I Believe in Fishing
Give a man a fish; you have fed him for today.
Teach a man to fish; and you have fed him for a lifetime.
–Lao Tzu (maybe)
In my Social Contracts class the other day, I raised questions about Huey Long’s Share Our Wealth program: whether or not such a program would be feasible in the form he suggested, what form it would take today in order to work, and whether or not such a program was in keeping with the purpose of our government, socially sustainable, and, well, right. One of the other students broke out the above phrase, which has been attributed over the years to the Bible, Lao Tzu, Confucius, the nation of China as a whole, the ancient Chinese in particular, and others. Many Chinese scholars have claimed that the phrase is, in fact, an American invention, shuffled off onto them because of its rural construction and distinctly Buddhist feel. Either way, the fish phrase is a familiar saying that seems so thoroughly soaked in logic that it’s now dripping on the carpet, and I think it might ruin the sofa.
The student I mentioned before was explaining why handouts from the government were bad, and felt that the fish phrase best summed up his argument. Seems sensible enough. If people are given job skills, they are better able to secure jobs. If you just give them money, or food or free housing, you aren’t teaching them how to get these things for themselves, and you might be teaching them that all they have to do is sit around, and someone will eventually hand them a fish. But, in keeping with the metaphor, the student’s opinion presupposes that people who live at or below the poverty line don’t know how to fish. His solution assumes that it is ignorance that keeps them down, and not another cause.
I believe it’s insulting to assume that people are broke because they’re ignorant. In fact, I believe it is ignorance that drives this stereotype, but not ignorance on the part of the poor. Ignorance on the part of those who assume that all that they possess came to them solely of their inspiration and hard work, that the playing field was level and they just happened to be really good at soccer. But I digress from my metaphor. How about this: the stream is the same distance across and depth the whole of its length, all the fishing poles are the same size, the worms are all juicy, and some people are just better at reeling in the fish.
Even if the solution was to teach a man to fish, what about the fishing poles, the nets, the water rights? I suppose that if you teach a man to fish, you can get him into your tackle store, and if you’re the only tackle store around, you can gouge him like a worm on a hook. So this phrase makes sense for the people who make the fishing poles and the nets. But it doesn’t do the man who just learned how to fish any good.
The problem isn’t that people don’t know how to fish. The problem is that a lot of people who know how to fish can’t afford to buy a pole. These are people who not only know how to fish, they know how to make the poles…but the pole factory got shipped overseas because it’s cheaper to build poles in a country that has relaxed labor laws.
This fish platitude does accomplish something: it serves to distract activists and advocates of a socialist bent with the task of educating the poor, leaving them too busy to demand a fair standard of living for everyone, to demand that everyone gets a net and access to a slip of stream somewhere.
I believe we can share the wealth. Before I go further, I should clarify that I am not rabidly opposed to luxury. But I believe that every citizen should have the basics: food, shelter, healthcare, access to the outside world (this category includes cars and media), and an education. Once everyone in America has these things, the ambitious can fight over the rest for all I care. Former Louisiana Senator Huey Long said this in the 1930s:
There is nothing wrong with the United States. We have more food than we can eat. We have more clothes…than we can wear. We have more houses and lands than the whole 120 million can use…So what is the trouble? Nothing except that a handful of men have everything and the balance of the people have nothing…There should be every man a king in this land flowing with milk and honey instead of the lords of finance at the top and slaves and peasants at the bottom.
Long’s idea is not a radical notion. It isn’t radical to think that there is enough here for everyone to live on…and live well. It is a startling notion, a glorious one, but not radical. What is radical is to give up the ambitions we possess which serve to dispossess others of the quality of life which is possible in this country. I think our forefathers intended for everyone to live well. Perhaps they didn’t mean for everyone to have the same amount of wealth, but they didn’t want people to starve, to live in the streets, to forego an education because they had to work two full-time jobs to keep their apartment, to not receive the medical care they needed because they couldn’t afford it. Not everyone gets a mansion, but everyone should live in a home they can call their own. Not everyone gets a Beamer, but everyone should have reliable and safe transportation. Not everyone owns a yacht, but everyone should own a fishing pole, and a right to test the waters.
Long, Huey. “Senate Speech.” The Congressional Record. 5 Feb. 1934. Social Security Online History Pages. 31 Feb. 2007 < http://www.ssa.gov/history/longsen.html>.
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