First published 09 Jun 2006
A Fable For Our TimeThere is an old story of a woodsman who was walking on the morning of the season`s first freeze. He stumbled on a snake, unmoving and almost frozen stiff. The woodsman recognized the snake to be highly poisonous and considered using his ax to kill the snake.
But then he thought, `man is supposed to be steward to the earth`s creatures. Surely, this poisonous snake serves a purpose here in the woods. I`ll keep it alive so that it can return to the woods.` With compassion, he lifted the snake and took it back to his cabin.
Laying the snake close to the hearth, the woodsman sat back. Gradually, the snake warmed and began moving. The woodsman didn`t notice the snake until he felt fangs ripping his flesh. Falling to the floor, dying, the woodsman asked, ``I helped you, I saved your life and kept you from freezing to death: why did you strike me?`` As he drew his last gasp, he heard, ``You knew what I was when you brought me in.``
There is much that can be analyzed in this old fable. Many things could have been done differently. Some would not have put the woodsman at risk. Regardless, the action was prompted by a feeling of compassion. The woodsman`s unbridled compassion led to a negative outcome. Many compassion based decisions have failed to produce positive results or even produced adverse outcomes, especially when compassionate decisions attempt to micro-manage life. The exercise of compassion through unfunded mandates and arbitrary directives has proved ruinous.
Compassion Gone WildAn individual may exercise any moral convention or level of compassion with which s/he is comfortable, as long as s/he does not impose that will upon others. When one`s will is imposed upon others, normally society, through laws, removes that imposition. Consider the legend of Robin Hood. Everyone knows the story of Robin who `stole from the rich to give to the poor`. Certainly an act of compassion much appreciated by the receiving poor but not by those who were robbed. While Robin may have been lionized in the Middle Ages, modern society does not tolerate an individual who forcibly or deceptively takes the wealth and goods of another, regardless of good intentions. Unless, of course, the taking is done by governmental authority.
As an example, let`s consider the actions of Congress to regulate emergency room medical care. Congress became aware that some individuals who lacked funds or insurance were turned away from emergency rooms. Some died. With compassion, Congress mandated all emergency rooms to accept and treat patients, regardless of ability to pay. And Congress didn`t offer to pick up the tab. After all, the hospitals were rich and those turned away were poor, so compassion dictated that they be treated, regardless. And if ER`s didn`t want to provide the services for free, huge penalties and go to jail. Naturally, those who received free care were grateful. Then they forgot the compassion and the entitlement became an expectation. With that expectation, desire grew and became insatiable. There was no need for insurance, no worry about paying. After all, compassion dictated that they receive treatment. That treatment was a right for those in need. An obligation for providers. Compassion dictated it. Only, there was a problem, there was still a cost to provide treatment. Even though the price, to those who did pay, was increased, it could not match the demand for free. Faced with unsustainable loss or fines and jail, the ER`s closed. And no one received emergency care. The greater good, provision of treatment to most individuals, had been defeated by a compassionate demand that treatment be provided to every individual. Remember, the enemy of good is not `bad`, the enemy of good is `better`.
One may argue the need for universal healthcare. That is not the consideration here. We are faced with the consequences of unbridled compassion. Emergency rooms are closing because they cannot subsidize free emergency care. That is a direct result of Congress` demand for unbridled compassion. Compassion without accepting the financial responsibility of those demands. This has also aggravated the illegal immigration problem. Because there is a compassionate demand that emergency care be provided, regardless, there is no need to have insurance. As a result, lower wages are accepted and become equivalent to `wages minus healthcare insurance premiums`. Because unbridled compassion mandated an entitlement, it is consumed at an insatiable and unsustainable demand. Don`t think so? People are being advised to call an ambulance for transport to ER`s rather than asking a friend or using a taxi. Why? Taxi`s require payment, ambulances must be provided for free.
There is nothing adverse when an individual provides compassion, using their own resources without affecting others. Compassion does not give one the right to disadvantage others to promote their own feelings. This doesn`t, necessarily, involve money. Ever been in a long line, waiting for something? Someone towards the head of the line sees someone (disadvantaged in some manner) arrive and, because of compassion, offers to let that person cut in line. There`s no consideration of the other people in line. After all, it`s an act of compassion. Except for the people already in line who become incensed. Whether or not the rest of the line complains, the act of compassion has generated animosity. This IS human nature. Had the compassionate individual given up their own place and gone to the end of the line, there would have been no basis for anyone to be incensed. No one would have been disadvantaged by the act of compassion and the compassionate one might have been lauded or considered as chivalrous. Unfortunately, the compassionate one was unwilling to expend personal resources (position in line) to make the compassion personal. The compassion was imposed upon those in line, usurping their rights and ignoring the time that they had already spent in line. Again, unbridled compassion which usurps another often has unintended consequences.
Consider entitlements. During the 1990`s Congress enacted multiple laws that were to turn welfare into workfare. That`s because the compassionate laws of the Great Society legislation proved more harmful than beneficial. After spending 6 TRILLION dollars, it was obvious that the Great Society created an entitlement subclass, perpetrated generation after generation. Congress is to be applauded for attempting to change the system. Unfortunately, in doing so, Congress allowed for an ever expanding inclusion of people into entitlement rolls. Now, entitlements are expanding at such a rate as to be unsustainable. Again, unbridled compassion has created a situation with unintended consequences. Compassion must be tempered with reality so that insatiable consumption does not cause ruin. Else, Congress will have killed the goose that lays the golden eggs. And, that means there will be no more eggs, just as the emergency rooms have closed. Reality always trumps compassion. It may not be the way that we want things to be but it is the way that things are.
Compassion affects more than just social programs. When compassion leads to minimalist execution of operations, the objective will be delayed or lost. A very concrete example is obvious in Iraq. When collapse was imminent, Saddam Hussein released all Iraqi prisoners. After coalition forces entered Baghdad, they were initially ordered NOT to `shoot to kill` looters. Basically unchecked, the criminal element in Baghdad created a power base that created havoc and slowed reformation of the country. That`s not the opinion of Ipsism Cerebri, that`s the reflection of Paul Bremer, former US administrator of Iraq. Ipsism`s opinion is that the order not to shoot to kill was based in a socio-political consideration that a `shoot to kill` order would be viewed as non-compassionate. As a result, the greater good of reformation of the country was delayed. We can only hope that the delays will not destroy the possibility of Iraqi reformation. We fear that those who were allowed to rob and loot in the early days are now the individuals who kidnap and kill in Iraq. A criminal element allowed to flourish because of compassion. After all, if criminal activities have so little consequence, can anyone expect that the criminals suddenly became law abiding?
Regardless of the social milieu examined, unbridled compassion has proved deleterious. Isn`t this the basis for `tough love`? Isn`t this the underlying truth of shows such as ``Honey, We`re Killing the Kids``? Isn`t this the simple truth of the age old observation - Spoiled Rotten?
The Need to Temper CompassionNo one could argue that there is no place for compassion in government. Conversely, government cannot argue that demands and mandates for compassion, without limitation, are globally beneficial. Robin Hood is not an appropriate role model for government. Congress` short term gain (votes) from those receiving compassionate programs will ultimately prove ruinous to the country.
In all acts, including those based in compassion, government must consider the possibility of unintended consequences and allow provisions to mitigate those consequences. No enactment should be sacrosanct. Whether unfunded mandates or entitlements, when a program becomes so consumptive as to threaten the sustainability of the country, there should be a provision to ameliorate the unintended consequences. Otherwise, compassion will kill.
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