Charlie Mitchell: Treating symptoms not the same as curing disease

January 27, 2014 9:41:57 AM



OXFORD -- There is still no cure for the common cold. Medicine-sellers offer us lots of choices to calm the symptoms -- a spray for congestion, a pill for aches, a syrup to comfort the cough. But no elixir exists to stop a cold in its tracks. 


Similarly, in the world of lawmaking, legislation often addresses symptoms, usually of earlier legislation. 


Folks should be alert to this. 


Let's talk about Fred. 


Four mornings as week at 4 a.m. he shows up at his workplace, a distribution center. There, a loaded 18-wheeler awaits. He pulls out and heads to the first of three retail outlets to unload pallets of goods the store's computers say should be resupplied. That done, he drives to the next store, then to his final stop and back to the distribution center with his truck ready to be filled again. 


It's 4 p.m., and payday - so Fred's supervisor meets him at the dock and hands him his check. Walking toward his car, Fred looks at the check. It shows 40 regular hours, eight hours of overtime. It shows a deductions for taxes and such. The W-2 he received a few days earlier shows his gross for 2013 -- before those taxes -- was $55,000. Not a chunk, but enough for Fred and his family. 


On the way home, Fred passes a juke joint. Men are standing around a pickup, passing around a crack pipe. He pays them no mind, but whether Fred knows it or even thinks about it, the government may well have "repurposed" some of the money taken from his pay into cocaine money for at least some of those folks. 


There is no way this could ever be considered right, proper or fair. Only in some bizarro world could it be deemed a proper function of government to take money from one person and give it to another person to buy illegal narcotics. 


The sheer wrongness of this kind of thing is why, earlier this month, cheers went up when the Mississippi House of Representatives passed legislation requiring recipients of some welfare benefits to be drug-tested. 


Other states have done this. None have yet won federal court approval. 


But it was welcome legislation, nonetheless, because it fed the notion that it would make the disease of welfare abuse go away. 


But think about it. If it should be illegal for dope users to receive welfare, shouldn't it also be illegal to use the money for gambling, alcohol? What about movies, ice cream? 


People, including Fred, are not particularly judgmental. They like work, don't mind paying taxes. They just feel they deserve assurance that aid money will help people gain financial independence. But drug-testing recipients will not do that. It will merely treat one symptom of the disease of poorly written and poorly policed welfare policies. 


Compare this to gun control. As it happens, those who argue for drug-testing aid recipients see the fallacy of ever-tighter gun controls. In the firearms context, they correctly see that denying weapons to those who will never use them for criminal purposes treats a symptom. It will not deter criminals, nor will it make the disease of an increasingly violent culture go away. 


Lawmaking is not easy; never has been. And the societal trend of the past century of expecting government to cure all our ills has made attempts much more difficult. 


Hats off to those in the trenches who keep trying. 


But as a people, we shouldn't be suckered as easily as we seem to be. 


These days we see law after law being passed in the name of curing problems -- such as druggies on welfare -- when all they do, at best, is address a symptom of an earlier policy or law that was not foreseen. 


When the Second Amendment was adopted, it wasn't to facilitate the carnage at Columbine or Newtown. When public aid programs were created, it wasn't to allow people to choose to grift off others, much less destroy their lives. 


As there is no cure for the common cold, there may be no cure for welfare abuse or gun violence. If all we're doing is treating a symptom, we should at least be aware -- and not fall prey to thinking that a ready, sure-fire solution has been achieved. 


Mississippi may well enact a law to drug-test welfare recipients and the federal courts might even approve. It will not end abuses of the system. We need to be honest with ourselves about that.