Lifeboat ethics: Know where your politicians stand


Have you ever heard of Joshua Wong? If you are not financially or actively supporting pro-small-business political candidates, you should be ashamed of yourself — and Joshua Wong is the person who should make you feel ashamed.

Joshua Wong is an 18-year-old student in Hong Kong. He is one of the leaders of the protests against Beijing's demand for control of Hong Kong elections. Unless he is a fool, Wong knows the risk he is taking. Death, prison, or whatever Beijing's leaders decide should be his punishment is his fate.

Small business owners, on the other hand, have only minimal risk. If they let the anti-business politicians win, they will pay more taxes, suffer more regulation, see their kids and grandkids leave the state because they want work not welfare, etc. — you know the routine. They will not, however, be shot, tortured, imprisoned, or impoverished (unless the IRS gets involved). As Americans, we can fight for what we believe in within the law and not have to worry about personal harm.

It is very simple. We have two conflicting concepts of what America’s and Michigan's people view as the American dream. The dream one party represents is the idea of self-determination. People make decisions and must accept responsibility for their actions. The road to escaping a minimum wage job is education, building competence and learning how to be valuable and therefore better compensated. 

The other party believes effort is irrelevant. They believe a person has an inherent right to everything “the good life” has to offer. They also believe hard-working responsible people have no right to the fruits of their efforts. Therefore, it is the moral and right thing to do to take from the responsible and give to the irresponsible. The fact that giving away another person's hard-earned money will buy votes to keep someone in office with its benefits and perks never cross the re-distributor’s mind.

Then there is the simple issue of human nature. If you take away the benefits of hard work and responsibility and anyone can have whatever they want without effort, what is the incentive to strive?

I read an interesting concept put forth by U.S. ecologist Garrett Hardin in a paper, “Lifeboat Ethics: The Case Against Helping the Poor,” published in 1974. Hardin was referring to the entire world, but the concept applies to Michigan, especially Detroit.

If the ship you are aboard sinks and you’re in a lifeboat with 70 people with room for 10 more, while hundreds of passengers around you are treading water, you have some decisions to make.

Hardin used this scenario to illustrate the differences between Marxism and Christianity. Marxism espouses that resources should be distributed to each according to their need. Christianity states that we are our brother’s keeper.

The lifeboat’s captain faces dilemmas following either maxim. First, how does he pick the additional 10 people who will be taken on board? Second, does he have the emotional strength to row away with 80 people who will live, leaving behind hundreds more who will drown?

You may have begun to wonder what this could possibly have to do with the coming election. I recognize that the lifeboat scenario is an exaggeration, but it is illustrative.

In November we are going to select our representatives for the next few years. Each party has a philosophy that can be roughly illustrated by Hardin’s lifeboat concept.

If the lifeboat captain is a Marxist, one would assume his inclination would be to allow everyone — those in the lifeboat and those treading water — to suffer the same consequences. Those who followed instructions and obediently went to their lifeboats would suffer the same fate as those who refused to comply with the order to abandon ship. No one would be allowed to use the lifeboats since there isn’t room for everyone. To the Marxist, the logic of this is that no one comes out ahead or behind — an equal but unhappy result for everyone.

The ultra-conservative captain, as viewed by the liberal, would sell the remaining 10 seats in the lifeboat to the highest bidder. Even better, the conservative would put all but his seat up for bid and retrieve the highest bidders from the water while throwing the poorer boat mates back in the water.

In reality, a thinking person would pull from the water the 10 closest and most likely to survive swimmers. Obviously, a child would be chosen over someone like me.

The reality of a politician’s job is that they must make decisions much like the lifeboat captain. There are limited resources to any situation. The U.S., the state of Michigan and Detroit all have limited resources. The people we elect to office determine the who, what, where and how of distributing the resources. In a political world, the Marxist captain allows no one on the lifeboats and all perish together — happy because everybody suffered an equal fate. 

As small business owners, we want leaders who understand that allocation of space and assets will not please everyone and in some cases will please no one, but the hard decisions still have to be made. To promise the people in the water that they are all going to be saved is absurd, but it sounds good. The people outside the lifeboat have no choice but to figure out how to create their own security.

The lifeboat concept does not give answers. It creates the realization that there are no perfect answers to some of society's pressing problems. Obviously, you do not want to elect the Marxist captain because he is a fool. Equally, you do not want to elect the ultra-conservative because he has no heart. All politicians fall somewhere in between the Marxist and the ultra-conservative. You need to know where the politicians you support fall.

A few questions: Is the lifeboat captain evil because he rows away from the passengers in the water? Would it indicate some sort of virtue to row back and suffer the same fate?

If you don't support your small business candidates and at least vote, don't you metaphorically deserve to be one of the people in the water?

Paul Hense is the retired president of local accounting firm Hense & Associates. He also is past chairman of the Small Business Association of Michigan.

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