Giving You the Shirt Off Your Neighbor’s Back

Governments in general are very good at giving you the shirt off your neighbor’s back while causing the conditions that make you need the shirt in the first place.

“If a man asks you for your coat,” Jesus never said, “give him your neighbor’s.”

Some years ago, in the Canadian maritime village where we live in the summer, a murder rocked the community. The murdered man had long been a poacher and a thief, with impunity. Government policy, which favors environmentalists over people of modest means, has put a clamp on licenses to go fishing for lobsters commercially. We are not talking about a few hundred or even a few thousand dollars. We are talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars—up to a million according to one report I have read, although I have not been able to verify it.

There are good years and bad years for the lobstermen; it is a high-risk enterprise, where you have to put a lot on the line for a huge return when the fishing is good. We are not talking about tycoons here but about people who go out in their own boats with their own crews, who set their own traps and gather them up. It is hard work and sometimes dangerous, as the Atlantic up there is often struck with the last furious lashes of a hurricane. 

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So, the men took it ill when their townsman—everyone knows everyone there, and everyone is related to everyone else, somehow or other—would empty their traps in the middle of the night and laugh and boast about it afterward. When one of the fishery officials tried to threaten the man, the man waited until the official was out of town, took a drill to the official’s roof, and drilled dozens of little holes in it. No one knew it until the next time it rained. The house was ruined. Everyone knew who did it, but no one had any proof. The official, for his part, stood down.

Finally, after years of complaining and begging the Mounties to do something about it, one of the lobstermen had enough and murdered him at sea when he caught him poaching. Several people were found guilty, justly so, and they are in prison. Of course, it never should have come to that point.

The murdered man was a cheerful fellow, about whom a friend of mine said that if you were in need, he would give you the shirt off his neighbor’s back. Murder is murder, and that is that—and this murder was premeditated, not an act in the height of rage. But there was plenty of blame to go around. Were it not for the fecklessness of government bodies, it would not have happened.

Governments in general are very good at giving you the shirt off your neighbor’s back while causing the conditions that make you need the shirt in the first place. We might turn here to almost any large-scale government activity that tends to grow government as it assumes the robe and the honors of a benefactor. 

College costs are absurdly and extortionately high because they can be—and they can be because of what Madison called “combination,” a collusion of large forces that feed each other at the expense of the common good. High tuition is in the interest of banks that capitalize on government-assured loans, of the government itself, and of the colleges, especially college bureaucracies; it is not in the interest of students and families. But because most large private businesses, and all public businesses, have set the colleges up as their credentialing services, in part to avert lawsuits that government regulation of hiring practices have made possible, the colleges enjoy the benefits of controlling the only bridge across the river, so to speak. It is legal extortion, and it hurts the working class the most.

Everything bad, of course, can be said to hurt the poor and the working class the most, simply because they are most vulnerable. In a famine, those who are already sickly and weak are the first to go. So I have heard that “climate change” hurts the poor the most, and if you choose your standards of measurement right, you will find what serves your ideological turn, just as if you shine your flashlight in a garbage strewn alley, you will find rats. But environmentalism can also hurt the poor the most. Again, I turn to Canada, this time not to blame Ottawa and its government but to blame Washington and ours.

My neighbor’s sons, not able to find really good work on our island in Nova Scotia (see Licensing, Lobster), have gone to northern Alberta and Fort McMurray, the center of the Canadian shale oil industry. As recently as fifty years ago, geologists only suspected that a great wealth of fuel lay beneath the otherwise barren sands, from the long-past millions of years when that area was far warmer than it is now and was lush with plants and animals. When I asked one of the boys what it was like to work there, he said that if you were not stupid, if you did not throw your money away on expensive cars, casinos (see Vice, Enabled and Encouraged by Government), and prostitutes, you could make an excellent living. His idea was to stay there for seven or eight years, make a small fortune, and then go somewhere else to settle down.

I wondered how they got the oil to the refineries, and when I asked him about it, he laughed. He said that they do a lot of the refining on site. When I looked puzzled, because I could hardly imagine Fort McMurray with towering buildings, he said that the refineries were put together like enormous toys, in huge pieces. When they had done the work at one site, they were disassembled and moved to another, where they would be reassembled. It sounded like what used to be called Yankee ingenuity, back when Yankees were ingenious and prided themselves on making things, rather than on relying on the enormous and filthy and inhuman factory-cities of China.

The United States and Canada are each other’s greatest trading partners, and we have long enjoyed close amity. It is obvious, one might think, that the wealth coming from Alberta should benefit the United States. But environmentalism has gotten in the way; and the fuel that should be coming to America instead is going to China. To put it in practical terms: instead of coming via pipeline to America, with no great mountain ranges in the way, the fuel is being piped across the Rockies to Vancouver, where it is loaded onto tankers that cross the Pacific and go to China. Thus does an insistence that one’s favorite spot be clean and free of any environmental risk ensure that someone else’s spot will be dirty and subject to a greater environmental risk.

And it does hurt the poor and the working class. Some human needs, after all, are constant and invariable. A lawyer does not eat more food than a construction worker does. Very likely, he eats a little less. A doctor does not need a warmer house than the trucker does. He is more likely to have moved to a warmer clime already. Inflation is like what Lord Acton said about vice. It may addle the rich, but it devastates the poor. 

And inflation in America, right now, is fueled by fuel, or by an artificially engineered scarcity of it. For there is no good reason why energy must be so expensive. France has long been building nuclear power plants and improving the technology, using recirculating fuel—France, not the Connecticut Yankee. We are not talking about Chernobyl anymore. The United States has not begun construction of a nuclear power plant since 1976, though a couple are now in planning. We may ask in whose political or economic interest it has been to keep the United States dependent so heavily upon sources of power it cannot provide for itself.

Our Catholic faith enjoins upon us the care of the poor, and now we are told that we must care for the natural world too, care for it in an especially tender way, because Holy Mother the Earth is sick and like to die. Of course, we must care for the poor, and it is a sin against the beautiful world God has given us to leave it filthy and diseased, killing off the plants and animals we share it with. Now then, it would be a fine thing if we could always be certain that you can have two good things at once, at their peak, in just the way you find most convenient; but that is not how the world is. We must often forgo one good thing to secure another. 

Nor can we depend upon readily available neighbors over here to fleece, in order to hand the proceeds to our other neighbor over there, while skimming a nice percentage for ourselves. Eventually, we run out of our neighbor’s shirts, and our neighbors cease to bother to make any because they do not see the benefits. For almost forty years, inflation in America—for food, fuel, and other immediate necessities of human life—has been very modest. That is no longer so, and it is obliterating the marginal savings that the working class can amass. Will we hear anything from the bishops about it?  

[Image Credit: Unsplash]


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