How deep does the
analogy go? Not deep enough to justify universal health
analogy go? Not deep enough to justify universal health
At the Washington Post blog, Ezra Klein discusses the parallel between firefighters letting someone’s house burn because he didn’t pay $75 for fire insurance—which happened a few weeks ago in a rural area of Tennessee that doesn’t guarantee fire protection—and letting a person die because they didn’t purchase health care insurance.
When liberals explain why health care needs an individual mandate, the traditional metaphor is firefighting: Everyone needs to buy insurance for the same reason that everyone needs to buy fire protection. But if you leave the market unregulated, some people won’t buy — or won’t be able to afford — fire protection. And we’re not comfortable letting their houses burn down. Similarly, if you leave health coverage to the market, some people won’t buy it, and others won’t be able to afford it, and then, when they get sick and need it, insurers won’t sell it to them. But we’re not comfortable letting them die in the streets. Hence, the health-care law.
Klein argues that fire protection and health care are both “collective goods” which the government must guarantee.
Sam and I discussed a similar question over a year ago, when I attempted to parallel the government’s obligation to protect its citizens against Swine Flu (remember that?) with its obligation to protect citizens against other serious illnesses like cancer.
The parallel between fires and non-epidemic diseases, generally following Sam’s post, does not work perfectly. Fires spread. Non-epidemic diseases, like cancer, do not. If one person isn’t protected against fires, we are all thereby threatened, because those flames can jump from his house to our houses.
When a person is ill with a non-epidemic disease, we are not thereby threatened ourselves, or at least not enough of
us to say that the community is endangered. This is why fire insurance is a real “collective good” and health care is not. Health care may be (and I think to a degree is) an individual right, of course, but that’s a different argument.
What does it mean that it’s possible?
With the November elections loomin
g, campaign donations are heating up. Sharron Angle, Republican Senatorial candidate for Nevada, received $14 million in the last quarter alone, to give one example. The topic of money in politics always raises the worry that a politician will “buy an election,” or that the richer candidate will win by virtue of the size of his war chest. But how can someone “buy” a free and fair election where people aren’t bribed to vote for a candidate?
Well, it costs money to get people’s attention (e.g. to buy television ads). And the more attention a candidate can afford, the more time he will have to explain why he’s the best person for the job. This makes sense to a degree, certainly at the edges, where one candidate has 100 times more money and 100 times more opportunities to present his arguments, or where one candidate doesn’t have enough money to even communicate his core views effectively.
But what does it mean that a candidate has a huge advantage when he has only 2 times as much money? It such circumstances, let’s assume that the poorer candidate can still afford to present his most important policy proposals, personality, political and personal values, and personal affiliations, and that there is a stark contrast between the two candidates. That’s what really matters; and shouldn’t that be enough? It clearly isn’t.
This means that, in many cases, democratic citizens are not strong or engaged enough deliberators to
withstand unimportant, trivial arguments and attacks. Because beyond that core pitch, that’s what’s going on for the most part.
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What’s the harm?
David Streitfeld at the NYT reports that Library Systems & Services (LSSSI), a for-profit corporation, has contracted to run the public libraries of numerous municipalities. Their reach is expanding rapidly, Streitfeld reports, and in terms of number of branches, they rank right behind Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago.
This raises interesting questions about the proper role of the free market in delivering what are perceived as social necessities, either to the healthy functioning of a democratic system as a whole or to individuals operating within such a society. If we assume that free public libraries are such a neccesity, I don’t see much cause for concern.
The online viagra general worries with privatizing public goods are (a) that certain people will be priced out, (b) that all people will be forced to pay more in general or to pay “too much,” (c) that some goods are so important that no one should have to pay at all (this is a ridiculous argument, since the goods have to come from somewhere, and someone is paying for them, probably through taxes), (d) that, whereas governments don’t usually go out of business (and can deliver goods at a loss), companies do all the time, which would threaten the delivery of the good in question, and (e) that companies working from profit-maximizing motives won’t deliver the good as well, generously, or graciously as a government working with the public welfare in mind.
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The possible contradiction at the heart of Stewart and Colbert’s rallies.
