Should Microsoft Let This Man Die?
Here’s a healthy man of thirty. He’s an architect. He’s never worked for Microsoft. He decides not to get health insurance. Then — against all odds — he gets a rare form of cancer. It’s terminal if he doesn’t get care.
Should Microsoft let this man die?
My hope for this question is that it will upend the emotional response that seems evident in Erik’s post and the comments to it.
The point is as follows. Your feelings of sympathy for someone caught in a bad situation may create a legitimate claim on wealth, but that claim is on your own wealth, not on a third party’s.
What’s true on the small scale is true on the large, and even more so owing to practical difficulties. Distribution of aid is a much thornier problem than it’s usually understood to be, and if we were to scale our question up to the social level, we have no particular reason to think that Microsoft would do well at it. They aren’t a charity. They’re a software company. If they do give charitably (which they do), there is no reason to think that their corporate organization is any great help.
The same is true of government, because political incentives don’t align well with charitable ones. Charities want to get people back on their feet, or at least they should. But politicians want a dependent class of reliable voters. There is no reason to suspect that these two demands can be made compatible.
Some might say to throw these worries out the window. Government should provide charity to our totems of life, because government is our totem of society. As such, it may redistribute whatever it wants, whenever it wants. This seems to have been Wolf Blitzer’s premise in asking whether “society” — not the government — should permit an irresponsible person to die.
For a bit more intellectual heft, Michael Walzer argues similarly in his Spheres of Justice:
[T]he available resources of the community are simply the past and present product, the accumulated wealth of its members—not some “surplus” of that wealth. It is commonly argued that the welfare state “rests on the availability of some form of economic surplus.” But what can that mean? We can’t subtract from the total social product the maintenance costs of men and machines, the price of social survival, and then finance the welfare state out of what is left, for we will already have financed the welfare state out of what we have subtracted. Surely the price of social survival includes state expenditures for military security, say, and public health, and education. Socially recognized needs are the first charge against the social product; there is no real surplus until they have been met. (pp 75-76)
By socially recognized need, he doesn’t necessarily mean health care, either. His first example is public theater in ancient Greece. (This really is politics as haggling, isn’t it?)
Our first question should be why government is a totem of society at all — when it’s obvious that giving things this totemic status distorts our thinking about them. Consider that if Microsoft were our totem of society, it’s very likely that your response to my first question would also have been one of righteous indignation, not reasoned analysis. Of course Microsoft should help this man!
After we’re done with totemism, we should question whether government does charity best. Totemic status doesn’t obviously help it here. It could even be that our feelings of sympathy impair the state in its role as a charity, because your totems of life aren’t likely to be shared by everyone.