Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Another (completely sincere) Open Question

[NOTE: This is the long version. I thought it had disappeared into the great beyond, so after some swearing I wrote the short version, where I don't bother with the probably poorly presented examples. In the spirit of honesty and transparency, I am leaving this one up, but if you're in a hurry, you could live without it and read the short one instead.]

Dear Readers,

Can you help me out with another question?

(Not especially confidential to Burger King: this is not a joke. I am asking sincerely, but probably not using the clearest language that one could.)

This morning, instead of reading a book from 1940 by Giuseppe Bottai, then minister of Education for Mussolini's regime, written of course in Italian, I am wrestling with what I understand to the individualist notion that any person should be able to do what they determine to be best for them, regardless of state opinion, as long as it does not hurt someone else. I agree with that notion. Where I am getting tangled up is whether respecting individual freedoms means that there can be no government protections for people.

Because I am having difficulty figuring out how I want to say this, I am going to toss out a couple of concrete examples. I am finally not a fan of abstractions, because I find them baggy and confusing, so I hope that these examples will help me say what I want to say.

Those of you with formal grounding in philosophy: forgive me my inadequacies.

So on the topic, for instance, of social so-called security. The idea, as I get it (not having researched it), is that each worker pays into the system a social-security tax. From those payments, benefits are paid out to former workers over the age of retirement, to offer them some security in their later days. Only wages up to a certain amount are taxed for this program, and yet payouts are based on the pensioners' wages over the years.

The new Bush plan, as I understand it, would take that money out of the big pot and leave it instead in a bunch of little pots, and individuals would have the ability to invest it as they see fit.

(If I have missed a crucial point so far, please say so. But please also go with the situation I am laying out, so you can follow through to my question.)

That new plan assumes that people should be capable of managing their own money--something that at least on the surface should appeal to those who resist taxation and government control. I do not know just how many hidden government controls there are in this system, and yet I assume that they are there. But back to the example: I do not know much at all about investing money. I have some simple investments and such, and I assume a moderate amount of risk on my retirement savings, but I like very much the idea that social security will be there even if I royally screw up in the market. (By "be there," I mean be reasonably reliable, all things considered.)

I worry that the new plan would leave a lot of Americans, who are not capable of handling their "social security" money strategically, high and dry.

I am not in favor of leaving people high and dry. (I imagine that deep down, few people are interested in that, and that what we see instead are different imaginings of how best to achieve a good outcome for all.)

Let me give another example: I lean toward favoring a national health-care system, because I do not believe that only the wealthy should have access to health care. Yet I recognize that there are problems with that system, such as abuses, shortages, and so forth. I do not know whether the existence of a nationalized system would necessarily hinder competition, but I bet it would, which I understand is problematic. And in this country, it seems that nationalized health care would carry with it, say, laws requiring the wearing of helmets on motorcycles or prohibiting smoking, or whatever else, because how people handle their own health is now a national concern and so legitimately legislatable. But I do not think it would have to be so: we could all agree that we are willing to pay a little more for health care in exchange for not having our lifestyle choices determined by the state.

But, someone might protest, I live clean. I don't smoke or drink or play dangerous sports and I eat well all the time and I don't have any bad genes and so I should pay less.

Which seems to be the rough equivalent of a person saying that they have read lots of books and understand politics and economics and have studied the Constitution and other political documents, and they know how they want to live. They should not be forced to live as others do, just because they occupy the same nation.

I say, good for them, but how about those people who cannot or have not done that work, who maybe don't have the smarts to do so, or don't have the free time, what with their three jobs? (And before you accuse me of condescending, ask yourself: Before I declare that everyone is capable of this intellectual work, have I ever taught English 101 at even a moderate, let alone third- or fourth-tier university? Or better yet, have I taught high school in the public-school system?)

Where I am trying to get, after much meandering and no doubt plenty of errors and fallacies, is how does an individualist position approach the question of individuals who do not or cannot or have not extensively examined and crafted their own positions or worldviews?


bkmarcus said...

OK, two weeks later and I see that no one else has commented. Am I the only libertarian who reads your blog?

Of course, I do notice that you ask after Bush Junior's corporatist scam as if it has something to do with liberty. It doesn't. It's just a right-wing regressive welfare scheme to replace a left-wing regressive welfare scheme. Don't be fooled by the Cato Institute -- they are less and less libertarian and more and more neoliberal Republican.

Actually, I also notice that you don't use the term libertarian in your question, but rather individualist. This would indicate that you're asking not an economic question, but an ethical/philosophical one, since individualism is a position within moral philosophy about who does and doesn't have which sorts of rights.

But you also say, "I imagine that deep down, few people are interested in that, and that what we see instead are different imaginings of how best to achieve a good outcome for all." This would indicate that you're asking the consequentialist -- "economic" -- question: looking for the utilitarian perspective.

So either you or I or both of us are quite confused about what exactly you're asking.

If you wouldn't mind reviewing my article, "The 3 'E's of the Minimum Wage" I'd ask you to assess whether yours is an E1/ethical question, an E2/economic question, or the E3/emotional question.

If you're asking the connotative emotional/symbolic (E3) question then I probably can't help you.

If you're asking the utilitarian/economic (E2) question, then I'll repeat my previous recommendations.

To those I will add a second-hand recommendation (meaning that this book has been recommended to me): From Mutual Aid to the Welfare State: Fraternal Societies and Social Services, 1890-1967 by David T. Beito. Sixty-five smackers is why I haven't gotten it yet, but I'll bet your library has a copy.

And I don't see how you can be asking the ethical question, since (from an individualist perspective) it practically answers itself: robbing Peter to pay Paul is theft, no matter who does the robbing or how much you believe Paul deserves Peter's resources.

Between your consequentialist parenthetical and the fact that you are still asking the question, I infer that you believe the ends can justify the means. In other words: your ethics would seem to be utilitarian, in which case we're back to recommending economic reading and ethical principles are irrelevant.

bkmarcus said...

PS I posted this same reply -- complete with pretty pictures! -- to my own blog.

Isis said...

Is it impossible that for some thinkers emotional, economic and ethical issues could be intertwined?

As it happens, I am not, in my question, making an assertion (i.e., trying to convince anyone of my beliefs) but rather, as I believe I stated pretty clearly, asking a question.

And while I understand your desire to work within philosophical discourse, and therefore to the exclusion of those who do not, cannot, or will not speak it themselves, your rather dismissive "So either you or I or both of us are quite confused about what exactly you're asking" irritates me. I stated pretty explicitly early on that I am trying as best I can to communicate what I am asking, and that I had found myself having a little trouble. Forgive me for being unable to do so to your liking--and for asking in the first place that you be willing to work with me.

On a similar note, in looking back at what I wrote, you will see that I am using the social security example as simply an example--NOT (as you accuse) suggesting that it is a libertarian scheme (something I do not believe).

That said, I appreciate your references, which I will happily check out.