideal.

We love the idea of having lots of options for places to fish as well as kinds of fish to catch. Some people have access to many fishing holes that are well stocked with fish. Some people have very few options, only poor options, or sometimes no options at all.

Most of us support the idea of helping people gain access to a fishing hole and the equipment they need to fish. Because what good is knowing how to fish if there isn’t anywhere to fish or anything to fish with?

Some of us want to use our own initiative to create more options for people, and we want to be as free as possible to do that. But wherever people go to fish, we also want the water to be clean and we don’t want the fish they are catching to make them sick. And in times of drought, we don’t want the fishing holes to dry up if we can help it.

We know that we need to renew and expand our supply of fish, especially as our population grows, so we don’t put everyone at risk if there are not enough fish to go around, or worse, no fish left at all.

We understand and accept that once people are fishing—even in the very same pond—some will catch more fish than others and for the most part that’s okay. It’s just the way it goes. Sometimes it’s due to skill or experience. Sometimes it’s due to luck. Sometimes it’s due to people being able to use the smaller fish they catch to catch bigger fish. And for many it might be better or worse the next day or the next.

Many of us empathize with people who spend all day fishing and don’t catch enough to live on. We especially empathize with people who spend all day, every day, day after day fishing and fishing but failing to catch enough.

And we empathize with people who are on their way home with their catch and lose it through no fault of their own—maybe they are mugged by a bear?—leaving them empty handed. Better yet, we want to protect people from having their fish stolen in the first place.

We see that some people are inclined to share their catch with others. Sometimes that is enough. But when we look closely enough, we see it too often isn't. 

We also see that inevitably there are people who take advantage of another person's generosity. None of us like that.

We understand that people don’t like being forced to share, especially when they’re worried about having enough fish for themselves.

If people hire other people to catch their fish for them, we want the people they hire to be able to take home a reasonable share of fish.

We--including even some of us who are in a position to do this--are not okay with people who claim most of the fish for themselves.

We recognize a relationship between societal instability and some people having fish while others don't. We understand that kind of societal instability can lead to violence in extreme cases.

We value human existence.

We know people need fish to survive.

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