Sunday, March 14, 2004

The Parable of the Tree

I have this fantasy. I'm walking in the woods, a good half day's hike from Civilization (empty beer cans) when I hear feeble cries for help. Following them, I find another hiker with his legs pinned under a fallen tree. He begs me for help - there's no way he will ever make it out on his own, and the chance of someone else coming by is nil.

Now, in what is jokingly called the Real World, I would do my darndest to get him out and damn the consequences. I know just how quickly things can go bad when you're out of cellphone range - in the boonies, everybody helps each other out of necessity. I'm not a political liberal, at least the way it's normally defined - I just grew up in a very rural environment, where the nearest help can be hours away, even the best of circumstances.

But that's not the fantasy. In it, I recognize the philosophy of the trapped hiker and can react accordingly:


"In the name of God, help me!"

"But you're there because God wants you there", I reply. "Would you go against the Will of God?"

"Get me out or you'll burn in Hell"

"Why? Do you believe that God is the master of the world?"

"Well, yes …"

"Do you believe that God alone determines the time and means of our deaths?"

"Yes, but …"

"Do you believe that if God hadn't wanted that tree to fall, it wouldn't have?"

"Yes …"

"Then that tree fell on you because God wanted it to."

"Uhh …"

"Then if I pry it off of you, I'd be going against the Will of God."

"But …"

I kneel down, safely out of reach. "Pray with me. Dear God, we pray that you receive the soul of … what was your name"?


"Help me"


"Just get this tree off of me, goddammit!"

"Why? What did you do to get yourself into this mess?"

"Nothing! Now help me or you'll be sorry!"

"*I* should be sorry? You're the one who has screwed up and gotten himself into this mess. If I help you, you'll just keep wanting more and more help. Why should I pay for your stupidity?"

"It wasn't stupidity, it was an accident!"

"Yeah, right. It's always an accident or somebody else's fault or maybe an Evil Conspiracy. If you don't take responsibility for your own actions, you'll end up just another welfare moocher."

"It'd be criminal to leave me here!"

"Oh? I'll mention that to the Mayor and the Chief of Police at our Wednesday night poker game. They'll get a chuckle out of it. Getting panhandled by a whiny welfare case in the middle of the woods."

"I'm not a welfare case!"

"Excuse me? Who's demanding that I drop everything and help get him out of his own mess? If you had anything at all on the ball, you'd never have gotten into this mess.."

I turn to go. "Don't leave me!"

"Why not? You got yourself into it, get yourself out of it."


"Help me!"

"How much?"

"What do you mean, how much? Just get this tree off of me!"

"I'd have to invest significant effort in moving that tree. I expect compensation."

"I'll give you anything you want!"

"OK, let's say, $100,000."

"What! That's highway robbery!"

"No, just an attempt at finding a market price."

"I can't pay it! I'd have to sell my house!"

"And your house is worth more to you that getting rid of that tree?"

"It's outrageous!"

"So get another bid. It's a free market; anybody could move that tree. If you can get a better offer, take it."

"I've been here for two days! You're the first person to come along in that time."

"Do we have an agreement? Freely agreed to?"

"I'll die of I don't agree."

"So? You've got the money, you can have anybody you want move the tree"

"But there isn't anybody else"



"Help me"

"Good grief, this is terrible! You must be in tremendous pain."

"Yes. Get it off."

"I'm sorry, all I have is aspirin and a little bit of water." I give him one of my aspirins and a tiny drink of water.

"At least give me some more water."

"Now, now, be grateful for what you get. Here, let me make you more comfortable." I move some branches around. "Is that better."

"No, it's not better. The tree is still there. Get it off of me!"

"I can't do that without checking. There are regulations about such things, you know."

"Regulations be damned! Move the tree."

"Sorry. We have to follow procedures here. When I get back, I'll tell the rangers you're here."

For those who want explanations, all of these philosophies make nice-sounding speeches, but all have their own ways of avoiding doing anything that's actually helpful.

  • For fundies, anything good is the result of their own virtue; anything bad is the Will of God. Of course, they reserve the right to determine what is the Will of God and what is random chance. "Christian charity" for fundies seems to be a null term, or so narrowly defined as to be useless.
  • For Conservatives, all anybody really needs is a good sermon. If somebody's life is screwed up, obviously, they didn't get enough sermons; there's no help for them now. There is also always the threat of Calling In The Authorities on people that disagree with them. Conservatives simply see no need to "help" anybody, ever.
  • Libertarians attempt to take The Market, which is an artificial system enforced by governments, and elevate it to the level of Natural Law. In any case, The Market is a statistical system; it breaks down when the number of players is small or the power asymmetries are large. "Altruism" is a null term; everything is economics.
  • Liberals have all kinds of compassion for people in trouble, but have a striking inability to deal with the root cause of the problems. They're great at palliatives, as long as they don't require any real sacrifice. They're also great ones for referring things to Higher Authority.

Cartoons? Of course. But it's good to think about when somebody says "I'd like to help, but …"

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