Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Amoebas, conservatism, and society: why paying for other people's health care doesn't destroy freedom

The most primitive organisms are entirely self-reliant. The amoeba goes through its independent life searching for nutrients to phagocytose, without any help from other organisms. It’s even self-reliant in reproduction, passing on its genes asexually through mitosis.

You might say the amoeba is radically individualistic.

As organisms have evolved, they have developed higher forms of social organization. Some are still largely solitary. The male polar bear roams the Arctic alone hunting for seals, rarely interacting with other bears except to mate—or in desperate times to cannibalize polar bear cubs.

Others are radically collectivist. Ants and bees sacrifice all for the greater good of the hive. The workers can’t even reproduce, merely existing to provide nutrients for the few who can. A nightmarish existence.

Some animals find safety in the herd, banding together to defend against predators—but they don’t stop to mourn the occasional wildebeest that gets eaten by the crocodile; the strong must move on without the weak. Other herd animals have evolved more advanced emotions allowing them to connect with others of their species—witness elephants mourning their dead.

Still other animals develop individual personalities, but maintain strict hierarchies within their social group. By working together, the wolf pack can make more productive use of scarce resources—although doing so effectively does require ceding some individual liberty to the most capable leader, to coordinate efforts and prevent destructive competition for resources. The alpha male wolf establishes his dominance early, and until he's deposed, takes the first pick of the food and the girls.

It’s no deep insight that humans have the most complex social organization of all organisms (notwithstanding any objection from any zoologist who may read this). Like the wolf, we have our hierarchies which maintain order, but unlike most other animals, the drive to dominate and control resources is balanced by our capacity for altruism. That is, as an advanced species, we recognize that our interests are best served not by preserving ourselves and our kin at all costs, but by looking out for others as well.

Even before biologists theorized an evolutionary explanation for our ability to project ourselves into others’ shoes (why we yawn when we see others yawn), Adam Smith himself described “sympathy” as:

correspondence of sentiments between the spectator and the person principally concerned... [who] is as constantly led to imagine in what matter he would be affected if he was only one of the spectators of his own situation.

That's from The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Smith notes that sympathy for others serves our interest, because Man,

conscious of his own weakness, and of the need which he has for the assistance of others, rejoices whenever he observes that they [others] adopt his own passions, because he is then assured of their assistance, and grieves whenever he observes the contrary.

Indeed, you might say that human social organization is the result of an organic tug-of-war between two competing forces: the more primordial drive of self-preservation, and the more evolved emotion of altruism--looking out for others in the group. As society has evolved and humans have learned to check their pursuit of self-interest when that individual pursuit may harm others, rigid hierarchies have been able to give way to flatter, more democratic societies.

What does all this have to do with anything? To answer that question, I draw your attention to Glenn Beck (relevant clip starts about 3:38):

For those of you who can’t view video at work, here’s what Glenn Beck said about Marcelas Owen, the 11-year-old who spoke out in favor of health reform the other day:

Speaking of Marcelas' grandmother, she worked for a place called the Washington Community Action Network. From their Web site, here's what they're all about: Economic, racial gender and social justice for all; decent quality of life for all; change relations of power, so all individuals can significantly impact decisions that affect their lives; shared community and collective responsibility; respect for diversity and building strong communities; truly democratic society with open, honest participation by all.

Boy, there are pesky phrases in that one that we should point out: social justice, shared community, and collective responsibility. And let's not forget truly democratic society. Well, we're not a democratic society. I think that was the Soviet Union. I believe it's a democratic socialist republic in China as well.

Besides being a painful exercise in cognitive dissonance—Beck's case against health care reform is that little Marcelas’s mother already had access to perfectly fine government health care (Medicaid)—it’s a yet another shocking display of just how far conservative political philosophy has devolved. Because in so hyperbolically questioning government’s role in caring for the sick and the helpless, Beck isn’t just attacking “shared community” or even “democratic society” (and it's scary enough that the intellectual force of conservatism doesn’t believe we are a democratic society)—he’s attacking the very concept of society itself: that as humans, we agree to band together and give of ourselves in exchange for the protection of the group.

Maybe Glenn Beck wants to go off and live in the woods and never shave and be totally self-sufficient. I'm all for him doing that. But that’s not the life most of us choose to live, because most of us recognize all the help we get from other people just by living in society. When we’re born, we enter into a social contract with our community, that just as we are cared for and protected by others without having asked for it, so we are obligated to care for and protect others as well. That’s not a WAG original—that’s classic John Stuart Mill:

Every one who receives the protection of society owes a return for the benefit, and the fact of living in society renders it indispensable that each should be bound to observe a certain line of conduct towards the rest. This conduct consists, first, in not injuring the interests of one another… and, secondly, in each person’s bearing his share (to be fixed on some equitable principle) of the labours and sacrifices incurred for defending the society or its members from injury or molestation.” (On Liberty and Other Essays. Oxford: OxfordUniversity Press, 1991, p. 83).

When Beck rejects concepts like “shared community” and “collective responsibility,” therefore, he’s thus rejecting the centuries-old values that hold us together as a functioning society, and embracing instead a vision of radical self-reliance which holds that a person has no duties to anyone but himself (and maybe his kin). It’s the same phenomenon when the deranged Michelle Bachmann decries an innocuous cap-and-trade bill as “tyranny,” thereby reducing sacred liberty to the churlish tantrum that “I can drive as big a car as I want and leave my lights on and crank my AC and no one’s gonna tell me not to, the environment and everyone else be damned!” (As if protecting my property right to a livable climate constitutes tyranny.) And it's that fiercely radical self-reliance and disregard of responsibility for others, which seems to be sweeping the Republican Party, that disturbs me most of any trend I see.

Now, Beck and Bachmann may say they agree that it’s irresponsible to shirk your duty to society or to abstain from giving to charity, but that they believe that ultimately government can’t compel you to look out for anyone besides yourself.

But if that were true, there could be no such thing as a draft, which compels men to fight against their will to protect the group from threats. Indeed, there could be no firefighters or police officers, because their funding relies on government forcing citizens to give of their resources—regardless of whether or not individual citizens think they need such protection. I may think I’m responsible and my house will never burn down, but I still have to pay taxes to the fire department.

In other words, government has the right to compel individuals to give of their resources and their liberty (commensurate to the need), in order to insure the group against the risk that calamity befalls any small number of its members. That calamity may be a fire which a person can’t put out, a robbery which he can’t turn back, an invasion from a foreign army, or, I believe, a disease he can’t afford to treat. Why? Because such calamity could befall any one of us at any time, and when the time comes, we know others will have our back.

I didn’t initially start writing with this intent, but this has been a long way of saying, the government has every right to compel society's members to provide for each others' health care.

The conservative misinterpretation of self-reliance is this: that I can take care of myself without anyone else’s help, and therefore shouldn’t be compelled to help anyone else if I don’t want to. Two hundred years ago, that may have been possible for some. Maybe a frontier farmer could have lived a life of self-reliance: growing crops, tending his own wounds, and fending off bears and bandits with no help from anyone else. If so, that frontier farmer may have a legitimate gripe against being forced to pay for other people’s health insurance. Today, however, there are very few among us who can legitimately claim that we receive no benefit from the sweat off others' backs. And those few who still can are probably the type of people you don’t want to meet (cue banjo music).

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