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What Would Happen if We Weren't Forced to Help Each Other?

When I was laid off in 2010, the first thing I did was apply for unemployment. In my state, they have a program that lets you start your own business without getting in trouble.

“Nice,” I thought. “That’ll buy me some time.”

And it did. More than 6 months of it, to be exact.

Brilliant! There was just one, small problem. For nearly the whole time I was collecting unemployment, Riskology.co made almost no money.  Initially, this was by design—”I’m waiting for the right time to monetize,” I told myself. But then it wasn’t.

Early this year, I started having a motivation problem. I wasn’t feeling excited to work on the business like I had been at first. Demotivation is the kiss of death, so I sat down to take a good hard look at what could be causing it, and I came up with the only answer that made any sense:

I was getting enough in unemployment benefits to get by, so there was no urgency to make the business really work. Despite the great opportunity I’d been given, I’d simply become dependent on the free checks rather than use them as intended.

When I realized what was going on, I quit accepting the money and, within a few months, Riskology.co was supporting me full-time.

It was a case of mismatched incentives—I knew that as long as I kept taking the checks, I’d have more incentive to keep taking them and less to make my business actually work.

Things aren’t easy now. I work hard and if something goes wrong, there’s no safety net to fall into. But at the same time, I’ve never been so motivated to make things work and keep improving.

Should There Be a Safety Net?

Stories like this seem elicit the question: Should there be a safety net? I think that’s an interesting question, but I also think it’s the wrong one.

Of course there should be a safety net.

Our society is only as good as the least among us, and people do end up in tough situations through no fault of their own. The real question, I think, is who should be responsible for the safety net? And how should it be applied?

If you live in the U.S., how do you feel knowing that your money went towards helping me sit around? Are you fine with that? Do you feel mad but understand it’s a consequence that comes with taking care of people who really need it?

My friend, David Cain, wrote an interesting article about why you should be forced to help other people.

I agree with the sentiment—your life improves when you help people who need it. But I disagree with the rule that your life improves when you’re forced to help others.

The mistake I think David makes is a common one—that you have to make a choice between doing the right thing and having the freedom to make the choice to do the right thing.

I think you can do both.

When you give people the choice, though, not everyone will make the right one. And that’s what’s frightening. It’s risky and uncomfortable.

What I find frustrating about the other perspective, though, is that it requires us to believe we’ll only take care of each other if we’re forced to. It makes us look at people as inherently bad and that we’re only good when we’re made to be.

That’s not what I choose to believe. And I think reality bears it out. I don’t know about the rest of the world, but I do know that while the U.S. government is one of the least charitable, the individual people here give more than anywhere else in the world. And a few years ago, 38 billionaires even signed a pledge to give away at least 50% of their fortunes.

And while I prefer to stay as far from politics as possible, I can’t help but point out that recent research shows people who don’t support social welfare via taxes freely donate to social charities almost twice as much as those that do support it despite earning around 6% less (that figure doesn’t include churches).

Who Should Get What?

When someone gets hurt and they don’t have insurance, should they be taken care of? Of course they should. Should they receive the same level of care that anyone else would? Absolutely.

Should a single parent with two children and no job get some help so that they can take care of their kids? You bet.

But should you be forced to pay into a system  you don’t believe is capable of doing a good job of giving that help, or should you be free to give that money to charities you think will do a better job?

Would a small, local charity have given me a free check for months, or would they have given me what I really needed: a push out of my comfort zone?

Would I have even gone to a charity? I don’t feel like I deserved any charity, but my unemployment assistance was something I was entitled to, even though I probably didn’t need it. Why not take it? It seemed like the smart thing to do at the time.

Does our social contract say that we have to help everyone in a specific way, or just that we must help each other in the way that we think best? Is it really good to believe that a small majority of us can say what’s best for everyone?

The argument against my perspective is two-fold.

The first is that I’m just an example of someone who took advantage of the system, and my opinion isn’t worth listening to. But I didn’t realize I was taking advantage of it. I thought I was just being responsible. Sometimes I wonder how many others there are like me.

The second argument is that if you take away the safety net that guarantees help to everyone, then we take a step back as a society and some people will fall through the cracks. But people are already falling through the cracks in the system we have now, and it’s not getting better.

Would the people who truly need help get less of it if we took away the default safety net? I don’t think so. In fact, I think more people would benefit. We’d take more personal responsibility and work harder to make sure the people who really needed help got it, and the people who needed something else got what they needed as well.

When it’s not everyone’s responsibility to help others, it feels a lot more like my responsibility.

Of course, it’s risky. We wouldn’t all do the right thing—that’s the cost of being truly free—but I think enough of us would, and that would be a big improvement.

At least that’s what I think. What do you think?

~~~~~

Postscript: I’d be remiss not to point out that if you agree with this point of view, then it’s your responsibility to give what you can to charities you believe in—no need to wait for things to change to do the right thing.

Image by: Steve Rhodes

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