Political talk radio has to be one of the worst mediums for intellectual debate. The hosts are often irritable to the point of delusion. The platitudes are banal, recycled from presidential elections at least a half-century old. The callers are vetted to make sure only the obsequious dolts see airtime. The host, eager to captivate his audience, sticks to the child’s game of party politics.
Searching for knowledge amidst radio babble is a Sisyphean task. But sometimes the quest can bear some fruit. Recently I inadvertently caught a portion of the Jack Burman show “Behind the Curtain” while skipping between music stations. Burman, who describes himself as both a conservative and libertarian, was interviewing Politico health reporter Jennifer Haberkorn. The topic of intrigue was the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, also known as ObamaCare.
Rants on the socialization of American health care are easy fodder for men behind the mic. Government’s permanent information problem and inability to coordinate resource distribution in a rational manner provides endless debacles ripe for condemnation. In between displaying incredulous awe over ObamaCare’s rocky rollout, Burman brings up a novel point. The whole purpose of the Affordable Care Act is to provide the uninsured with health insurance. Yet, the number of enrollees has failed to reach the Obama administration’s projections.
Why is this? There are a number of factors at play and the answer isn’t obvious. Some uninsured individuals may be wary of the faulty website. Others believe they might not need health insurance at this time. And there are those folks at the bottom rung of society who make do with limited means and ignore government diktats. It is these plebeians that ObamaCare purports to help. According to the latest figures, these low-class fish aren’t biting. The very people the Affordable Care Act is supposed to assist are not taking the bait.
Burman, in talk show fashion, rationalizes this behavior with a politically-incorrect observation: perhaps we can’t save the stupid among us. The declaration should make everyone wince, or at least take a step back. No realistic person believes government can save everyone. But there is something unseemly about allowing hordes of helpless idiots dangle in the wind. Sentimental feelings should never dictate rights. The question we are left with is: in a free society, should the less-intelligent not be given any help?
Only the most naively optimistic person believes intelligence is evenly dispersed across humanity. Even more so, that all individuals are capable of critical reasoning. It’s self-evident that not everyone is endowed with the logical capabilities of Thomas Aquinas or Aristotle. If rigorous intelligence was really widespread, the television sitcom wouldn’t exist.
So should rugged individuals of fair intellect sneer at the downtrodden? The moral answer is an unequivocal “no.” But the goodness of charity does not justify government welfare programs. ObamaCare isn’t an altruistic effort to provide health services to the needy. It’s a program that bolsters the private insurance industry and perpetuates a scheme of generational theft. Welfare isn’t welfare when it requires the use of coercion. Any benefit that materializing from a government tax-and-distribute program is negated by the very practice of robbery.
In America, voluntary charity long served as a means of insuring the poor had access to health care. In the 19th and early 20th century, there existed mutual-aid societies that assisted families facing hardship. These groups were popular among the working poor who had little options in terms of emergency aid. Many times, these societies shared similar race or cultural heritage – a trait that would have sent today’s egalitarian, public relations-obsessed brigade crying out in indignation.
Housing, life insurance, health insurance, and unemployment benefits were all provided by this heterogeneous network of aid societies. Even hospitals and orphanages were constructed to serve these communities. According to David Beito’s study From Mutual Aid to the Welfare State: Fraternal Societies and Social Services, 1890-1967, at least “one of three adult males” belonged to a fraternal group by 1920. Had Washington not intervened into this beneficial arrangement, participation would have likely continued. These dues-paying groups would have also grown and adjusted to the post-war American economy.
But government loves nothing more than ruining a good thing. Medical licensure and other regulatory restrictions put an end to mutual-aid societies. Charity was replaced by Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, which eroded cultural apprehension to being on the dole. And the damage inflicted goes deeper. A bigger casualty of the welfare state was the very idea assistance could be provided via voluntary payments, in lieu of taxation. Appeals to non-violent charity were tut-tutted ever since.
In a free society material assistance to the poor or less-intelligent is undoubtedly a good thing, as long as it’s done voluntarily. However, it’s not a long-term solution. In a recent blog post for the New York Times, Ross Douthat channels conservative sociologist Charles Murray and points out the growing divide between the higher stratum of American society and the lower. In the course of four decades, what Douthat calls the “elite’s self-segregation” has begun to take its toll on the lower class’s conception of social mores. Among the less well-off, a culture of scruples is largely absent. This makes sense seeing as poverty itself can generally be defined as a lack of prudence with wealth.
For Douthat, remedying the challenges faced by the poor means more than creating an environment of economic freedom. It also requires an overall disposition that encourages stability in pursuit of prosperity. Who in society is the best at eschewing prurient tendencies? The upper-class, apparently. While it’s fun to joke about the leftist nihilism of society’s elites, more often than not, pompous rich folk have a fairly stable family life. Enrichment comes first and foremost from producing more than is consumed. So it’s no surprise the richest among us have more self-control than those who reside at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder.
Perhaps if the values of the high-class were to trickle down to the low stratum of society, the formula for success could be learned. Political philosophy says nothing about the proper role of family and community in fostering a vibrant society. But common sense says that support networks built by compassion and empathy both improve living conditions and are truly a good thing. More importantly, the absence of force removes any complication on the issue of ethics.
Pulling up the downtrodden is clearly a moral notion. It’s also a romantic one that is impossible to achieve on widespread level. Even so, there is no reason to purposefully leave the “stupid” behind. And there is no justified reason to use force in order to corral them into obedience. In economic terms, the only way to boost living standards is to allow free enterprise to reign supreme. Government intervention only belies its own stated cause of lifting people out of impoverishment.
Likewise, it would serve the poor well to witness lifestyles that produce success. That means engagement with less well-off communities. It’s easy to shield yourself from uncomfortable situations. And it’s easy to let others fail because of their own mistakes. But it’s a worthy endeavor to teach the valuable lesson of what it means to live the good life. It also wouldn’t hurt to ease the envious tension aroused by the progressive (and Marxist) rhetoric on class.