Last time around, the GOP debate audience cheered at the mention of 234 executions; this time, people got excited at the prospect of the death of an uninsured man who had a serious accident and needed medical care but doesn’t have insurance.
Let’s begin by being exceedingly charitable and saying, instead, that what the audience really liked was the fact that Ron Paul said this:
That’s what freedom is all about, taking your own risks. This whole idea that you have to prepare and take care of everybody …
Going this route avoids all of the indignation we might feel about another GOP audience rooting for the death of someone they don’t know and with whom they cannot empathize in the slightest. It allows us instead to focus on the question of freedom and of the role of government.
And so we should ask: Is the ability to take risks and then suffer the consequences of those risks really what freedom is all about? And what’s the problem, really, with a government that takes care of everybody?
I think most people would probably agree that freedom is the ability to do as one chooses without intervention. The caveat that is most often attached, though, is that society can limit one’s freedom if one seeks to harm or limit the freedom of another. As far as I know, libertarians are just fine with that. But why is this the only acceptable caveat? Why couldn’t we also legitimately limit one’s freedom to make dangerous choices, especially insofar as those choices seldom — if ever — only impact the one making them?
Isn’t it the case that, if I want to go skydiving, I have to take a class and put on safety equipment? In other words, I can’t simply wake up, decide to jump out of a plane, and then immediately do it … because that’s dangerous. Is this an infringement on my freedom to do exactly as I like at all times? It might be. But it’s one with which I — and most people — can comfortably live. Most people live their lives with at least some level of risk aversion and so most people would want to learn how to jump out of a plane in the way that’s least likely to cause death or catastrophic injury before they actually jump.
Why, then, do we have such a problem with the idea that we could be forced to carry health insurance or to pay for the necessary medical treatment of others?
The answer, of course, is that health insurance costs money and so the government is forcing people to pay for something they claim neither to want nor to need. This is a major infringement on our freedom in two ways: we aren’t allowed to choose not to have health insurance and we aren’t allowed to choose to do whatever we like with the money we earn.
The trouble for me, I suppose, is that the decision to do as I like with regard to health insurance isn’t a decision that touches only on my life; it impacts a great many others. If I don’t have insurance and I need medical attention — like the man in the GOP debate’s hypothetical — someone will have to pay for it. Paul might be right: The bureaucracy might be bloated beyond belief and we might be paying far more for care than we need to be paying. But the fact is that, no matter what, someone will have to pay some amount.
And Paul believes — along with a lot of people at the debate, apparently — that the government shouldn’t be in that business … in no small part, I assume, because that ultimately means that all of us are payng for it with our tax dollars.
So … who should pay when someone exercises his or her freedom and runs into bad luck? Private charities, of course. And who makes up these private charities? Us. Either way, then, we’re the ones who are paying for Johnny Freedom to run around without health insurance. He gets to pretend that nothing bad will ever happen to him and we have to bear the cost when it turns out that he’s wrong.
The difference is that we choose to give money to private charities and we don’t choose to pay taxes. And in that difference is, I think, the crux of libertarian theory. But it also leaves open the possibility that some people won’t be able to get the care they need. The reasons are many, but I’ll provide just a couple:
- We might decide to give less of our money to charity in the future, not more, and libertarians have nothing whatsoever to say to us to change our minds about that;
- Charities might be called upon once too often in a short amount of time and might find themselves stretched beyond their means.
Personally, I’d hate to be in the position of going from charity to charity, begging for money to pay for some life-saving treatment. And I hate even more the idea that, even if I did so, I might not get what I needed. That sounds to me like a limitation on my freedom.
So, as much as I don’t like paying taxes and as much as I think the government might be inefficient in the way that it makes use of my tax dollars, I continue to support the idea of social safety nets that don’t rely on the assumptions that a) enough good people will be around in my time of need or b) bad things only happen to other people, not to me or to people I love.
The difference that exists between my own position and that of the Tea Party, at bottom, is that I don’t feel less free when I look at the amount of money that comes out of my check every month, even though I’d rather have that money in my pocket. The reason is that I’m actually making a choice too: I choose to live in this country, with its government and tax structure and social safety nets. In fact, I embrace it. We can certainly do better in terms of those safety nets by working to make our government more efficient and effective, but that’s not what Paul is advocating; instead, he thinks that the vast majority of the government — and the services it provides — should simply be eliminated. To my mind, that would mean we’d be living in a very different political community, one that I wouldn’t like nearly as much. I want to live in a political community that chooses to take care of others, one that is committed to the idea that no one should go hungry or be unable to get critical medical attention.
This is a very different choice in its substance from the ones that libertarians tout as being of principal importance … but it is no less a choice and thus I feel no less free at the end of the day than I would if I had some extra money in my pocket. What’s more, I feel protected in case I run into some bad luck — or someone close to me does — and I feel good about my small stake in making sure that others are similarly protected.
At first I thought we were just talking past each other, that we had fundamentally different values and beliefs, but perhaps I should be wondering instead if these people (who prize individual choice so highly) simply don’t respect my choices. Maybe the choices in which they’re seemingly so invested are only the choices they make.