Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Socializing Risk

When I was younger, my father taught me an interesting lesson. "If you let them," he said, "many people will buy what they want, and beg for what they need. Responsible adulthood is to first buy what you need, and then those things that you can afford of what you want."

That is what makes the flap over Wolf Blitzer's question to Representative Ron Paul so confusing to me. Ron Paul and other putative Libertarians are being derided in favor of a theory that says, in effect, "If people buy what they want, and then - through their own intentions - cannot pay for what they need, society should force its other members to do without things that they want to cover the shortfall." I understand the sentiment, especially if you are of the mind that without allowing such deliberate free-riding, it's difficult or impossible to ensure that those people who cannot afford even the basics are well cared for. But it seems to me that it's susceptible to one of the same criticisms that's often leveled against libertarianism. It doesn't scale well. We understand this, because we don't practice it on a larger scale than out own borders. Why is a destitute person in sub-Saharan Africa allowed to die of preventable diseases simply due to poverty if it is unconscionable that a fellow American who deliberately took a risk is not to be saved? I don't see how the simple fact of being born outside of a geographical border changes that calculus (and neither, I might add, do most Libertarians, who feel that the African should be free to come here and avail themselves of resources without restriction).

Even Communism expected that people would work to the best of their ability, and then take out what they needed - not everything they could carry. Had they been correct in that, the Soviet Union should have had massive surpluses to share with other parts of the world, or even to maintain itself in grand style. But it simply couldn't scale to the population of people that it had to manage, and corruption took hold. And those corrupt people weren't the poor, who took a little extra now and then - they were the already well off, who took advantage of the mechanisms that the state put in place to force contribution to enrich themselves.

I know that we see ourselves as more enlightened than that. "We," we tell ourselves, "will get it right. Few enough of us will succumb to the temptation to free ride that this will work for us where it failed before." But I'm not so sure that we're either more intelligent, more ethical or more responsible than others who have tried less one-sided social contracts than the one that is proposed here, yet still had them fail.

And the vitriol that the debate sparks, even though the issue seems fairly cut-and-dried to me, leads me to suspect that I'm correct to be uncertain.

No comments: