Mark Twain’s Dog

This brilliant posting explores a problem that is very vexing. As Mark Twain put it:

If you pick up a starving dog and make him prosperous, he will not bite you. This is the principal difference between a dog and a man.

The essay explores the problem of “freeloaders” and their resentment of those who actually provide for them. But looking at the situation in that light alone can lead you to a wrong answer. Here’s my fuller description of the problem.

In every society, there are those who cannot provide for themselves. Human empathy drives us to provide for these truly needy. Yet, whenever we do, there will be some people who fraudulently go along for the ride. They could provide for themselves, but they choose not do, and they pose as truly needy and benefit from other’s charity.

It’s tempting to tighten standards to ensure that undeserving do not benefit from the aid intended for the deserving. But enforcing tighter standards can increase the burden on the deserving and even cost more than what would otherwise be misdirected to the undeserving. I can only conclude that any attempt to help the deserving, no matter how efficient, will also help the undeserving. Our true choice, at the extremes, is between helping the undeserving or not helping the deserving. And whether we help the deserving or the undeserving, we will always have the problem of Mark Twain’s dog.

Despite all this, the best answer is not to abandon charity. We should know in advance that charity will be abused and resented. That only goes to make it more charitable.


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