Jon Stewart’s upcoming “Rally to Restore Sanity” and Stephen Colbert’s mock counter-rally, “March to Keep Fear Alive”—satirical (yet deeply seriously) responses to Glen Beck’s “Restore Honor” rally—are a rare form of politics, and not because comedians are leading the way.
There are, very generally, three types of political concerns or topics of political debate: the structure of the political system, which determines the formal process of creating of a law, and possibly some rights which no law can abridge (e.g. the Constitution); the content of laws (what we normally debate about); and, very rarely, how we should argue within the first two categories.
The latter involves what sort of conceptual and ideological stuff we should bring into the town hall or Congress, and what rules or customs of deliberation and reasoning we should employ when discussing these ideas. The notion, undoubtedly true, is that some such rules and customs will lead to better laws than others.
What’s interesting about Stewart and Colbert is their tacit claim to be involved with this third category of political concern (in addition to the second category). In theory, it is not just the content of the policies that they disagree with (e.g. Tea Party tax cuts), though they do disagree, but rather the deliberative process by which, say, the Tea Partiers have formed their political beliefs, and how they approach and understand those who disagree with them (e.g. moderate Republicans and Democrats).
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Philosophy for soldiers
David Edmonds at BBC News reports that all West Point cadets are now required to study moral philosophy and “the trolley problem.” He outlines the famous thought experiment nicely:
Imagine there is a runaway tram, known in America as a trolley, heading towards five people tied to the track.
You are a bystander.
If you do nothing, all five will die.
But you could hit a switch and divert it down a side track.
Unfortunately, on that spur is one person and if you turn this tram, this person will die.
What should you do? Turn the tram? Most people think you should.
Now imagine that same tram is again heading towards five people. This time you are watching from a footbridge.
There is a fat man leaning over this footbridge. If you push him over, he will land on the track and die, but his bulk will stop the tram.
So should you push the fat man? Almost no-one thinks you should.
Why might it be acceptable to turn the tram and kill the man on the track but not acceptable to push the fat man?
West Point philosophy professor Jeff McMahan explains to Edmonds the implications of this conundrum to warfare. He argues that it reveals the moral distinction (recognized in international law) between killing civilians intentionally, and knowing civilians will die as a foreseen consequence of military action, “between attacking a munitions factory aware that there will be, to use that euphemism, collateral damage, and aiming at civilians intentionally.”
It might be clearer to say that the trolley problem shows that soldiers should not use the death of civilians as a strategic tool. It’s different when civilians die as a consequence of some other, legitimate strategy. Of course, there are proportionality concerns when one knows that civilians will die (how important is the military action in question vs. how many civilians will die).
As to the more general importance of future military officers studying philosophy, Major Danny Crozier explains that while it leads to the possibility of insubordination, that concern is outweighed by the fact that soldiers must not obey unjust commands. I don’t know the law on this, but it seems dangerous to have soldiers consider the morality of every command, following only the ones they support. Maj. Crozier must mean that soldiers must not obey clearly unjust commands, the illegitimacy of which is not open to serious debate.
When should we hear what the
Parties and politicians often oppose the other side’s p
osition, whether on gay marriage, Afghanistan, or anything else, by arguing that it’s at odds with the people’s wishes, as revealed by opinion polls. When is such an appeal to polls appropriate? It’s more complicated then it appears.
On all the but the crudest definitions of a good elected representative, Congressmen do not exist merely to tally their constituents’ views on a given policy question and then vote accordingly.
Surely, fighting for their bosses’ opinions forms a big part of their obligation as a democratic representative, but they have a distinct duty to deliberate and debate publicly, so that they can join and lead the national conversation by which they and the people fashion their views. More than aggregating the people’s opinions, they have an obligation to ensure that such opinions are right.
With this in mind, we can discern where an appeal to polls should have the greatest (or least) amount of impact in the course of political debate.
First off, when an issue is fresh and unexamined, the power of polls ought to be at its lowest ebb. For an official to say at such a point that the debate is over because the public feels one way shirks his duty to lead the deliberative process. Neither he nor the people have considered this issue for long, and their first instinct, like that of any individual when first presented with a problem, may be wrong.
