Band-Aid, or Tourniquet?

Conservatism and the Young, Idealist Urge to Help

This morning, I had the chance to speak with a delightful young woman about law school, about the urge to help people, and about her political and possibly judicial aspirations.

She “has a big heart,” she told me, and mentioned that she is going to school to be a paralegal and eventually plans on attending law school out of hope that she might provide assistance to those in need. At just 21 years old, and obviously in possession of big ideas, she reminded me a little of myself at her age, and it took a good deal of effort to avoid the condescending “well, when I was your age…” conversational tack.

Truth be told, it was eight years ago that I was 21 years old, working for a small South Carolina newspaper in the months preceding the 2000 presidential election. I was young and very much an idealist and, making less than $20,000 yearly while working long hours for the paper, I was much like a rudderless ship when it came to the best possible outlet for my hopes, dreams and aspirations.

Like many of the students at the university I covered as part of my beat, I found the cult of liberalism a comfortable fit for my worldview. After all, why shouldn’t the great, big federal government provide everything for everyone? Why shouldn’t the President of the United States be directly responsible for the health and welfare of all American citizens? Proper education, healthcare, social services and more were often unattainable for those who didn’t know someone, or didn’t pull a salary far beyond what funded my spaghetti and ramen noodle diet.

I wish it were that easy.

Over the past few years, and a little more every day, I have learned and continue to learn that, for people to reach their greatest potential, government must get out of the way. Overreaching government leads, more often than not, to unintended consequences. A little more than ten years ago, for example, President Bill Clinton worked with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to increase homeownership in the United States. As a result, many of the traditional bellwethers for obtaining financing were thrown out the window, among them the ability of the new homeowner to pay back the money owed. As a result of this and other measures, we now find ourselves in a housing predicament, with many of the same people at risk of losing their home if they haven’t already.

Welfare programs similarly backfire, causing dependence and perpetual poverty, much in the way that an extra 60 cents given to the haggard, bearded man sitting on the street corner will do nothing to bring him off of the street and under a roof, but rather fund the heroin addiction which put him where he is in the first place. Yes, the system needs to be in place and, yes, we need to be able to open our hearts and wallets to pick up Americans that have stumbled and fallen, but such benefits need to be easy to obtain — but difficult to maintain.

Taking the risk of sounding clichéd–or more religious than I actually am–it goes back to Jesus and his fishing skills. Much like He said that we must teach people to fish for themselves in perpetuity rather than provide them with a disposable meal, the only way to truly open our hearts is to effect a remedy for each problem at its root. Anything other than that, any effort to provide a Band-Aid when only a tourniquet will do, and we run the risk of disastrous consequences of the unintended kind.

Knee-jerk, superficial reactions to a particular problem can make matters worse:

In response to rising violence in the District of Columbia, an unconstitutional gun ban was instituted. As a result, violent crime increased, as criminals by their very nature refuse to heed new laws.

In response to the perceived threat of global warming and the need for alternative fuels, carbon-soaking Brazilian rainforest is being plowed under for soybean-to-ethanol fields and precious agricultural resources are being squandered here in the United States for the same reason. However, nearly a gallon of conventional, petroleum-based fuel is needed to produce a gallon of ethanol, and between the plowing, planting, harvesting, manufacturing and shipping, the biofuel is a net energy loss. As a result, rainforests are disappearing, and food prices are skyrocketing — here in America, that may mean a heftier food bill at the local supermarket, but across the world people are subject to rationing, to malnourishment, to the inability to obtain food at all.

You know me. I could go on and on.

It’s easy to look at hardship from a typical liberal perspective. I still do it. In a few years, once done with law school, I plan on practicing plaintiff’s side insurance law, representing homeowners who have been unlawfully denied benefits to which they are entitled. My own direction and determination arose from a problem we had with our own homeowners provider last year, when water damage from a burst pipe caused our ceiling to come down, and benefits were refused. Still, even my own quest to help frustrated homeowners have unfortunate consequences, as large settlements and defense costs incurred by these insurance companies contribute largely to increased premiums for all.

