Michael Eriksson
A Swede in Germany
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Thoughts on help

Introduction

A recurring topic in my own thoughts is help, charity, government support, and similar, especially with an eye at when it is warranted, when and how it might do harm, the usually highly inept and wasteful implementations of governmental help, problems with charities, etc.

In due time, I intend to cover such issue in some depth below. For now, the page is in a state of continual growth, after being started with the discussion of an event that took place in the morning of the day of page creation (2023-12-04), but which is suitable to illustrate several of the relevant issues. (And which provided the impetus to actually start the page.)

A side-effect of this continual growth is some degree of repetition.

To preempt portions of the yet-to-be-written discussions, however: A central point of my own thought on the subject, and a central point of self-determination, is not that we should not help, but that the decision whether to help must be left to the individual potential helper. This distinction (and some similar distinctions) is particularly important in light of misleading Leftist propaganda directed against e.g. those who want small government or more reasonable taxes, often by attempting to equate, say, a wish for lower taxes with pure egoism—never mind questions like the injustice of taxes (at least, beyond a reasonable minimum), what incentives are given to the people, and what the effects on the overall economy are. But more on that in due time.

Queue skipping denied

Remark on costs and stakes

The below event is trivial in terms of e.g. costs and stakes. It is still a useful illustration of principles (and most of the below reflects what went through my head during the few minutes of walking home), if with the reservation that the reader might have to make mental adjustments for a situation with higher costs, stakes, and whatnot.

Main discussion

Earlier today, I was grocery shopping and next in line for the cashier. A teenager asked to be let ahead of me, as he had just one item and needed to get to school. (The latter, presumably, with the implication that he was running late.) I turned him down.

Why?

My main reason was that I had all of half-a-dozen items, all already on the conveyor belt, and that any time gained for him would have been minimal, which made his request almost entirely pointless from a get-to-school-in-time point of view. If we, on the other hand, discount the get-to-school-in-time issue, then some small time spent in a queue would have been transferred from him to me for no good reason.

Had I had two dozen items, let alone a full shopping cart, this would have been a very different matter, and I would gladly have let him pass. Ditto, if he had some far greater motivation, say, that a medical emergency of some sort was plausibly claimed. Ditto, likely, if I had not yet begun to move my purchases onto the belt. Ditto, with a politeness factor, if we had arrived at the same time and “who goes first” would otherwise have been a coin-toss decision. As is? Again, the request was pointless.

Moreover, my loss of time would have been almost as large as his gain, as the “marginal cost” of just moving an item past the scanner is small in comparison with the overall transaction. (Here I go by expectation value. If, say, he had to search for money while I did not, he might well have taken longer. Also see some minor hypothetical calculations below.) Even from a “utilitarian” position, letting him pass would have been very dubious—and even apart from the great caution needed before applying utilitarian arguments and apart from the short time spans involved.

For help to be given, the help must make sense. Here the help made no or only minimal sense.

Further, we have to consider the cost to the helper (something all too often forgotten), be it by not asking for help at a drop of a hat or through offering some type of recompense. Above, the costs were too small to bother with this (except in as far as they reduced the utilitarian gains); however, this is by no means always the case. Consider something as trivial as having a helper over to drill a few holes in the wall: the actual work might be done in a minute, but then we have the time to travel back and forth, the time to find the drill, and potential other costs, e.g. for gasoline. Measuring the cost to the helper only by the minute spent drilling would be highly unfair.


Side-note:

Here I draw on actual scenarios from my childhood, where my divorced mother sometimes enlisted the help of her handy and rich-with-tools brother. (But, in doubt, the point is the illustration, not how common or uncommon a scenario is. Note, e.g., how the same event would look if a professional handyman was enlisted and payment for more than that minute-or-so of work was refused.)

Here, between brother and sister, a typical payment might have been a cup of coffee and some cookies or a later favor in return, but it is very possible that he would have helped her regardless. This brings us to another point of self-determination: I do not say that a helper should charge for help, but that whether he does should be up to him. Likewise, the helped should have the decency to offer, even if the helper does not ask and unless the help only incurs trivial costs to the helper. (And note that neither costs nor recompense are necessarily in the form of money. The most typical cost is likely in time, not money. Recompense might be best or most often in form of money, but other forms are certainly possible.)


