Teach a man to fish and you’ll get … happier story tellers

As we approach Thanksgiving, the national holiday of gluttony, it seems appropriate to talk about one of the finest adages that western civilization has given us is: Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. This little nugget is right up there with the golden rule. Everyone learns it, and everyone knows it’s true. So when you ask most Americans which is a better method of supporting the less fortunate, it’s not a surprise that people answer correctly: teach him to fish.

Now that Saint Nick of Communism, Karl Marx, would have given you a different answer. In 1875 he wrote his most famous line: From each according to his ability, to each according to his need. This is the opposite idea. According to Marxism, if somebody needs fish, the guy that already knows how to fish should fish for them. Not surprisingly, most Americans disagree with this statement and with good evidence. The failure of communism in the 20th century illustrated that if you force a fisherman to give away his fish, eventually he will just stop fishing and get his fish for free like everyone else.

But if your Thanksgiving dinner includes some contemporary progressives, the conversation might include a third answer.

Me: Which is better, a fishing lesson or a fish dinner?

Liberal lawyer who makes his own beer: “A fishing lesson AND a fish dinner!”

Me: “I’m sorry, but that wasn’t an option.“

Fellow in thick glasses wearing a hat at the table: “Sure it is. How can you expect someone to learn anything on an empty stomach? Give him a nice plate of Dover sole – heck, make it fried carp for all I care – then get him a good night’s rest and tomorrow you can talk tackle!”

ME: “The question specifically implied that you have to choose one or the other. Assume that there is some physical impossibility in providing both.”

Lawyer’s wife: “Fizzie what? This is the real world. Of course we can do both!”

ME: “But they both cost money – especially in the real world. The purpose of the question was to determine which was a better use of the limited funds we have?”

Bernie Sanders (OMG, you are having Thanksgiving dinner with Bernie M-Fing Sanders!) : “Funds aren’t limited! Find some more. Look how frickin’ hungry that guy is. We need to get him some dinner!  We’ll borrow it if we have to!”

Me: “But even if we borrow the money, won’t he be hungry again in the morning?”

Hostess, getting annoyed: “So borrow some more money tomorrow and feed him again. What are you, some kind of monster? Help the fella out for chrissakes! You are not invited back next year.”

Herein lies the challenge. Americans know the right answer but when faced with making the decision, the right answer seems unkind and no one wants to be unkind. Further harshing the toke, the right answer appears to offer mercilessly little more than the opportunity to remain self-sufficient. Still, even a crappy fishing lesson is more appreciated than a five dollar gift certificate to Long John Silvers. One of the smartest men in America, Arthur Brooks said “the greatest controllable factor to happiness is earned success through work.” In other words that fellow even wants to catch his own fish!

I very nice looking fish dinner.
I very nice looking fish dinner.

Tough love may be harder to dish out than it is to receive. In an effort not to appear mean, we avoid requiring self-sufficiency and helping in-need people get there. Instead of investing in job training we throw borrowed money at stimulus programs, jobs bills, and extend unemployment incentives indefinitely. We make free fish dinners the standard and avoid delivering the fishing lesson to those who want it. We choose not to look into the wet eyes of the currently unemployed and say “I am sorry, but the job, house, or retirement you must accept is not as good as the one you had before – but it will return you to self-sufficiency,” even though we know that is the right answer, and things will improve for that guy. Instead, we leave the bad news for generations to come later, people who we don’t know and whose eyes we will never have to look into and apologize for anything.

It’s time we change the strategy. Government assisted training, and work for aid programs need to gradually replace welfare as the default safety net. We all know that it is better to teach a man to fish and we all know that giving him a fish has only temporary benefits. Americans often fail to understand that we can’t have both, but that must change. The current course will only grow the number of families reliant on government handouts while pushing increased expenses into the future. That’s not fair to those in-need today or those picking up the tab tomorrow.

4 thoughts on “Teach a man to fish and you’ll get … happier story tellers

  1. Your caricature of the liberal mind is, in addition to being wrong, terribly mean-spirited and cavalier. As a life-long liberal, I can tell you that the imagined conversation described above is nothing like the way that I think, in addition to being, again, extremely condescending. My wife does indeed know definition of the word “physical.” She would feel gravely insulted by the implication that she doesn’t.

