Good Intentions And SNAP

I just received a postcard informing me that the guidelines for SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly food stamps) have changed. If I wasn’t eligible before, I may be now. It is easier than ever to apply.

The SNAP program, as well as many other government benefits, are founded on good intentions. People with big hearts want to make sure that others don’t suffer. That is good. Compassion has been a component of the human experience from the earliest recorded times. The other side of the coin is that compassion itself does not bring good results. Regardless of intentions, good or bad, results are subject to cause and effect relationships. Things happen for specific reasons, even if we ignore them or they are hidden from our eyes. Actions have implications.

In 1946, Henry Hazlitt published “Economics in One Lesson.” He didn’t claim originality for his ideas, but rather restated those of Frederic Bastiat, an influential economic thinker from the mid 1800s, in terms to which readers of the time could relate. The fundamental idea is that you cannot look only at the immediate, visible effects of a policy. To truly and honestly determine its results, you must also look at the long-term effects and those that are invisible but just as real.

Every choice has opportunity costs. If you take one path, you cannot, at the same time, take another. You can readily see the results of the path you chose. You can see real objects and things that happen right now, but you can’t see the things that you prevented from happening by your choice. You also cannot see what lies ahead further up the branch you took. If you choose a path because you like the immediate effects, but disregard potential disaster ahead, you may find that the path you took was the wrong one, but only when it is very costly or impossible to turn back.

SNAP is just one small facet of the War on Poverty, initiated five decades ago. While the exact number of trillions of dollars spent on that war is debatable, it is a huge amount, yet the number of people requiring government assistance is at an all-time high. All we have gotten from the war is more dependence and a huge, wasteful bureaucracy. Those trillions of dollars spent by ineffective bureaucrats and politicians were and are no longer available to individuals to create jobs or even to spend or to be compassionate as they see fit. The things that didn’t happen are the opportunity costs of the money that was spent.

Poverty programs simply make the poor more comfortable, while keeping them dependent. If dependence on others is to decline, the incentives must induce people to become more productive. Without productivity there can be no prosperity, no wealth. Thus, true compassion encourages individuals to prosper over the long run and gives them the incentives and the tools to do so. As the proverb goes, give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime.

Instead of making poverty comfortable, we need to get politicians out of the way of people who want to create jobs, who want to learn skills, who want to start an enterprise wherever they are. Any law, from local zoning to federal minimum wages and burdensome regulations, that makes it difficult or expensive to hire, create, or expand, embeds poverty. Poverty, after all, is simply the absence of individual prosperity. Good intentions can align with good results when the long-term and unseen results are considered.

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