Then we have the issue of own responsibility: If the above teen was running late for school, why? Who had caused that situation? Why was he in the store now, when he could have waited for the next break? Etc. It might well be that a portion of the blame fell on others, e.g. in that he had travelled by bus and that the bus had been delayed. However, considering that this was in the middle of the city and that most of the students (I presume) live within walking distance from the school, chances are that own faulty planning was to blame. Even if not, he had options, e.g. to wait for the next break. Depending on details, options like planning ahead by keeping a stash of items in his locker or bringing an item from home, instead of buying one before school, might apply. (I did not pay attention to what exact item he had, but it gave the impression of being some type of snack, and snacks are easily stashable. I also note that (a) I virtually never snacked during my own, long ago, school hours, (b) snacks, even today, are better left out in favor of a healthy breakfast.)

Now, there is nothing wrong with asking for help when we have screwed up, but the incentives for others to help are the smaller and, for bigger things, the need to offer recompense the larger. Often, as with someone very young and still learning, it can pay to not extend help, so that he has incentives to plan better the next time around (or whatever might apply).


Side-note:

Indeed, I explicitly told him to plan better. More interestingly, my mind moved to a firm “no” the moment he tacked on something like “I need to get to school”. (I do not remember his exact words.) This addition, in my mind, turned him from someone with an odd and unreasonable (in type, if not size) request to someone trying to dump his own failure onto others.

This impression could, of course, be faulty, but remember that I had to make an on-the-spot decision. Moreover, the main issue of pointlessness still holds and I would probably have turned him down anyway. (There is some possibility that I would have waived him through for reasons of politeness or to follow the path of least resistance, had he stopped at something like “Excuse, but I have only the one thing. May I skip ahead?”.)


Of course, if the time potentially saved by jumping ahead in the queue had been significant to the purpose of getting to school in time, then leaving the store with no item at all would have been even better, as the time saved would have been several times larger. (Ditto not going into the store in the first place.)

Excursion on effect on others

The totality of the queue in our case was three persons: an old lady, currently at the cashier, I, and the teen.

If we imagine the same scenario with a longer queue, however, we would also have to consider how others are affected. I would certainly have been wrong in letting the teen through without the approval of any others that he automatically would have leapfrogged.

Exactly a failure to consider others is quite common, however. This especially when then government tries to help or, often, “help”, as the government rarely seems to see further than the situation of those to be helped, side-effects are not considered, and too little consideration is given to other parties and their interests. Applying typical government approaches, we might well have had someone reason that the time gained by the teen was (with a longer queue) much larger than the time lost by me alone, and that I would be obligated to let him pass. This ignores the increase of time for everyone else in the queue, some of whom might also be in a hurry. (And it gives yet another example of where self-determination is important.)

To look more closely at time gained/lost/whatnot:

Regardless of the size of the queue, the overall time to process all the current queuers would have remained constant, no matter where in the queue the teen had ultimately landed. Moreover, the accumulated queue time over all queuers would only have been slightly changed. (For simplicity, I include time spent interacting with the cashier, paying, etc., in “queue time” and similar formulations.)

For instance, in a queue with just the two of us (ignoring the old lady): if I had needed t (of some time unit) and he 0.7t, the overall time would have been 1.7t (i.e. the last guy has a total time of 1.7t), regardless of whether he went first or last.

The accumulated time if I went first would have been 1t + 1.7t = 2.7t (i.e. total time needed by me + total time needed by him; or, from a different perspective, the time that we both queue times two + the time that only he queues, or 2t + 0.7t). If he went first, it would be 0.7t + 1.7t = 2.4t (or 1.4t + 1t = 2.4t).

For a longer queue, the relative difference would have been smaller still. For instance, assume five customers like me and one like him: The overall time is now 5.7, regardless, while accumulated time varies from 19.2 to 20.7, for the extremes when he goes first resp. last. (Again as the sum of the time queued by the first in line + that of the second in line + [etc.], resp. six times the time that all six queue together + five times the time that only the five last queue together + [etc.].)

However, such calculations show how beneficial good queue management can be in other situations, e.g. by prioritizing shorter jobs in a computer context. In the specific case of grocery stores, the options are more limited due to the strong real-time character of the “jobs”, basic fairness between customers (up to and including the risk that someone with unusually many items has to wait for hours), and the risk that customers try to game the system: a queue dedicated for, say, “no more than X items” might be very beneficial, but e.g. a re-sorting of each queue to consistently prioritize customers with fewer items would be both unconscionable and impractical.

