Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Compassion grows out of the the barrel of a gun

Via Don Boudreaux at Café Hayek, I came upon this Washington Post editorial by Eugene Robinson, "Where are the compassionate conservatives?", that nicely illustrates the core assumption of so much of American politics. Discussing the recent Republican debate, Robinson says:
The lowest point of the evening — and perhaps of the political season — came when moderator Wolf Blitzer asked Ron Paul a hypothetical question about a young man who elects not to purchase health insurance. The man has a medical crisis, goes into a coma and needs expensive care. “Who pays?” Blitzer asked.

“That’s what freedom is all about, taking your own risks,” Paul answered. “This whole idea that you have to prepare and take care of everybody. . . .”

Blitzer interrupted: “But Congressman, are you saying that society should just let him die?”

...Paul, a physician, went on to say that, no, the hypothetical comatose man should not be allowed to die. But in Paul’s vision of America, “our neighbors, our friends, our churches” would choose to assume the man’s care — with government bearing no responsibility and playing no role.
Robinson, needless to say, considers this monstrous, lamenting its lack of "Christian kindness."  A bit later, after criticizing Michelle Bachmann (who is hardly a libertarian, but who also has shown an unseemly interest in people helping others without the government's sanctifying threat of violent compulsion) for her opposition to Obama's health care policy, he contrasts what he imagines the philosophy of Paul and Bachmann (and the other candidates, but its Paul and Bachmann who get the spotlight) to be with his own:

Government is more than a machine for collecting and spending money, more than an instrument of war, a book of laws or a shield to guarantee and protect individual rights. Government is also an expression of our collective values and aspirations. There’s a reason the Constitution begins “We the people . . .” rather than “We the unconnected individuals who couldn’t care less about one another. . . ”
And later:

I believe that writing off whole classes of citizens — the long-term unemployed whose skills are becoming out of date, thousands of former offenders who have paid their debt to society, millions of low-income youth ill-served by inadequate schools — is unconscionable.
The depressing thing is that Robinson probably honestly believes that he's provided an accurate, reasonable characterization of the views of people who don't share his vision of government. If nothing else, a man who was willfully trying to trick people into believing nonsense would not write an article in which he himself provides explicit reputations of his own falsehoods mere paragraphs away from them.

Note that Robinson is making a very different criticism from the- still wrong, but not outright nonsensical-  idea that the government's involvement in these matters is indispensable because noncoercive mechanisms would fail and leave the streets choked with the corpses of the cast of Oliver. That would be a purely practical criticism that would have nothing to do with anyone's supposed lack of "Christian kindness" or support for a society of "unconnected individuals who couldn't care less about one another." Such a criticism would directly contradict the one Robinson makes here, since arguing for the inadequacy of voluntary efforts would put Robinson in the position of claiming that Ron Paul's belief in the power and importance of people's concern for one another in our society was too strong, rather than too weak.

Robinson characterizes the philosophy of Paul and Bachmann as one of a country composed of "unconnected individuals who couldn’t care less about one another." He says this in response to Paul's statement that assisting people in need should be done by "our neighbors, our friends, our churches" rather than the government. He describes the idea of helping people through non-coercive means as "writing off" those people.

If Paul had said that he was opposed to compelling people to serve in government breeding camps, I suppose Robinson would be rebuking him for his desire to doom the human race to extinction with this generation.

Now, it's common enough for liberals to fail to grasp the difference between rejecting a particular means for achieving a goal and rejecting the goal. (It's typical of ideologies that focus on whether a proposed response to a problem displays the proper emotions and mindset rather than on whether the proposed solution is likely to actually work. A similar phenomenon can be seen among many drug war supporters, or in the focus on "will" or "resolve" among "War on Terror" hawks.) But the disconnect between Robinson's description of Paul's position and the stated position of Ron Paul that Robinson himself just quoted- and Robinson gives no suggestion that he thinks Paul doesn't mean what he said- is still quite striking. I smoke cigars, but don't smoke cigarettes, so it follows that I never smoke tobacco products of any kind..

But it makes perfect sense once you've accepted one of the central but unstated premises of modern American liberalism: government action is the only thing that has or is capable of having moral value, because there is no alternate means of accomplishing anything worthwhile. It's a vision of society and human life is so state-centric that adherents honestly can't tell the difference between "X should be done, but not by the state" and "X should not be done." (Think of all the dribbling idiocy about the "nihilism" of Obama's critics in the past few years. See also my own previous post.)
Without that assumption underlying his arguments Robinson's description of Paul and Bachman is not merely unconvincing but incoherent, built around claims that Robinson himself repeatedly and explicitly demonstrates to be false.

Fortunately, most people who adhere to beliefs like this in politics compartmentalize it pretty well. Just as very few people go around abducting young men to use as slave labor or forcing people whose productivity is lower than the value of a "living wage" to quit their jobs or stealing wallets so they can send the money to Goldman Sachs, even when their political philosophy endorses those things,  most people with this sort of mindset usually understand the value of benevolence towards others in private, nonpolitical life while they're in the process of actually living it.

