“Why would we want to help somebody?”

If you were a fan of the hit TV show Seinfeld, you likely recall the series finale. The storyline of that episode finds Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer stranded in a rural Massachusetts town after their Paris-bound plane is forced to make an emergency landing.

While killing time waiting for new transportation, the four friends witness an unfortunate man being robbed and carjacked in broad daylight. They respond characteristically — not by helping him but by savagely mocking him.

The joke, however, is on them. They are immediately arrested by a nearby police officer, who informs them that they've just violated a local "Good Samaritan Law" requiring individuals to assist those in danger. A baffled George speaks for the group: "Why would we want to help somebody?"

I don't know whether Steve Schafer ever watched Seinfeld, but I'm having a fun time imagining his facial expressions were he ever to see that particular episode. 

Schafer is the main character in a story from Wednesday's Las Vegas Review-Journal, which chronicles his frustrated attempts to play the part of the Good Samaritan at Lake Mead. In a perverse inversion of the Seinfeld plot, National Park Service officers have repeatedly spurned Schafer's offers to help recover the bodies of drowning victims — and thereby bring closure to those victims' loved ones. He has the equipment, the know-how and the heart to offer his services free of charge. All that's missing is bureaucratic consent. 

It has become an all-too-familiar tale in modern America — compassionate individuals offering to help those in need but being told that they can't because such responsibilities fall solely in the domain of government. The typical government line, especially in situations involving some danger, is that to allow assistance from private individuals raises concerns over safety and liability. But according to the R-J story, Schafer thinks the real obstacles are "bruised egos and red tape" — a claim supported by examples, provided in the article, of other parks around the country being much more receptive to help.

Whatever is driving this government obstruction — liability concerns, bruised egos, red tape or some combination of all three — the underlying problem is a fundamental shift, particularly pronounced in recent years, in the American mindset when it comes to helping our neighbors. George W. Bush summed up this modern way of thinking quite well when he said that "when somebody hurts, government has got to move."

The problem is that quite often, as in Schafer's case, a private individual is better positioned or even better equipped to get the job done. Recent tragedies like Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy and even the Gulf oil spill produced maddening examples of generous and skilled individuals seeing their attempts to lend help quashed by government guardians. How many people across the country are denied the help they need because those best able to provide it aren't DHS-, FEMA- or HHS-approved?

But it's not just the victims that suffer under this mindset. After all, when it becomes the government's job to move, the rest of us don't — and eventually lose the compulsion to. The result is the erosion of what has long been one of the most defining and laudable facets of the American character.

It's inspiring and heartening to know that there are still people like Steve Schafer among us. But how long until even society's most generous individuals respond to crises by channeling George Constanza: "Yeah, why would we want to help somebody?"

Thanks for reading, and I'll see you next time.

Andy Matthews
NPRI President