At 21, I didn’t grasp anything beyond the problem. I was working for a newspaper, after all. I met and wrote about men and women who lost their jobs, but was blissfully ignorant and unaware of the improper, runaway government regulations which forced the closure of their manufacturing plant. I was short-sighted, superficial and uninformed. That November, just after my 22nd birthday, I voted for Al Gore.

Even now, as I grow older, I learn more and more about the merits of conservatism, and it becomes more and more apparent that the long-term success or failure of this great experiment known as America depends upon whether the conservative movement and its tenets are embraced on a large scale.

In the long winter of late 1775 and early 1776, as General George Washington lay siege of General Howe’s British troops [and Loyalists] in Boston, he wrote to personal friend and Philadelphia attorney Joseph Reed about the state of his cold, demoralized and distracted army, and the importance of the Glorious Cause at hand.

“The reflection upon my situation and that of this army produces many an uneasy hour when all around me are wrapped in sleep,” Washington wrote. “Few people know the predicament we are in.”

Substitute “country” for “army,” and Washington’s words could be applicable today. Our economy is crumbling, due in most part to our own action and inaction. Our people are demoralized by any number of factors, distracted by Hollywood, celebrity and cable T.V. We face perhaps the greatest threat we’ve ever known in fundamentalist Islam. The fabric of our culture, dominated by media-spun filth and degradation, is coming apart at the seams.

As a result, we fall back into the corpulent lap of idealism. We allow ourselves to be seduced by a bright, enigmatic, young statesman who preaches about much-needed hope. And we embrace it, unintended consequences be damned. We allow ourselves to overlook the adverse consequences of blind diplomacy with those who dream of our destruction. We allow ourselves to be sucked into the inaccurate and dangerously idyllic notion that the government can and will provide for all — education, healthcare, social services, and everything else.

We need to separate emotion from action. Gain perspective beyond what our hearts tell us.

Our hearts may tell us to increase unemployment benefits for those who are out of work or cannot find a job, but a little perspective may show that the best way to fight unemployment is to get government out of the way, instead fostering job growth by reducing regulations on businesses and the tax burden on those who establish and maintain them.

Our hearts may tell us to enact new legislation, initiatives, programs and mandates with regard to augmenting education and bettering our nation’s schools, but a little perspective may draw upon Ronald Reagan’s “thousand sparks of genius” philosophy and realize that the best way to provide the greatest possible education to America’s children is to get government out of the way, to abolish the U.S. Department of Education and allow the several states to manage schooling and education as best fits individual needs, and learn from others’ successes and failures.

Emotion often provides the easy way out, a quick fix or simple, temporary solution. Lasting change and perpetual hope, however, demands that the paint be stripped from the bureaucracy before the holes are patched up. Doing the right thing can be difficult, but so long as America is filled with people who wake up each day wondering how they can make things better for someone else, I think we’ll be just fine.



  1. Posner says:

    Great post, Jeff. Sometimes the ridiculousness of it all is just astounding. But I’m glad there are still a few of us young(ish) folks with our heads on straight.

    I hope the summer is wrapping up well for you. See you back in Philly in the fall!


  2. Jeff Schreiber says:

    Thanks, Keven. With only a few weeks until school, I’m starting to get a sense of urgency about the rest of the summer. I’m going to miss the time with my daughter especially.


    – Jeff

  3. Todd v. says:

    Excelent article even in retrospect!! (just found it) Hopefully people will inform themselves before we have another opportunity to get things moving in a positive long term direction instead of voting for a guy who just wants to be in the history books and have a few accomplishments under his belt. We need to get ourselves out of this financial mess before we do any kind of expansion and act financially responsibly as a nation or we will forever be burried in our own mess. Not a pretty or especially rewarding job for a politician but I think if presented properly people would realize the signifigance and respond accordingly.

    Todd v.

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