Imagine you’re on a large remote island and there’s no way to get off. There’s a small group of people on the island, roughly 20 people. There isn’t much needed to survive since this island is in the tropics. There is plenty of wildlife, endless food and water. Everyone can just lay around and do whatever they want every day and can walk over to the closest stream for water, pluck berries or catch wildlife for food. As long as everyone doesn’t overindulge and damage the island by not taking care of simple things like contaminating water, everyone can live happily for the foreseeable future.
Of course, even in a place with endless food and water, there are plenty of things that someone could do to increase what they have. For example, someone could do the berry plucking and trade a bundle of plucked berries for a fish. Or maybe, someone is good at making hats or sandals from the trees. Each item would be worth its equivalent using intuitive comparisons like how long it takes to get the item, or how dangerous, or how rare.
We have a few main characters in our scenario: We have a fisherwoman named Rose, an inventor named Kelly, and an elderly person named Barry, who can’t get around by himself. If everyone knows how to make hats and pick berries, but Rose is the only person who knows how to fish well, then she would have leverage. Any trades for fish would be much more valuable than something like picked berries. Everyone could just say no, but for the most part, there is going to be an opportune trade that will balance itself out.
After a while of trading though, maybe Rose will get tired of trading for five bags of berries every time she sells a fish. She may want to save something for later. Even in this rudimentary example, a form of currency could develop. Maybe there’s a type of shell that can be found but it takes about the same time to find as it takes to pick a small bag of berries.
Let’s say it takes 30 minutes to pick a small bag of berries or find a money shell. Market prices could start to develop: one shell for a small bag of berries, two shells for a hat because it takes about an hour to make, five shells for a fish because no one knows how to get fish except Rose. Even in a tiny abundant community like this, there are many things that could be done as services or products to be traded: latrine and trash duties, cooking, first aid, water collecting, tree sandals, loincloths and more.
Those Who Can’t Support Themselves
Everything in our example would be a thriving mini-economy. We only have 20 people, so the services may not be extremely robust, but everyone easily could play a part. Barry, however, can’t do much of anything because he can’t walk or move very well.
Everyone has been just looking out for him, giving him handouts. He ends up getting the equivalent of a few shells a day, enough for daily food and water. Since it’s only Barry who’s in this position, the rest of the islanders don’t make a fuss.
If we think about how much impact his part plays, we can think of his few shells a day the same as a few hours of work. Everyone is essentially splitting that time between each other to care for Barry. If everyone isn’t taking turns or splitting things evenly, then someone could be burdened more than the others.
Let’s break his impact into about six shells a day or three hours of work per day. If one person took on that burden, it would be significant. If a second person became unable to support themselves, it would become essential to spread out the caring to others.
Welfare or Volunteer?
In our little island scenario, unless Barry is a complete jerk or a hermit, there’s a good chance someone will feel bad and help Barry out. Everyone knows everyone; it would be difficult for others to just watch someone suffer despite their ultimate feelings of being burdened. Either way, in such a small community, Barry would only starve if people overtly let it happen.
Volunteer types are great in these cases because most people don’t want to take on the struggles of someone else. In a healthy or abundant environment, volunteering can do wonders. But only those who have the time or resources to volunteer should do so.
Yet, if Patty, our single volunteer, took care of Barry, she would be going above and beyond on a consistent basis. Everyone else could leave Patty to it because “she volunteered,” but would everyone be ok with Barry dying when she no longer wants to? Is it safe to assume someone will do it? Or should there be a more permanent structure in place?
This all depends on whether the community as a whole is ok with Barry dying or not. If we’re ok with Barry dying, then we can let Patty and anyone else volunteer or not. No need to regulate or help her. However, if the group isn’t ok with Barry dying, then we shouldn’t allow a volunteer like Patty to take care of everything herself.
When we band together to help Barry, we are creating a welfare program. What has to be underscored is that all economic structures can have a welfare program. Banding together to help is not limited to “communistic” or “socialistic” paradigms.