    So, to a large extent, the credibility of your argument experiences a quick death during this “conversation.” And, it was insulting to me, as a liberal, to be portrayed as some sort of dimwitted idiot.

    Now, as you know, I am a capitalist in the most pure sense. “Pure” meaning that I believe in the free market system, and embrace the concept that our economy SHOULD be driven by supply and demand, and that excellence SHOULD be rewarded with whatever the market provides.

    I could myself, conjure an imagined conversation with ACTUAL people, using their ACTUAL words … acolytes of Rand, and Friedman, and Our Lord and Savior Alan Greenspan (who admitted publicly that his economic worldview was “flawed”), and it would be MUCH more damning than the one that you posit. They were ALL wrong, and an objective view of history bears that out, in my opinion. You would, surely and violently, disagree, but I would love to engage in that argument. The whole “Going Galt” myth is just that … a myth.

    Also, how does the Marx quote, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”, have any REAL relationship to the, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”, quote? Yet, you assert that they are inextricably bound together as opposite philosophies. I am having great difficulty assimilating the nexus of the two. I’d like to see a more in-depth explanation of that concept.

    All that said, you know that I respect and admire you as a person Curt. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t.

    Hope that you and your family have a great holiday season. Keep doing what you’re doing, and if you’d like me to help promote your blog just let me know. We need voices like yours.

    Best regards, Mike


    • Mike,

      I appreciate that we are friends and that you follow along, but you are criticizing the style and not the substance. In the original version of this post, the dialog went like this.

      Me: Which is better, a fishing lesson or a fish dinner?
      Them: “A fishing lesson AND a fish dinner!”
      Me: “I’m sorry, but that wasn’t an option.“
      Them: “Sure it is. How can you expect someone to learn anything on an empty stomach? Lets feed him today and teach him to fish tomorrow. That is the kind answer. ”
      ME: “The question specifically implied that you have to choose one or the other. Assume that there is some physical impossibility in providing both.”
      Lawyer’s wife: “Of course we can do both. We do it all the time.”
      ME: “But they both cost money. The purpose of the question was to determine which was a better use of the limited funds we have?”
      Them: “Funds aren’t limited because we can always borrow.”
      Me: “But even if we borrow the money and buy him a fish, he will be hungry again when the fish is gone.”
      Them: “So? We can borrow more money tomorrow and feed him again. Then we can borrow even more and teach him to fish. Don’t be so mean.”

      If you replace the dialog in the post with that above, it says the same thing, it’s way less fun to read, and the bulk of your criticism goes out the window.
      I used stereotypes for comedic effect. They may have been a bit over the top, but I feel this is defensible. I live in Chicago where most people are hipsters and everyone is a democrat. This particular defense of welfare is one I hear all the time. Welfare programs are necessary because people are in need and only a mean person would ever take them away. My goal with this piece, which I feel I accomplished, is to remind non-questioning progressives that they were taught a better way and if they think back to their childhood, this nugget of truth offers a sustainable albeit more difficult alternative.


    • Well, clearly, I could only respond to what was posted, not what was in a previous revision. When you mischaracterize, and also condescend to, the opposing argument to the extent that you did, you diminish the the value of your own argument Would you agree with that statement?

      Regarding your “comedic effect”, would you inherently, “understand” that, if you were on the other end. Would you ignore that and objectively concentrate on whatever other substance might be in the post?

      Also, I would like to hear your explanation of the juxtaposition of the Marx/Maimonides quotes. Does it have merit? It is critical to your portrayal of liberals as ignorant and childish people. Words matter man.

      Anyway, my argument with this post is most certainly not only about style. As I said, liberals do not view the world in the way that you explicitly portray. My main argument is that you lay at the feet of liberals, all of the evils of the economic problems of our low-income population.

      You strongly imply that liberals want to just “give” money to the disadvantaged, with zero thought of helping their long-term interests. Is that how your friends view the world? That would make me very sad. I can tell you that I have NEVER met a liberal with that world view. NEVER.


  2. Self reliance is now a premium commodity. Our generation grew-up on it. We ate it for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Anything to make a half-a-buck. . .deliver papers, sweep floors, shovel snow, mow lawns. And before that our play was self reliant…soap box derbies, sling shots, vacant lot football, baseball and soccer. . ., roller skates and King of the Hill.


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