The website Big Think devoted each day last month to a
“dangerous idea” from experts in various fields. A number of them relate to public philosophy.
Among the relevant posts, Richard Pildes, NYU constitutional law professor, argues for the abolition of primary elections. (A topic I discussed here). Peter Singer, Princeton utilitarian philosopher, argues we should allow infant euthanasia. Julian Savulescu, Director of the Uehiro Center for Practical Ethics at Oxford, <
a href=”http://bigthink.com/ideas/21771″>makes the case for bringing back eugenics, in order to breed a more moral human. Dr. Barry Popkin, Director of University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill's Interdisciplinary Center for Obesity, calls for a tax on the overweight. And Marina Adshade, economics professor at Dalhousie University, argues that polygamy is feminist, since it benefits women economically.
There's a lot of provocative stuff on the site worth checking out.
Image by Flickr user BrunkFordBruan used under a Creative Commons Attribution License
US responsibility for Mexican drug lords cont.
In today’s Christian Science Monitor, I expand upon an argument I began in an earlier post about the United States’ moral responsibility for the vicious Mexican drug lords. In the Monitor I wrote:
Mexican drug lords exist to feed the US drug market. And they get their guns through the US weapons market. We give the bad guys their money by buying their drugs; we sell them the guns that enable their continued existence; and they threaten a fragile young democracy of more than 100 million people at our border.
I’d like to discuss the notion of moral responsibility for democratic nations a bit more. It seems that it can take one of at least two paths.
The first depends upon a conscious choice by an elected leader acting in his official ca
pacity. When a President wages war, it’s useful to say that “We (America) went to war with country X today,” and that “we” are responsible for any good or bad that may result. The nation as a whole may not support the decision, but they support the process that empowers the President to have and use his war powers.
The second, more gestalt sense of national responsibility occurs when some sufficiently large subset of the population, operating within our collectively maintained political and cultural system, achieves some notoriety, such that we can say, “We (America) created Rock-N-Roll” or “We (America) give $39 billion a year to drug lords.”
Our responsibility south of the border is more of the latter case, since no leader supports the illegal drug purchases and weapon sales. But it quickly shades over to the first type when we see that our government does little to combat the problem. As I wrote earlier, a national government can be responsible for inaction, too.
Who's liberal enough?
Ross Douthat writes a thoughtful piece at the NYT Blog on how to understand and engage with Muslim critics of radical Islamism. He rejects those Western thinkers who limit the category of “moderate Muslims” to those, like Ayaan Hirsi Ali or Irshad Manji, who endorse Western liberalism absolutely and without qualification. He writes:
This school of thought strikes me as misguided. Manji and Hirsi Ali are brave and admirable, but what they’re offering (Hirsi Ali especially) is ultimately a straightforward critique of Muslim traditions and belief, not a bridge between Islam and the liberal West that devout Muslims can cross with their religious faith intact. If such bridges are going to be built, much of the work will necessari
ly be done by figures who sometimes seem ambiguous and even two-faced, who have illiberal conversation partners and influences, and whose ideas are tailored to audiences in Cairo or Beirut or Baghdad as well as audiences in Europe and America. That’s how change — religious, ideological, whatever — nearly always works.
On the other side, Douthat is clear that making “these kind of distinctions doesn’t require us to suspend all judgment where would-be Islamic moderates are concerned” and that ” forays into more dubious territory should be greeted with swift pushback, rather than simply being accepted as a necessary part of the moderate Muslim package.”
I discussed similar issues here.
Image by Flickr user Paul Lowry used under a Creative Commons Attribution License
Why Ross Douthat fails to deliver
(A) What values gay marriage threatens,
(B) The process by which it threatens those values,
(C) The values protected or promoted by the legalization of gay marriage, and
(D) Why the values gay marriage threatens outweigh those it promotes.
Douthat focuses on the (A) category and completely ignores the other three. He argues that gay marriage threatens the Western ideal of “lifelong heterosexual monogamy as a unique and indispensable estate.”