We often get so overwhelmed by the suffering in the world that it is the small stories that break the heart the most. Recently, The New York Times told the story of Ike Libby, the co-owner of Hometown Energy, a small oil company in Maine, and his customer, Robert Hartford. Libby received a call from Hartford pleading for oil. Hartford’s tank was nearly empty, and he and his disabled wife needed heat. But Hartford had an unpaid balance of over $700 from previous deliveries, so Libby reluctantly said no to Hartford’s request for further credit.
Later that day, Hartford appeared in the offices of Hometown Energy and offered the title to his sixteen-year-old Lincoln Town Car in exchange for oil.
I’ll tell you the outcome of the story later in the post, but first I want to relate a seemingly unrelated story. Recently, I was on the light rail traveling into Baltimore from the Baltimore-Washington airport. As the train pulled into one of the suburban stations, I noticed one worker with a leaf blower clearing away an inconsequential amount of fall leaves that had not yet blown away on their own.
The leaves were so few that had I not seen the leaf blower I would not have noticed the leaves. What was even more curious about the scene was the other two workers standing around watching as the one leaf blower cleared the trivial amount of leaves.
When we read a story of suffering, such as the Hartford’s struggle to survive the cold Maine winter, we wonder what is the cause of the suffering and how can we help alleviate the suffering? Often, how we phrase our questions leads us to solutions that are rooted in the same level of understanding that helped to create the problem.
We may, for example, believe the problem is poverty and that government can provide an easy solution by expanding energy assistance programs so that individuals such as the Hartfords do not go cold. I offer the leaf blower example to explain why government assistance for individuals like the Hartfords is not a very good way to use our money. Government programs will be administered by an ever-growing bureaucracy that will eventually take away the majority of dollars involuntarily contributed by the taxpayer. Government bureaucracies simply are incapable of running efficiently, and taxpayers understand this.
Perhaps you believe the answer is to fund government research programs dedicated to reducing the cost of energy or to finding alternative sources of energy. On the surface, this may sound promising. Yet, for hundreds of years the cost of energy has been falling in real terms. Matt Ridley, in his brilliant book The Rational Optimist, reminds us of just how far energy prices have fallen. In the 1800s, the cost of one tallow candle burning for one hour was the average laborer’s income from six hours of work. As far back as Babylonia, artificial light came from sesame oil lamps; the cost of one hour of light was equal to the cost of 50 work hours of the average laborer. Today one hour of lighting costs the average worker about one-half second of work. It is easy to see why for centuries, until kerosene lamps became commonplace, most homes had no light in the evening other than what came from the hearth fire.
Often, people are incredulous when they hear these numbers. Some may lack a basic knowledge of history; seeing rising prices at the gas pump, they simply cannot believe that energy prices are a fraction of what they once were.
Through the market process, entrepreneurs have discovered new ways to lower energy prices; but many believe discoveries will come quicker if the government picks winners from among the competitors. Government subsidies have given us destructive, immoral, and costly programs such as ethanol and nuclear power. (Yes, nuclear power is a creation of government. See my posts General Electric’s Immorality and Nuclear Politicians)
If the answer is not government assistance or government research to lower the price of energy, what can be done to help suffering individuals such as Hartford?
When Hartford showed up at Libby’s office with the title to his car, an office worker made a call. She called an individual in the community who had previously offered to pay for oil for those in need. The individual did not hesitate: “Deliver the oil, and I’ll pay for it” was the response.
Yes, community action is what is called for. There is no bureaucracy siphoning off your hard-earned dollars, and you can be sure that the money is going where it is needed.
When you give through your community, you feel viscerally your connection with your fellow man. And your actions help prove that those who claim that only government can save the hungry and the cold, understand neither human nature nor the nature of government.