Thursday, June 28, 2012

Compassion Trumps Selfishness

The Supreme Court decided today, 5-4, that Obamacare is legal. That is, in the immortal words of Vice President Joe Biden, “a big fucking deal.”  Affordable health care for millions of Americans who otherwise didn’t have it, was what Obama said he “would stake my presidency on.”  The guy knows how to roll the dice.

The decision was along party lines, with the four conservatives voting against, the four liberals voting for it, and Chief Justice Roberts breaking the tie by saying, “Okay, it’s legal, but only if you call it a tax increase.” 

Why the party-line division? Conservatives are systematically against anything that contributes to the common good.  They seem to believe in radical individualism, which is a great philosophy if you are a rich and privileged individual. Then you don’t have to worry about the other guys (the 99%).
Radical individualism translates also into “states rights,” which is another way to say, keep your government off my personal freedom.

The “official” Conservative objection is that Obamacare represents the worst of “big government” which intrudes on individual freedom.  But this argument is spurious. Insurance is a statistical game. It has nothing to do with individuals. It’s a method of pooling risk in large groups of people, transferring that risk away from the individual, who is not able to sustain it alone.

What about the “freedom” part though?  Conservatives chafe at the idea that they are required to buy insurance.  It should be a free, personal, economic choice, they say. Again, the argument is spurious, because insurance (unlike buying broccoli), is not a personal matter. Insurance is, by definition, communal.

But what if an individual does not want to participate in the community’s shared risk?  Let’s say this person imagines himself or herself  to be a monad, willing to bear their own risk. Shouldn’t that person have the freedom to not participate in the community’s pooled risk and not buy health insurance if they don’t want it?

That would be a defensible choice, but only if that person also agreed not to use the community’s resources when they get sick.  No emergency room services (which the community paid for collectively). No police and ambulance support when you are tangled up in a car wreck (those are public, community-paid services). No publicly funded hospital care. No Medicare or Medicaid. And no public burial when you die. You’re completely on your own. Capice?

Unfortunately, human beings are compassionate by nature (most of us, anyway). We will not watch you bleed to death on the highway because you didn’t buy insurance. We will, in fact, pull you out of your burning car and put you into an ambulance and try to save you, at community expense.  By the terms of the Conservative economic argument, we should instead just step over your body, because you didn’t pay. But that’s not how it works.

It’s the same argument from motorcycle riders who declare it a matter of personal freedom whether or not to wear a helmet while riding. It would be, if you also agreed that when you go down (and you will), the rest of us can just shovel your injured body into the ditch, to clear the highway. Even if you agreed to that (out of stupidity, say), we wouldn’t actually do it, because we can’t, and so your so-called individual freedom makes you an unconscionable social free-rider (and that’s not a Nicholas Cage movie).

Every person, without exception, gets sick, nearly everyone gets seriously injured or suffers a serious disease at some point. Everyone, without exception, gets old. Everyone dies. It is ridiculous to insist on “personal freedom” from pooled health care costs unless you are extremely wealthy, because you will need expensive health care eventually. That's an inescapable fact.

So, Mr. Conservative, you can insist on your precious freedom, and when you do get sick, even though you are a selfish bastard, the rest of us will care for you at community expense.  We’ll curse you the whole time, but we’ll do it. Because that’s how human nature works, for most people.

So the argument that the community has no “right” to make you participate in the shared expense of caring for you, is either profoundly ignorant or psychopathically selfish.