The Democratic and Republican Parties are big-tent operations, and as a result, it is difficult to form a coherent statement of their political philosophies. Do they want, for example, a government that is small enough to leave businesses alone and allow people the choice to go into bankruptcy for healthcare, while retaining the power to intervene in conflicts around the world and in the reproductive decisions of women? Or do they name choice as a fundamental value, so long as that choice conforms with the perceived needs of particular groups?
But there are consistent cores of ideology within the parties — or at least wings of the parties — and one division between left and right is in regard to the way that we fulfill our social responsibilities and the degree to which such responsibilities exist. In particular, I wish to consider the difference in perspective between charity and welfare as a means of ameliorating need in society.
I am frequently told by right wingers on social media that they would prefer to take care of themselves and their families without any government involvement whatsoever. This sounds like a principle that works best in a graduate seminar, rather than in reality, but some will insist that private roads are preferable, even if drivers would have to pay tolls every several hundred feet. (I do not exaggerate here.) How is that better than the roads we have, thanks to a government that raises tax dollars (and occasional tolls assessed miles apart) to have them built? We would not be forced into paying for them. (I really am not exaggerating here.)
The idea is that the government steals our money through taxation, whereas buying something from a business is a voluntary interaction. It is easy to make fun here, since this distaste for taxes would mean having to pay orders of magnitude more money for the illusion of choice. And yes, it would be an illusion, unless we are to raise our own food, mine and cut our own resources, and so forth — presuming that we could manage to own the land we live on in the first place. Even if all of those things are possible, we would be left saying that yes, we have the choice to stay on our own land or to pay to travel elsewhere, but that would not be a choice with much practical potential.
This, however, does not negate the principle, except in pragmatic terms. In this line of thinking, social needs such as healthcare, food supplements, disability payments, and so forth may — not will — be dealt with by voluntary acts of charity.
By contrast, the route that the western world has taken in varying degrees is a welfare state in which floors are constructed beneath which people are not forced to fall. If you want to starve yourself to death, that option is available to you, but programs like food stamps are designed — in theory, if not always in practice — to guarantee a minimum amount of nutrition to the population. If you choose to leave your health to the whims of a deity, much good may that do you, but the point of universal healthcare systems is to guarantee necessary treatment to all. These are specific programs. The broader concept should be clear, namely that a welfare state sees all of us as having a collective duty to bring up what is allowed to be the lowest socioeconomic level that circumstances can force anyone to live in.
This is what political philosopher John Rawls was getting at in the thought experiment in which we are asked to formulate a society, including all its possible ranks or levels of status, that will exist. We will be put into that society, but we do not get to know in advance which position we will get assigned to, a state of affairs known as the veil of ignorance. Since in this setup we have no guarantee of getting a desirable assignment, Rawls argues that we would design a society whose worst level is not so bad.
I am simplifying things here, but the point remains. The libertarian counterargument is that people choose the conditions of their lives, that there is no veil obscuring the connection between action and consequence. Is that reality?
Take medical care as a test. Yes, some disease is the result of poor decisions, though how much choice is available to a person who works more than one minimum-wage job while only being able to afford housing that is distant from well stocked grocery stores and whose enjoyments must be cheap is a good question. But even after laying aside the complicating factors and assuming maximal moral autonomy, there are still many illnesses that are beyond our control. And modern medicine in the case of many conditions costs more than ordinary people — even ordinary people who work full time and spend their free time alternating between swimming and drinking cleansing juice smoothies — can afford.
What I have been told here is that in the absence of regulatory interference, market competition will drive costs down, just as happens with consumer electronics like televisions and laptops. But that is faulty reasoning. If I cannot afford the latest piece of computing whizbangery, there are older models that will do most things adequately. Photoshop is now a cloud service — meaning even less consumer control — but the more options, the higher the monthly fee, while GIMP has done everything that I need it to do in designing book covers and is free. By contrast, when a child develops leukemia — through choosing to spend too much time around nuclear reactors, the straw man right winger might say — cheaper treatments mean death. In economic terms, the demand is perfectly inelastic. Only sick people will seek treatment, and they need it right now. (I am ignoring the small number of people who claim illness to get attention, of course.) Unlike the latest gadget from Apple, children with leukemia are not trying to make a purchase to fit in, unless “fit in” means belonging to the category known as alive. There is no economic motive for the provider to lower the price.
One way to reduce what the individual consumer has to pay is insurance, the concept of spreading risk over a large group. The greater the size of the risk pool, the lower the costs per person will go, and the largest number we can include, short of international cooperation, is a nation-wide program — whether we are discussing healthcare, food assistance, or any similar form of social improvement. I will even include education here, since schools provide opportunity to those who take advantage of them.
The libertarians will ask why this is any of their responsibility. Even in the face of the reality that they would benefit from getting quality services for less by overcoming their selfishness and participating with the rest of us, the question of how we justify compelling the payment of taxes remains.
A simple answer is that we must render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s. U.S. currency is precisely that, a product of the United States. If people can live a kind of modern hunter-gatherer life of barter or can manage their entire economic activity with Bitcoin or other kinds of play money, they have a possible argument against owing anything, but otherwise, they have obligations to the rest of us.
More generally, libertarians who claim to owe us nothing need to prove that they have received no benefits of any kind by living in a society. When they make their assertions on the Internet, a network that was created by several research institutions that were either publicly funded or directly run by the government, they undermine their own position. Even if we set aside the medium of the conversation, there remains all the advances in medicine and technology and all the conveniences of a peaceful population. As Oliver Wendell Holmes said in a 1927 opinion, “taxes are what we pay for civilized society.”
All of this is to say that the libertarian model is pure fantasy. It is also dubious with respect to its effect on human dignity. Charity is an act of pity. We give to what Alfie Doolittle called the deserving poor, deserving defined by the giver. Some charities will be religious groups and will have theological standards for who is worthy and who is not; others will be organizations with a political motive, but the same end result. The eccentric will donate to people with red hair — or is that only a Sherlock Holmes story? In any case, there will always be people in need who do not meet the requirements of private charity.
And pity is a poor way to treat people. A recognition that we have at least some measure of responsibility to each other is a better way to promote the idea that each person has inherent worth. That may not be something that those who disagree with me hold as a principle, but I submit as a suggestion the belief that when societies move closer to saying that each person has value have been more productive and happy than those that move away from this. The reader is encouraged to test my claim.
All of this can sound theoretical, but this goes beyond discussions in the agora of Twitter. A candidate for governor in Oklahoma recently suggested that a solution to people on disability or who are receiving food stamps should be removed from the program, saying on Facebook that if they can survive on their own, good enough, but if they are unable, “let them starve and die.” He has since claimed that someone hacked his account, perhaps out of recognition that his particular final solution was a wee bit extreme. But views like this are held by a significant portion of the voting public, as the election of Donald Trump has demonstrated. If we want the blessings of a civil, advancing, and egalitarian society, however, we cannot be silent in response.