Mike Kueber's Blog

September 21, 2011

Aphorism of the Week #10 – Teach a man to fish

“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day.  Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”  Because of its reference to fish, I thought this aphorism came from the greatest Fisherman.  But I was wrong; it is actually a Chinese proverb.

Nevertheless, it is one of the most useful aphorisms that I have in my quiver.  As a lazy parent, I have always been attracted to Option A – give him a fish.  And my kids in their youth certainly preferred that option, too.  But there can be no doubt that Option B – teach him to fish – is by far the most effective and efficient in the long run.  Fortunately, my kids repeated requests provided me with reminders and positive reinforcement for doing the right thing.

Once the principle of this aphorism was engrained into my head, it was a small step to extend it to government.  Giving something to someone may alleviate a temporary hardship, but it often does little to prevent the hardship from recurring.  Welfare in America (especially on Indian reservations) and foreign aid to Africa are prime examples of money that provides temporary relief, but doesn’t fix the underlying problem that is causing the hardship.  Worse than failing to teach, it creates dependency.  Whether parenting or governing, we need to encourage self-reliance, not dependency.

While researching the aphorism about fish, I learned that a similar aphorism is often falsely attributed to the Bible – “God helps those who help themselves.”  This wise saying actually came from one of the original wise men – Benjamin Franklin.

Part of my rationale for associating these concepts with the Bible is that they seem to correspond with the Protestant Work Ethic.  A variety of websites suggest that both aphorisms are not only not biblically based, but are actually contrary to biblical teachings.  That makes me wonder if the Protestant Work Ethic is biblically based.  I will look into that as time permits.