You all remember the Aesop’s fable about the Ant and Grasshopper, don’t you? That’s the one where the Ant works hard all year, while the Grasshopper just dances around. When winter comes, the Ant is comfortable in his warm, well-stocked home, while the Grasshopper is miserable and hungry. Or maybe you know the story of the Little Red Hen. She keeps asking for help as she plants her seeds, waters her wheat stalks, harvests the wheat, and bakes her bread loaf. To each request for help, her lazy farm companions say “no.” Then, when her bread is finally baked, they ask her to feed them, to which she replies “no.” These are both old stories. Aesop’s fable is probably about 6,500 years old, while the Little Red Hen story is at least a hundred years old and probably much more. The stories are blatantly moralistic: if you work hard, you will be fed and sheltered; if you don’t, you won’t.
We all know, of course, that life is not fair and that hard work will not always provide you with life’s necessities. Bad things happen: lost jobs, war, illness, drought, economic disasters, and other things over which even the hardest working individual has no control. And I believe that those of us who are in a more comfortable position have a moral obligation to take care of those who are victims of things over which they have no control. BUT (you knew there was going to be a “but” here, didn’t you?)….
But, lately I feel as if we, the hard working middle class, are being asked to take care of people, not who are victims of ill-fortune, but who are victims of their own bad choices. Right now, this issue is playing out on the macro field, with the S-CHIP debate. Or, more specifically, with the discovery that the boy whom the Democrats chose as the spokesman for imposing S-CHIP costs on working Americans is, in fact, from a middle class family whose father is following his employment bliss (that is, he has made the choice not to get a steady job) and who decided not to get insurance, even though he could afford it. That is, Dad made the choice but we, the American taxpayers, are being asked to pay for the consequences of his bad decision making.
I understand that it’s not the child’s fault that his parents make lousy decisions. But really, if we’re being asked to pay because the Dad is a dunderhead, maybe we should get more control over the situation. We have to assume that this Dad will make more and more choices that negatively affect his children and for which we, the taxpayers, then have to pay. (I think we can make this assumption because Dad is not apologetic about and has not learned from his choices. He’s instead using them to suck up wealth from people who, apparently foolishly, opted to work hard and be self-reliant.) Since he who pays the piper calls the tune, maybe we should take these children and put them in a home where the parents have proven track records of good choices? Eh. You’re right. I don’t think anyone is going to go for that. But really and truly, I don’t want to be called upon to pay for bad choices, without any ability to force those same people into making good choices that will cost me less.
I happen to be very sensitive about this issue because of my own life experience. Years ago, when I was a young, idealistic lawyer whose gay friends were dying left and right from AIDS, I got involved with a free legal service for people suffering from AIDS. My training consisted of attending several hours of lectures about helping these people maximize their Social Security, Medicare and Medical benefits to pay for their expensive treatments and other life needs. I never once put that training into use. I had about 15 referrals over the two years I stuck it out in that program and, without exception, the men who called on my free services were absolute flakes whose only skill was using the system to avoid paying for the messes they made. All had (or probably had) AIDS, but the illness was entirely unrelated to their demands on me. What they wanted me to do was relieve them of their obligations to pay rent or credit card debt. And they didn’t need this help because their disease had rendered them unemployable. All of them worked, and all of them, grasshopper-like, spent their money on drugs, alcohol, clubbing, clothes, trips, etc. Indeed, they spent their income on anything but rent and paying off all the debts they incurred supporting their hedonistic lifestyle. I became incredibly hostile to the whole organization, feeling (rightly, I think) that I was being used, and quit.
Ironically, as I was providing free legal services to these deadbeats, a friend of mine was slowly dying from AIDS and working himself to the bone to keep up with his obligations. He worked when he could hardly walk because of the mushroom shaped tumors bursting out from the bottom of his foot. He worked when he could hardly stand upright because if the giardia ravaging his system. He worked when all his hair fell out. He kept his health insurance alive to the bitter end, with the only government help coming from MediCal augmentations to his insurance. I gladly loaned this man money when he needed it. When he had to sell the little boat on which he lived to pay all of his debts, he insisted on paying me back, even though I tried to refuse the money. At the very end, a friend of his took him in, and he spent his last weeks dying slowly on that friend’s couch. These two men were Ants, and they’ve always lived in my memory two of the most decent, moral people I’ve ever met.
I appreciate that, once a bureaucracy is in place, it won’t, or can’t, distinguish between ants and grasshoppers. All it will do is means testing. That is, once someone shows up at the bureau’s door and proves he has no money, the inquiry stops. The bureaucracy won’t and can’t take the time to discover whether his money vanished because his employer laid him off (despite his being a good worker) and his kid has a horrible disease, or if his money vanished because he’s an unemployable flake who can’t be bothered to hold down a job, but who still likes living the high life. We pay for them all. But to the extent we do pay for them all, I want to be damn sure that every new government program is carefully crafted to pay for extremely limited services and that it is set up, as much as possible, to help the Ants, while shutting the door on those damn Grasshoppers. S-CHIP, which is casting an ever wider net of those for whom the taxpayers must pay is the antithesis of what an Ant-oriented government program should be.
UPDATE: Michelle Malkin has more on the Frost family (the S-CHIP family), in which a neighbor makes it plain that they are the ultimate Grasshoppers — although it appears that they are Ant enough, after having lived the high life, to rouse themselves to milk the system for their benefit.
UPDATE II: Leave it to Mark Steyn to distill the Grasshopper lifestyle into a few pithy phrases:
At which point should the government pick up the tab? Ultimately it’s a reductive notion of liberty to say a free-born citizen can choose his own breakfast cereal and DVD rentals and cable package and, in the case of the Frosts, three premium vehicles, but demand the government take responsibility for all the grown-up stuff.