Doing Good, by Willard Gaylin et al., New York: Pantheon Books. 1978. 171 pp. $8.95/$2.95.
This book adds a significant dimension to the debate against the government's encroachment on the liberties of the individual. Conservatives have traditionally focused on the unfairness of welfare programs that are financed at the expense of its productive citizens. The authors of this book, calling themselves the "children of the Progressive movement," likewise remonstrate against the growth of the welfare state—but more from the standpoint of the recipient of the largesse. As such, they provide a powerful moral indictment of the misuses of benevolence.
David Rothman, professor of history at Columbia University, observes wryly that if "the last refuge of the scoundrel" was once patriotism, it now has become "the activity of 'doing good' for others," acting in their supposed best interest. For in the process of "helping" the dependent person, increasingly his rights are violated and his dignity as an individual undermined.
For most of this century liberal reformers and social activists were committed to the model of the paternalistic State, willing and able to intervene and protect the needs of others. What has happened, however, is that the excessive zeal of the reformers has had unintended consequences, such that the cure proposed has become often worse than the original malady. The authors are referring to our hospitals, nursing homes, mental institutions, prisons, the extensive programs of aid for the handicapped and disadvantaged, the massive growth of social services and the helping professions. They recognize the fact that many of the programs that were enacted with great hope have failed.
Willard Gaylin, a psychiatrist, maintains that the motive of beneficence is built into the human being; there is an innate genetic response of caring and loving that finds its fullest expression in the care of infants. Yet, this tendency rooted in the individual person can be distorted when transformed into social policies.
Steven Marcus, in a fascinating essay, asks how well-meaning citizens, who act on behalf of others in the name of some benign interest, can at times behave so coercively and callously. Although we ought not to be insensitive to the needs of others, beneficence can be overdone and we can degrade individuals by excessively caring for them, thus rendering them more dependent. Marcus points out that we are not the first to have discovered this lesson. He relates the woeful experiences of England in dealing with the poor in the 18th and 19th centuries.
For a long period the rural workers were the pride of English society. The Poor Law of 1601 legislated that all able-bodied poor must be put to work in order to earn some sustenance. This was provided for by the local parish. With the growth of industrialization, conditions began to change and a surplus of labor developed in the countryside. In 1795, a minimum guaranteed income for the poor, regardless of earning, was first instituted on the local level and rapidly spread throughout all of England. Under the plan, a working man got relief, even if working, as soon as his wages fell below family subsistence.
According to Marcus, this act of seeming beneficence in time created a monster: the end result was a demoralization of the countryside, the pauperization and the loss of productivity and self-respect of the English country worker. If the English rural worker in the middle of the 18th century was the pride of his nation, 150 years later he became impoverished and servile. In the early 19th century great efforts were made by people such as Bentham to extricate the country from the system of relief and welfare, and eventually workhouses for paupers were established, which made public support even more demeaning. Marcus concludes that society can degrade people by caring for them. We surely need at times to care for people, he says, but an overweening beneficence can do more harm than good.
The inevitable question that is asked and answered in the affirmative is whether we have reached a similar impasse in the Great Society. The moral case made against paternalistic social action is not the meritocratic argument—that only those who contribute to society merit help (recognizing that some deserving persons nevertheless may need some help)—nor from the standpoint of those taxed to pay who consider it an unwarranted expropriation of their hard-earned income. Rather, the authors maintain that we are in fact hurting those who receive aid. For by treating them more or less like children, we never allow them to help themselves nor to develop responsibility for their own destiny. We have developed generation after generation of wards of the State, rendering their autonomy as persons meaningless.
Ira Glasser, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, is especially concerned that programs of public assistance have violated the rights of the needy. The Bill of Rights, he insists, should protect them against the government as well as others. Their liberties were gradually seduced and ravaged by good intentions. Mental patients had no rights once committed to an institution, elderly patients in nursing homes signed over their basic rights to the bureaucracy, and recipients of welfare are at the mercy of the welfare department: the midnight knock of the case worker can be as oppressive as that of the police officer without a search warrant. Conservatives believe that many who receive welfare are cheats and should be carefully scrutinized, but Glasser argues that in doing so the State has become impervious to their civil liberties.
He recommends a moral principle to guide us in the future, that of least harm; that is, "those programs ought to be adopted that seem to be the least likely to make things worse." He agrees with a basic principle of libertarianism: that government is best which governs least—in all areas.
The moral issues in treating the disadvantaged are complex: we need to balance needs and rights. Everyone recognizes that there are truly helpless persons—who during certain periods are unable to fend for themselves. A genuine humanitarian interest recognizes these needs and is willing to lend a helping hand. The problem occurs when the extended hand deadens the individual's motivation, destroys his initiative, dignity, and self-respect, and thus becomes the smothering hand.
After many years as editor of the Humanist, Paul Kurtz recently returned to full-time teaching at the State University of New York at Buffalo.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Doing Good".