Friday, July 6, 2012

BethRant1 - If the Irish Can Do It, So Can You

Facts matter.  And a professor at a respected university ought to know that.  But apparently, when Dr. Walter E. Williams wears the substitute-for-Rush-Limbaugh hat, he takes off his professorial robes.

Dr. Williams subbed for Rush Limbaugh yesterday.  I know because I listened to the show as I drove the mountains between West Virginia and Virginia.

During the time I listened, Dr. Williams touched on health care, gun ownership, social security, and a myriad of other topics of interest to his listeners, including poverty and welfare.

Dr. Williams' views are not mine, but they are his, and as such, I have no quarrel with the man.  But when it comes to facts, well, as my friend Anita is fond of saying, “the facts do not care” if we agree or not.

Hence do I introduce BethRant – a way to alert those reading that this is just that – my own rant against someone I think has gotten ‘it’ wrong and ought to know better.  Be warned: BethRants are political.  Of course, I think everything is political, but hey, that’s just me.

When the poor Irish fled the Potato Famine and arrived in New York with just the clothes on their backs, did they get food stamps? If not, how did they make it? -Dr. Williams

Well, Dr. Williams, they didn’t.  The poorest of the poor could not afford to emigrate in the first place Watertown Daily Times, so they starved to death in Ireland - more than a million of them.  Then they died on the ships coming over – so many died that the ships were referred to as ‘coffin ships’.  Then they died in quarantine once they got here.  One expert estimates that more than a third of those on ships for Canada died en route or in quarantine. Constitutional Rights Foundation

Thus, those left to actually enter the Americas were the healthiest, the most physically fit, and those with the most resources.  It was survival of the fittest at its ugliest.  But even that wasn't enough.

In Boston, cholera was rampant among the new immigrants and sixty per cent of Irish children born in Boston during that time didn’t live to see their sixth birthday.  Adults lived on average just six years after arriving from Ireland.  Infant mortality was equally high in New York City. History Place

If one is to make the case that public welfare is not only not the business of government, but also is not necessary, when pointing to historical precedent, it is self-evident that the precedent must apply.  The fact is that the Irish immigrant experience to the Americas is not a case-in-point for Dr. Williams’ proposition that welfare is not necessary for the survival of the poor.  The Irish immigrant experience actually proves the opposite: absent any coordinated effort at assistance to those without food, they will die.  Some will die quickly of starvation and more will die slowly of malnutrition, disease, and the ground-swell of social ills that prey on those too weak to defend themselves against the onslaught.

But we know this, don’t we?

So why do we keep insisting that it isn’t true?

The only reason I can come up with is self-interest – greedy self-interest that requires a number of things in order to alleviate myself from my human obligation to help:
(1) I see myself as a good and moral person – absent this self-perception, the self-deception would not be necessary: I could simply say what’s mine is mine and too bad for you and be done with it.
(2) I must see my neighbor in dire need as someone who has brought their misfortune upon themselves – for if they did not bring this upon themselves somehow, if they are simply an innocent victim of circumstance, my good and moral heart would be stirred to step in and help.
(3) I must see history as proving my point – precedent, what’s been done before, has great persuasive value.  If it was good enough for the ancestors, so the saying goes . . . Of course, historical facts to the contrary can be awfully inconvenient to such an approach.  

And thus do I say, shame on you, Dr. Williams.  You are an economist by training and experience.  You should know better than most that poverty is a systemic thing much more than it is the narrative of any one individual and that systems gather power and wealth and resources unto themselves, loathe to share, especially with those in no position to bargain.

Does that mean the poor, as individuals or as a class, have no ability or no opportunity to alter their circumstances?  Of course not.  But let us not pretend that they enter the playing field with anything approaching an equal chance to you and I, who ate our fill last night.

So please, make your case against the modern welfare state somewhere other than on the backs of dead Irish immigrants -- they simply aren't strong enough to support your position.


Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Dr. Walter E. Williams holds a B.A. in economics from California State University, Los Angeles, and M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in economics from UCLA. He also holds a Doctor of Humane Letters from Virginia Union University and Grove City College, Doctor of Laws from Washington and Jefferson College and Doctor Honoris Causa en Ciencias Sociales from Universidad Francisco Marroquin, in Guatemala, where he is also Professor Honorario. Dr. Williams has served on the faculty of George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, as John M. Olin Distinguished Professor of Economics, since 1980; from 1995 to 2001, he served as department chairman. He has also served on the faculties of Los Angeles City College, California State University Los Angeles, and Temple University in Philadelphia, and Grove City College, Grove City, Pa.  George Mason University


  1. Amen and Amen! Somehow I knew this would be your response to the issues of poverty in this country. True Christianity shows itself in beliefs such as yours. Those who espouse opinions such as Dr. Williams (I did not hear him, by the way) are only fooling themselves and perpetuating the myriad problems our country is facing. We all share a Christian -- indeed, a HUMAN and moral obligation to work toward solutions. "The poor will always be with us.." What we do about/for them defines our nation. Thank you for speaking out, Beth.

    1. Thank you for your kind words and reminder that the poor being 'with us' is not an excuse but a challenge.