Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Designing A Moral Government, Part 2 - Social Safety Net

Under the first post in this series, we established how important it is that a moral government protect the life of its poorest and weakest citizens from a theoretical perspective, since the parents we are born to is the result of a figurative genetic lottery. In this post, I want to talk about the social safety net again and in more detail, but this time from a more practical perspective. The short version of this argument is that by not having any form of social safety net, you actually create more threats of force and right to life violations than by having one, at least up to a point.

As we know, government's primary role is efficiency of markets. One tool in our toolbox is to start by looking at the most extreme forms of government in order to establish where the appropriate middle ground is. So let's talk anarchy; does anarchy create efficient markets? Decidedly no. If one owns a store, he has to allocate a large proportion of his resources to hiring security to protect his store when there is no central government to protect against theft. In fact, in high crime areas where the police presence is insufficient to provide a deterrent or the quality of life is so low that people don't care, buying protection from the nearest mobster is not an uncommon practice. In this example, the mob actually serves as a de facto government, but clearly not a moral one, since the mob, by definition, is a criminal organization.

So the first thing that we need to understand about government is that it doesn't have to be moral. People are willing to submit to an immoral government long before they are willing to choose anarchy. That said, if a government is too oppressive, history shows that people are also willing to revolt. We grant a particular government the power to rule by force by passively choosing to abide by it's laws, and if your government's power gets out of reach, the options are to leave or fight back.

The Case for a Social Safety Net
The above discussion is related to the healthy person who doesn't want to die. However, it's important that we look at it from the opposite side as well. What about the person who is unhealthy and wants to be saved? His incentives are very different, but still need to be accommodated by a moral government.

Because we define life as our standard of value, most if not all of these market failures result from the value of life being infinitely large. When you look at it from this perspective, it is understandable that someone would be willing to spend every cent that he can get his hands on in order to pay for life saving medical treatment. That he would be willing to rob a bank in order to obtain healthcare, or take a hospital hostage in order to get his son a heart transplant, likewise makes perfect sense (that second one is fictional, but I can't imagine anyone watching that movie without feeling that John was justified in doing so). Stated more broadly, that someone would be willing to risk his life in order to save his life is not in any way surprising.

As we have already established, there are times when it is moral to take what would normally be immoral action. The two above examples illustrate this pretty clearly. But the question is, should it be punished? Rather than answering this question directly, allow me to answer this question with a question: would punishing this behavior prevent it? Obviously no, those people's lives are already in jeopardy, so they are willing to risk their lives in order to possibly save themselves. So punishing the behavior does not deter it, but is there another way to prevent it?

This is where the social safety net comes in. This is not the first time we have run into a problem where a threat to one's life is not a sufficient deterrent against immoral behavior. Similar things can be said about drugs, prostitution, alcohol during prohibition, etc. Sometimes restricting behavior with threat of force is just not the right way to solve the problem of the externality it places on society. Regulating and taxing seems to have solved the problems with prohibition. Similarly, a social safety net prevents the starving or the sick etc. from robbing people just to get by.

A moral social safety net is one that provides a bare minimum standard of living and absolutely no more. Any amount above the bare minimum to get by acts as a disincentive to become self sufficient. A moral social safety net provides a public option for all of the essentials. These absolutely include food and healthcare, and there are cases to be made for things like shelter, transportation and education as well. This bare minimum social safety net will obviously not prevent everyone from committing crimes, but it will prevent moral people from doing so.

As someone who values his life, a moral actor will choose to sustain himself in this bare minimum standard of living only as long as he has to, and will never infringe on another's right to life so long as he has this basic level of sustenance. Those who still commit crimes despite their life not being in danger, well, those are the immoral actors, and should be punished accordingly.

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