Excursion on help to multiple persons and/or events

An interesting complication is what happens when multiple persons would have equal interest in some type of help. For instance, it is not unusual for teens on breaks to visit grocery stores in larger groups, each buying just one item. If I had allowed the one teen above to move ahead, and he had been, a few seconds later, followed by several others, I would have had the choice between treating them inconsistently or taking a now considerable larger delay to let them all through. It could be argued that a need to reject him arises from consistency and conscionability concerns based on the mere risk that others follow. (However, this thought only occurs to me during writing and did not affect my decision.)

The same applies to repeated situations of a similar nature: Letting someone with just one item through once does little harm—but what if everyone with just one item, spread over many occasions, would make the same request? It could accumulate to a considerable time over the years. (And the overall accumulation over all queuers and time could be massive.)

More generally, it is often the case that helping a single person is no major sacrifice, while helping everyone with a similarly strong or weak case could be a very major sacrifice indeed. Contrast e.g. giving a dollar to a single beggar with giving one to every beggar in the country or, even, sometimes, the city at hand. Worse, such help might end up rewarding bad behaviors, e.g. in that an intrusive beggar receives a dollar while the unintrusive does not, that an intrusive charity receives a donation and the unintrusive does not, etc.

Excursion on queue ethics and etiquette

While the above teen did nothing wrong from an ethical or etiquette point of view, there are regrettably many cases where queuers are out of line.

A particularly annoying example occurred to me a few years back, when a single check-out counter in a clothing store had a long and slow-moving queue. A second counter was opened and I lucked out in now being second in line—at which point the woman who was first in line waved in a friend to join her, and to do so with enough clothes to match half-a-dozen regular customers. Neither of the two had any recognition that they were doing something unethical. On the contrary, they had the audacity to suggest that I (!!!) go back to the other queue.

Another took place in a lengthy queue at, maybe, a McDonald’s, where a homeless-looking man began by standing next to the queue, slightly ahead of my position, but at some sideways distance. (And well forward of the end of the queue, where a legitimate queuer would have gone.) He then sidled closer and closer, until the sideways distance was gone—at which point he tried to jump in front of me, as if he had arrived much earlier and been in the queue all along.

Other rare extremes include queuers abandoning their intended purchases and shopping carts, after already queueing, or going away for some forgotten item and not returning before “their turn” had already arrived, thereby blocking the progress of everyone else.

Help that defeats a purpose

Help is sometimes outright harmful, especially when misimplemented. A particularly important case is help that defeats a purpose, e.g. when someone is helped to pass a test that he otherwise would have failed. The test, however, was there for a reason and now its purpose has been defeated.

Consider, at an extreme, a test for a driver’s license, where the examiner (or whatever the term might be) passes a failing driver for spurious reasons (e.g. personal sympathy or a bribe). The driver might well be happy to finally have that license, but what of traffic safety? What if a severe flaw in skills or judgment demonstrated during that test leads to a lethal accident a few weeks later? Take innocent lives lost, damage to cars, a road blocked for hours after the crash, expensive police and insurance investigations, whatnot, and weigh them against someone being happy over an undeserved driver’s license. For that matter, if put in the shoes of a failing driver, would you rather be dead with a license or alive without one?


Side-note:

However, the reason why someone is failing can to some degree play in and some leeway should be given examiners when mitigating circumstances are present and/or the issue is of sufficiently low importance. For instance, if someone fails a test of parallel parking through obvious nervousness, a do-over might be warranted, as (a) parallel parking rarely risks human life and (b) the nervousness is likely to be test specific and not something that will occur during everyday driving. (Also, many go through a life as drivers without actually having a need to parallel park.) In contrast, running a red light should be grounds for an immediate fail.

Likewise, with an eye at the below, some limited hinting by the professor during an oral examination might well be acceptable, if it serves e.g. to unlock some knowledge that the student already has or to steer someone who is just a little of course in the right direction. (A good example that matches my own experiences and is understandable to the average reader is hard to give. Strictly to illustrate the principle, however, consider someone who has listed the names of all but one of Santa’s reindeer and is now prompted with the first letter, nothing more, for the missing one.)