In a small community, it only makes sense that there will need to be teamwork. If no one cleaned the latrine and trash areas, the island could quickly go into disarray. On our island, there is no government. It’s just everyone doing their own thing. Everyone being responsible for taking care of their own latrine and trash areas sounds ok in theory, but what about Carl, that one resident who doesn’t care?
There would need to be a mechanism to get Carl to do what he is supposed to do. But, what if Carl fought back and refused, saying he’s free to do whatever he wants? He isn’t hurting anyone directly, but his latrine and trash is overflowing with bacteria right next to everyone’s upstream water source.
The islanders could apply sanctions and fine any of his purchases, but in an abundant place, he could become a hermit and continue on his own. They’d have to physically do something to him or his latrine and trash areas.
Carl is potentially affecting the way of life of the rest of the islanders. But who sees things from Carl’s side? Maybe Carl is actually a biologist and believes that the downstream drinkers will be fine based on his assessment? What if Carl got sick of it, went berserk and started attacking passers by at night? We’d need to arrest him or do something. Would we require everyone to chip in? Could we? Should we?
In this example, forced teamwork is similar to environmentalists asking for controls on private industries. Managing or addressing Carl attacking others would be like having a police force. Although environmentalism is seen more like a social program, protecting citizens from physical harm is as well.
We’re underscoring this because, just like welfare, environmental programs are often thought of as socialism vs. capitalism, which is again misguided. It all depends on various factors like who pays for it. Who controls and identifies the rules for the program? What exactly should we be forcing and what should we leave alone?
The biggest issue with these concepts is that often when we want to be “free” to not support social programs, we are ultimately asking for the freedom to leave those problems to someone else. The counter argument to that, is maybe some aspect of the social program isn’t needed, which is the dialogue that should be happening, not to write off social programs altogether.
Let’s look at change in our island welfare program. We assumed that Barry couldn’t contribute anything because of his age or because he can’t walk or move around well. Is that a good assumption? Can he sing? Can he tell stories? Does he have good experience in a particular field? Can he teach or mentor? Why can’t we incentivize our welfare program to give back whenever possible?
Every social program should give back to society as a whole. Let’s imagine ourselves as emotionless robots for a second. Barry not dying is great for him, but how is our contribution to Barry helping society? If we keep Barry alive, how is he positively impacting the community? He’s taking up a portion of everyone’s time, he’s consuming food and water, but he’s not adding community value. The best argument is that the value is in our actions, our positive treatment of others.
Positive treatment of others is a good point, and that is something that we should want in a community. However, imagine passing by a homeless person and being required to pay them a few dollars every time you see them. Some may gladly do it, others may feel as if the requirement is too much considering we have no way to tell what the homeless person can or can’t do themselves. For those who are glad to do it, how do we know we aren’t enabling by just giving them money?
No one expects a homeless person to give back. But why not? Why can’t we be compassionate, but also hold people just a little more accountable? If a homeless person can stand outside in 90 degree weather all day at an intersection, what more could they do? How could that positively contribute to them not being homeless in the future? Instead of simply writing off those who cannot fully provide for themselves, we have to work to actively find ways to incorporate what they can do.
To the Left, To the Right
For the left, as much as reasonably possible, we should incentivize economic growth and giving back to society in a tangible way whenever creating or modifying social programs. Welfare to millions without establishing any incentives is the equivalent of raising millions of spoiled and entitled kids. If we want to build social programs that aren’t incentivized, start a non-profit and do so, but don’t expect to force everyone to pay for it.
For the right, hopefully, it is clear that social programs are a necessary aspect of every society. These programs aren’t limited to socialists and bleeding-heart liberals. We also have to remember that being free to not contribute to a social program is ok as long as we really are ok with Barry dying. If we want to be as free as possible and want government to keep its nose out of things as much as possible, we should create businesses that handle the issues.