A group of students from an elite private school and their teachers came by the office today to talk about poverty. I laid out the case for private responses (surely human nature makes a “solution” impossible) and for rolling back government regulations. Then came the question that always justifies government intervention: The problem is big, shouldn’t the response be bigger and more reliable than counting on people to do the right thing?

We had already established that government decisions are not necessarily better than private decisions, though we did not discuss the value of experimentation in the face of uncertainty. We agreed it would be good for government to take its foot off the neck of people, though we did not determine what policy changes would be involved. Despite the agreement on the limits of collective policy action to accomplish society’s goals, it is hard to shake the idea that a mistaken response, if big enough, can be more valuable and help more people.

I do not have a good response to that question. It requires a fundamental shift in perspective. The question starts from an assumption that you can’t change people’s minds, but you can change their behavior or you can tax them and behave better on their behalf. The alternative does feel small and schmaltzy. Helping one person seems like the story of the boy putting starfish back in the ocean, but people are not starfish and the actuarial value of a life may be $10 million but the value of a life transformed is truly immeasurable. And yet it still feels inadequate. What do we do with the dilemma?