Less extreme examples are more common. Consider e.g. surreptitiously giving hints to a struggling fellow student during a test. This might help him in the moment, but it might well hurt others (especially, if there is a local culture of such cheating). What if an undeserved pass distorts the grades of others, because the teacher grades on a curve? What if the value of a particular degree is hollowed out? What if the struggling student goes on to do shoddy work with an inflated credential? If in doubt, from an educational point of view, it would be better for him to re-take the course and pass fairly than to pass the course unfairly and with an insufficient understanding. (Note that one of the main purposes of higher education is to serve as a filter. This type of “help” undermines this already severely undermined purpose further.)

Certainly, such unhelpful help is not limited to tests. Consider e.g. a spotter in a gym. A spotter is there for safety when something goes wrong—not to do half the job of lifting. A little help on a final repetition might, depending on personal training philosophy, be acceptable, but what of a spotter who consistently puts in even a little force on each and every repetition? This defeats the purpose of training and chances are that the training effect would be better without such help (even if accompanied by a lowering of weight) and the lifter’s understanding of his own level would be that much better. Such a spotter does not truly help—he just strokes the ego of his lifter.

Or consider a child who wants to learn to do something himself, say, putting on a pair of mittens. If someone else steps in to perform the task for him to soon, his opportunity to learn is diminished and his purpose defeated.


Side-note:

However, note the difference between such defeated purposes and otherwise unhelpful help. A mother, e.g., might be well advised to not just do everything for the children, including putting on their mittens, before they have tried on their own; however, without a purpose there is no purpose to defeat, and we have more of a “give a man a fish” situation. (Which will likely be discussed on this page at some later date.)

Another superficially similar category involves defeating a purpose, e.g. a test, for a non-helping reason. Consider e.g. reducing academic strictness to increase “diversity”. This is done for ideological or political reasons—not to help. (Or, if an element of help is involved, it simultaneously works to the immediate disadvantage of others by robbing Peter to “help” Paul.) Ditto the use of lowered physical criteria for female fire-fighters, soldiers, whatnot, relative their male counterparts.


Helping the deserving, the needy, or the complaining?

A common issue is that help is given to the wrong persons and/or for the wrong reasons.

Consider the effects of merely complaining vs. not complaining, complaining in different ways, requesting help in a factual manner vs. requesting help with a sob story, whatnot. Very often, especially with women as prospective helpers, a good sob story trumps actual need and how deserving or undeserving of help someone is. Say that a child is doing a school project. Just short of completion, some project-destroying event takes place (what does not matter; feel free to imagine a dog eating it). In one alternate reality, the child curses the stars, gets back to work, and, a few hours later, has the project finished. In a second, the child asks for help in a factual manner. In a third, the child calls for mommy, cries in despair, and begs for help. Which of the three is how deserving of help and which how likely to actually get help? (And, in the third reality, what is the chance that mommy ends doing most or all of the work?)


Side-note:

I choose a child-based scenario for easy illustration and to avoid distractions through political disagreements. These issues, however, are by no means limited to children. Ditto other examples used.



Side-note:

A particular complication, as with the first reality above, is that those with the (in most, but not all, situations) best mentality are very unlikely to get help, for the simple reason that no-one knows that they might benefit from help.

More off topic: These are also the ones most likely to develop their competence, be more able to handle themselves, themselves be in a position to help others, etc. A particular twist is that these are particularly valuable in an office setting, while those with a lower threshold for asking for help (often wasting the time of others through failing to think, read the manual, search the Internet, whatnot, before asking for help) sometimes have a paradoxical career advantage through the resulting networking. I would encourage decision makers to consider such factors when deciding who gets a promotion, who is put in charge of a team, etc.

Looking at children: Having been a spoilt and over-protected child myself, I would encourage parents to take a stricter line with children and own responsibility. Yes, the child might think the parents “stupid” or “mean” here and now, but this is a small price for a better long-term development. (I managed to change on my own as I grew up; my sister, with a very similar childhood and upbringing, did not.) I would certainly view parental help with homework as something that should normally be limited to review, feedback, and, maybe, some amount of “teach a man how to fish”. (The above scenario could, depending on details, be a legitimate exception.)