Robinson himself demonstrates this when he acknowledges that Michelle Bachmann and her husband have cared for a number of foster children over the years- mere paragraphs before describing her as someone who supports a society where no one cares about or connects with anyone else. Michelle Bachmann is uncaring because she went to extensive personal efforts to help vulnerable people in need but is not trying to force other people to do so; this constitutes an endorsement of "writing off" disadvantaged youths. Actions that were recognized as good and meaningful when Robinson briefly discussed Bachmann's non-political life abruptly become meaningless because they were done willingly by people acting on their own initiative and not by government command. Again, the assumption that only state action matters is fundamental- the article makes perfect sense with it and reads like something written by multiple, mutually hostile authors without it.

So, it's no surprise that Paul's remarks would inspire such revulsion. Ron Paul advocated a society where the needy are aided by the voluntary actions of others, and not by the government- but if you've bought into the idea that a country's "values and aspirations" are expressed not by what its people choose to do but by what their rulers force them to do, "aided by the voluntary actions of others" is just so much meaningless noise.

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Noble Ape said...

Not to jump to any conclusions, but might it be possible that the writer in question was referring in no small part to the audience members who interrupted the debate? After all, those individuals did advocate the death of any uninsured individuals unable to personally pay for their own care. I say this primarily because I have seen several articles regarding this question-and-answer, and in many those more unsympathetic individuals were the targets of much of the scorn. Romney and Perry were among those who expressed indignation at the audience members in question, though they are, to varying extents, opposing certain social programs. It was one of those two who brought up the "party of life" position first, to which some writers have rather ironically referred.

Incidentally, I do agree that Paul's approach should have garnered more positive discussion considering its potential merits. As with much libertarian thought, a focus on freedom and efficiency, couple in this case with a general optimism regarding humanity, should not be cast aside.

On the other hand, the creation of a culture that would handle such issues efficiently may be difficult. Pessimistic though such an outlook may be we do live in an increasingly detached culture. For Paul to propose this in a credible way, he would need to go into considerable detail regarding the facts of how medical treatment was once paid for, and demonstrate how that would carry over to a much-changed industry today. Frankly, Paul's inability to distinguish changes in the economy over the last 50 years is, at times, a disturbing demonstration of confirmation bias and blind faith.

Furthermore, I dislike the notion of replacing government action with churches in many areas. I'd much rather not have religious institutions advertising themselves as primary caregivers. People should not have that sort of pressure put on them to maintain ties to religious organizations, nor should those groups then gain increased access to the medical decisions of their members. All other forms of locally organized healthcare would fall under either a socialist umbrella or means that exist or may be created within the current market.

Still, a general consideration of how to involve communities and increase personal accountability, along with improved market dynamics, seems reasonable. If you have any thoughts in regard to the first two, I'd be interested to hear them.

John Markley said...

Noble Ape,

I think that the harsh reaction of the live audience to the question probably intensified Robinson's dismay, but I think the article's main points were directed more specifically at the policy views of Paul and (to a lesser extent) the other Republican candidates. The audience reaction gets only a short mention in his column, and when he contrasts his own view of society with the belief that Americans are or should be "unconnected individuals who couldn’t care less about one another" he was pretty clearly using the latter to characterize Paul opposition to welfare statism in general, not just the outburst from the crowd. Likewise when he characterizes the idea of a strictly limited government as "immoral" and "unconscionable" and talks about proponents of the idea (or alleged proponents; these are Republicans after all) "writing off" the poor or otherwise disadvantaged.

The reference to "Christian kindness" is more ambiguous, since it could refer to a lack of it from Paul, the crowd, or both. However, given Robinson's characterization of Paul and other opponents welfare statism mor egenerally, his conflation of opposition to welfare statism with support for uncaring atomism and infdifference to others, and his argument that opposition to government assistance is incompatible with the teachings of Jesus, it seems most likely that Robinson thought a rebuke about Christian kindness was deserved by Paul as well as the crowd.

I do take issue with your description of the shouting people in the crowd as advocating "the death of any uninsured individuals unable to personally pay for their own care." The man in the hypothetical was described as someone who could have insured himself but had elected not to, presumably because he had chosen to avoid the expense of insurance by gambling on his own continuing good health. The men in the hypothetical was certainly unlucky, but he wasn't simply a victim of fate in the same way someone too poor to have bought insurance to begin with would be in the same situation.

I agree that the hostility to the hypothetical sick man was objectionable. (For one thing, government mandates on things that health insurance policies are required to include make cheap policies focused on catastrophic care illegal and force healthy young people like the man in the hypothetical to either pay extra for more expensive policies they don't need or do without insurance entirely, so in American society as it exists now I'd regard such a man as a victim of the state rather than merely irresponsible, which i suspect is how the crowd though of him.) But, due to its specifics, I don't think the crowd's response to that particular hypothetical should be assumed to be representative of their attitude towards the uninsured in general.

Thanks for commenting. I'll have some comments on the rest of your comment later, when I have more time.