Give a man a fish; you have fed him for today. Teach a man to fish; you have fed him for a lifetime.
It’s a popular aphorism. It’s not in the Bible, though some would like to find it there. The people who want to find it in the Bible are the goats of Matthew 25, the ones who want an anti-prooftext for inconvenient obligations to “the least of these members of my family.”
Just because it’s not in the Bible, of course, doesn’t prove it isn’t at least partly true. To save a person from starvation, you must help him both in the short term and in the long term. It’s important to know the difference. If you bring the starving man a fish today, you haven’t accomplished much if you have to bring another fish tomorrow. But there’s little point in teaching a man to fish if – well, there are a whole lot of presuppositions to this educational program, without which it’s nonsense.
Teaching a man to fish – let’s flesh that out. Placing in everyone’s hands the infrastructure of opportunity, that’s what teaching a man to fish means. In America we don’t guarantee happiness; but we guarantee the pursuit of happiness. Though we don’t guarantee success, we guarantee hope. It sounds so simple, and inspiring. But hope is an expensive commodity: look at what is presupposed.
You must save the man from starvation: that’s what the fish is about. Then, having preserved his life, you must save him from helplessness: that’s what the education is about. S = FE. Salvation is the product of food and education. If either term is zero, there is zero salvation.
Until he knows how to fish, the man must be fed. There’s no point in teaching him to fish if he starves to death before he graduates.
There have to be teachers. People who know how to fish, but also how to explain fishing to others, must be compensated for leaving their poles and bait, and dedicating themselves to pedagogy.
There has to be a reliable supply of fish. The river hasn’t been diverted to irrigate desert golf courses. The pond wasn’t drained to fill back-yard swimming pools. The Megalithic Fish-Stick Company hasn’t over-harvested the species to extinction, and Foulblot Industries hasn’t poisoned the stock with unnatural sludge. These interests will no doubt protest against our restrictions.
The tools of fishery must be available. If bamboo and worms don’t naturally occur in profusion, they must be available at a reasonable price. (When we say “Reasonable,” we mean that the fisherman can buy what he needs without putting his future in hock, and All-Glutinous Bank will not repossess his gear in the first lean season.)
It’s assumed that thieves of the blue or the white collar won’t be stealing the catch or the tools. We have therefore taxed ourselves to support a police force for prevention of theft, a court for bringing malefactors to justice, and a jail for the serving out of sentences.
It’s assumed that if the man catches more fish than he needs for the day, he can preserve the product or sell it for profit. There is therefore salt or refrigeration to preserve a surplus, and there is a well-policed market where the day’s prices are fairly determined. The Blutocrats won’t be permitted to put him out of business by flooding the market.
This teaching of a man to fish is a damned expensive proposition. It requires a community of institutions and mutual loyalties. It requires an ethic of the Common Good – the Invisible Hand’s more idiomatic name. We have to invest resources in our aspiring fisherman for a considerable period of time; it’s not obvious when we will reach the break-even point on our investment, though sooner or later, on average, it happens.
It ain’t no free lunch, this teaching of a man to fish. And it ain’t natural. If anyone in nature manages to catch a fish, with his hands or his teeth or his toenails, everybody else tears fish and fisherman to pieces if they can, trying to get a piece of his action. The most brutal then takes all. If people don’t act this way, it’s because they’ve become unnatural. They’ve learned that they don’t like being alone with their food.
Human beings have for the most part from the very beginning behaved unnaturally. This is a good thing, because it allows more of us to eat and survive, setting aside surpluses and arranging recreation, making art and doing philosophy. It turns out that we don’t just grab what we want, not most of the time. We invent fictions called property and law, justice and generosity, and our unnatural behavior makes life something more than a food fight.
So let’s teach the least of these members of Yeshua’s family to fish – after we have fed them. But teaching them to fish is harder and more expensive that simply feeding them.
From now on, certain people are forbidden to speak of teaching and fishing. The free lunch crowd, the grab everything that ain’t bolted down and run for the hills gang, the give me everything I want right now and never send the bill cabal, the balance the budget by cutting taxes club, the goats of Matthew 25 – they don’t know what it means to teach a man to fish.
Hey you. Just shut up.