Decades ago while living west of Boulder, CO, I was a recent undergraduate (earned my undergraduate degree at the University of Colorado–Boulder–before you had to say “Boulder.”–post U.S. Army), and undertaking my first entrepreneurial venture on less than a shoestring. At that time I was sure that having various levels of government give people what they said they needed was absolutely correct. Who would ask for things they could provide for themselves? And who would deny people what they need? It seemed so very simple.
Then I had a conversation with a long-haired friend of mine (his was not a lot longer than mine). Much to my surprise, I found that he was on food stamps–pretty much the welfare of choice at the time. When I asked why, he responded by saying that no one would hire him with his long hair, and he needed to eat. I did not question his claim, but told him to cut it so that get a job and get off welfare. His response floored me, “Will, if I cannot get hired because of how I want my hair, then I deserve to get food stamps. The system is cheating me, the system can pay.” My response apparently floored him, “No, the taxpayers should not have to stand up for your choice to have long hair. You should. Don’t send the bill for your ‘courage’ to someone else.”
My friend challenged my assumption that people would not ask for things they could provide for themselves. Then another example came along a few months later.
I was invited to a dinner party for eight hosted by a graduate student friend of mine where he and his wife served beef fondue as the main course. I marveled at the amount and quality of the meat, asking how he could afford it. “I got it with food stamps.” The conversation that followed revealed that he and his wife regarded food stamps as a government program to support graduate students. Like a(n unearned) scholarship. They both felt more than justified. What’s happening here, I asked myself. Is there something that I am not understanding? Why are capable, educated people taking advantage of the system? Why are they taking taxpayer money they don’t need?
Are they bad people? No, they are not bad people. But they are part of creating a bad situation. They don’t see themselves as taking money they don’t need, and they don’t see themselves as gaming the system. In both cases, my friends had completely rationalized their choices to nick the taxpayers. One felt owed by the system because the system would not give him a job, and the other two, the couple, were quite comfortable with their self-granted scholarship.
Other than continuous, massive increases in the number of folks on welfare, not much has changed. The rationalizations are more complex and numerous, but they remain rationalizations. Even people who admit that they have no special need for their welfare, say things like, “Everyone does it. And they don’t care at the welfare office.” The first is increasingly true. As is the second. And both are rationalizations.
Is this behavior OK? If not, what should we do? In the spirit of the first murder being the hardest, the first cheat is the hardest. They get easier after that. The behavior expands and the rationalizations come faster and with more conviction. And before we know it, we are believing our own BS, and rise up in self-righteous rage if challenged. And the better and more clear the challenge, the more we self-righteously fight back.
Pause for a question we ask frequently, Q. “Why is this important?” A. Because individual behavior shapes our communities and shapes our nation. Take a look at the path we are on today, and tell me where we are going.
Leaving this behavior behind is like kicking a bad habit; best done cold turkey. Look in the mirror. See what’s going on. And stop. Then be an example and help others. I am not on welfare and cheating in that way, but there are many areas in my life where I need to go cold turkey on. Ask me in the blog what they are. Share yours if the spirit moves you.
The only thing I got right on this subject early on was the part where I thought it was simple. Doing the right thing is indeed simple. And hard. And worth it.
Will Luden, writing from my home office at 7,200’ in Colorado Springs.