Earlier this year, I was in a small town in the Platteland. It was dry, dusty and hot. I needed beer.

I found myself in the queue at the liquor store behind a woman who was buying two six packs of flavoured beer. She also had a baby on her back. And when she came to pay, she produced her Sassa card.

My immediate reaction was indignation. After all, that was my tax money being spent to buy alcohol.

That was followed by disbelief. Was this really the best use of the child support grant meant to take care of this woman’s baby?

At R420 per month, the grant is already too meagre to fully cover a baby’s needs. At R150 for her two six packs, she had just spent more than a third of it on something that seemed entirely frivolous.

In those first moments, I considered what an indictment this was on South Africa’s grant system. If this was how a child support grant was being spent, then it is surely a waste of taxpayers’ money. There is no reason why we should be supporting this woman’s drinking habits.

The alternatives

However, in the hours that followed, I realised there was far more to think about here. What I had just witnessed might not have been the best use of my taxes, but the alternatives are possibly far worse.

Even if you ignore that this woman might be an exception – that the vast majority of grant recipients may in fact be using their grants to cover the basic needs for which they are intended – her decision to spend the money on beer raises important questions about economic choice.

If we want South Africa to be a free market country, where the state does not impose its will on every aspect of our lives, then is it appropriate to regulate what this woman does with her grant?

It may not be the best use of the money, but how do we stop her from exercising the choice to buy it without also accepting the risks in limiting anybody’s economic options?

One might say that it’s easy enough to rule that Sassa cards can’t be used at liquor stores, but there would be nothing stopping this mother from drawing the cash and using that at the liquor store instead. All that we would have done is made her incur additional bank charges. Alternatively, she could have eschewed the beer and bought herself a few bottles of wine from the supermarket next door.

Denying any grant recipient the ability to shop anywhere would also almost certainly introduce the law of unintended consequences. If somebody wants to buy beer, they will. If they aren’t able to buy it from the liquor store, they will go somewhere else, and probably pay more. That would leave even less money for their child.

The state would also have to consider an entire list of where grant recipients could shop and where they couldn’t. Should the state really be making those kinds of decisions for people?

Letting the state decide

Perhaps an alternative answer is some kind of stamp system that provided mothers with credits to buy nappies, formula, clothes and other essentials, rather than cash. This might even have the benefit of making the money go further, since the state would now be the buyer and have enormous purchasing power that could force the prices of these goods down.

However, can the state really think of everything that a child support grant might be needed to cover – from every piece of stationery that a child might need for school, to medicines, and to educational toys? Do we really want to limit a mother’s choice, when the best use of her child support grant might be to hand that R420 to someone else for them to look after her son or daughter?

The state cannot anticipate what needs a child might have. The person in the best position to make those decisions is the mother, or the child’s carer.

If we are going to empower people, then we have to give them the freedom to make those choices for themselves. That does mean that, unfortunately, some people will make bad decisions. That is, however, a consequence of a free market economy.

Final thought

There is also one final consideration – that this woman was not buying the beer for herself. It is quite possible that she intended to sell it.

Perhaps fostering entrepreneurship is not the intended use of a child support grant, but if it can empower someone in that way, do we really want to prevent that from happening? If someone can turn R420 into R500, then they should be allowed to do so.

The reality is that South Africa is a complicated place, full of contradictions. It is also full of examples of the state trying to solve certain problems, and only creating others.

Social grants should not be seen as a perpetual answer to any problem. They are a stop gap – a temporary solution that should protect the country’s most vulnerable citizens.

However, the more rules we impose on their use, and the less flexible we make them, the more recipients will be tied into the cycle of using them. It is only if people are empowered to make their own choices that they have the opportunity for economic mobility.

And that means that, no matter how galling it might be to witness, that woman in the Platteland should not be hindered in buying her beer.