Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Benevolence: Health Care and More

This summer while vacationing I had a civil, back-and-forth discussion with a neighbor about the raging health care debate:  I maintained that charity should be left to the charities.  His response was that the resources of the charities would be inadequate to provide health care to the truly needy.  I replied that an inadequacy of private benevolence should be no justification for coercing one's neighbor and further damaging the dreadful financial condition of the country.  It seemed a pretty harsh response to him despite the fact that for most of mankind's history, the poor have had to survive on their own, supported only by their wits and the voluntary benevolence of their neighbors.  (The discussion never reached the stage where we might address the factual assumptions supporting the argument for any legislation.)

My neighbor's position was a variation of the moral duty and "but what about . . ." arguments.  He did not understand why I felt no moral duty to coerce my neighbor to be benevolent, even though I patiently explained that there is nothing moral or benevolent about coerced giving.  His starting point was that society ought to take care of the poor, and he seemed blinded to any challenge to that assumption and was incapable of evaluating it on a deeper level.

A large part of the support for universal, taxpayer-funded health care is the prevailing notion of moral duty held by both the left and the right:  They believe that benevolence is something that is owed the recipient.  The difference between the left and the right seems to be that the right is inclined to limit the duty of benevolence to that which is practical.

As Stephen Hicks succinctly explains in "On 'Giving Back'," the origin of this idea lies in philosophy.  And it is their implicit philosophy which forms the foundation for the left's fervent belief that they are doing justice by imposing on "society" the cost of caring for the poor, the disadvantaged, the needy, the victims, etc., terms which seem to have floating definitions.  (As an aside, note that the health care bill proposed by the Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee proposes to raise the definition of the poverty level by 50% in order to impose on the States the financial obligation for the new regime under Medicaid.  So much for the idea of the truly needy.)  This is an intractable problem for those of us who prefer to practice benevolence on an individual level and who object to bearing the cost of someone else's notion of social justice.  The problem is exacerbated by the lack of any serious public opposition to this dark concept of duty.

The idea that benevolence is "owed" has spawned a welfare state of gigantic proportions and an entire class of people (swiftly becoming a majority of voters) who believe that they have a rightful claim to society's surplus (whatever that is), and more; and the mere fact that they are victims or disadvantaged gives them that right. 

The claim to your "surplus" (and more) is facilitated by the collectivist fiction that it is not an individual that owes the duty, but the anonymous, faceless, collective "society." While many recipients of this kind of "benevolence" would shrink from pointing a gun at me and taking my money, they have no qualms about doing the same when they do not have to face me but use the guns of a surrogate (the government) and pretend that it is voluntary.

For decades few have effectively protested the coerced benevolence of the welfare state, probably because it was not sufficiently painful and because, frankly, many people don't mind parting with a little here and a little there to help the truly needy -- and the fact that taxation was involved didn't seem to bother them much.  But the foot was thus in the door.

Finally, however, people are becoming agitated about the size of "society's" recent and proposed  benevolence.  The government bailouts of private enterprise were justified by our presumed duty to keep people from suffering the consequences of risky behavior, poor judgment and fraud (rather than leaving them to seek recourse from the culpable).  The government's attempts to make housing affordable to those who could not afford it has crashed the economy.  And huge sums were paid to murky leftists with questionable backgrounds to assure that people had full access to the benefits of the welfare state and the ballot box, with predictable results: embezzlement, voter intimidation and fraud, and a takeover of neighborhoods by political outsiders.  Now comes the proposals to "reform" the entire health care system, with a huge price tag, justified by our "moral duty."

A great many people are aghast at the sweeping health care legislation being proposed and a majority of the voters are against it.   But, still, few challenge the basic justification underlying the entire matter, that "we" owe a duty to provide health care to those who cannot afford it (whatever that means).  Without such a challenge, opponents  of the legislation are left only to dicker about the price.

Further reading:  David Kelley, "Is There a Right to Health Care?"

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