If we look at these three alternate realities, as the child is otherwise the same, it is clear that help was not needed. Help might have been beneficial—but it was certainly not necessary. We now have to consider questions like opportunity costs and use of resources: Even here, help might have been a poor investment relative other tasks. (Even from a strictly altruistic point of view. More nuanced viewpoints would also consider factors like a reduction in rest and relaxation for the helping mother.) To give good examples is hard, as different persons will have different priorities and life situations, but consider, to get a general idea, replacing help with this project with one or more of: helping another child with a different task, cooking a “balanced meal” for the family, earning some money in the home office.

In more adult situations, opportunity costs and limited resources can become a major issue and helping the one often implies not helping the other. (Consider e.g. an individual deciding whether to volunteer for the one organization or the other, or the government whether to hand out tax-payers’ money to the one group or the other.) Here it is very important to consider where help is actually needed and where merely wanted, who has reasons and who a sob story, etc. What happens is all too often the reverse—the sob story wins. (Or the bigger liar, the larger voter block, the more powerful lobby, whatnot.)


Side-note:

Governmental help is also often sufficiently mis-designed as to do more harm than good, be cost-ineffective, last forever, artificially increase the number in “need” of help, or similar—and to exactly fail on issues like true need vs. sob stories, opportunity costs, etc.

I will expand on this at a later time, likely using the German coal industry as a central negative example.


A good potential example of other misprioritization took place during my second master: I had to skip a written exam due to illness. I contacted the professor in charge of the course for information on how to proceed. He was completely and utterly uncooperative, not only refusing to give me relevant information but to even tell me who else could/would. His excuse: he was so busy with helping students that he had no time for me (notably, a student in need of help). Here, I would speculate (hence: potential example) that he saw himself as limited to answering questions dealing with course contents—not to those dealing with the course, as such. My requests for help (or, more accurately, information) were far worthier of help. Learning the course contents is the job of the students and, with few exceptions, if they fail it is their problem. I had done my job and mastered the course materials; and I had a reasonable expectation to be helped to demonstrate this and collect my corresponding credits with, in all likelihood, the German equivalent of a solid A. To prioritize incompetent or lazy students over the competent and industrious in such a manner is inexcusable.

More generally, and even if I am wrong above, schools/unis/whatnot seem to have a very weird understanding of their students and a weird sense of priorities. The idea of (even adult, higher education) students having to be led by the hand, and this being considered perfectly normal, is a recurring issue. Often, it amounts to attempts to drag students who are not “college material” over the finishing line, which might be a “help” to the individual “helped” student, but is also a poor use of resources and something that does net-damage to the world, through mechanisms like hollowing out the value of a degree, reducing competence levels among graduates, reducing the filtering on own ability, etc. Even the “helped” student is only “helped” in as far as a degree (credit, whatnot) is attained—whether he has actually been helped to mastery of what should be mastered is to be doubted. If anything, premature help is likely to do more harm than good by reducing the level of own thinking that the respective student performs. Certainly, to speak of deserved help would be absurd.


Side-note:

Exceptions to this “job of the students” principle arise when the incompetence of lecturers, text-book authors, whatnot, get in the way of the students in an unconscionable manner. This was by no means the case here. I would also go as far as to say that it was one of the easier courses that I have taken over the years, which increases my suspicions that (cf. above) we had an issue with students who were not college material and the help correspondingly misplaced.

An exception on another level arises when sufficient extenuating circumstances are present, e.g. when someone blind is faced with a non-braille, non-audio book or a written exam. However, these cannot reasonably have constituted more than a small fraction of the overall students.



Side-note:

What exact shape my requests took, I do not remember in detail (after roughly twenty years), but they likely related to whether I could take the exam the next year/semester without taking the course a second time, whether there were earlier or alternative exam opportunities, and similar. At any rate, the scenario must have been a fairly common one and an answer should have been readily available.

(As I had plenty of credits, I ultimately did not bother with finalizing this course—and I still do not know what the answers would have been. With hindsight, however, I regret the quite few occasions when I have left credits lying, especially when I terminated my in-parallel-with-my-main-studies business studies for issues like quality, and when I moved to Germany as an exchange student without tying up a few loose ends in Sweden, in the mistaken assumption that I would return and have time to do so later. In sum, I might have neglected more than a semesters worth of all-but-examination or almost-all-but-examination credits.)