Liberty vs. Welfare: A Choice or a Balance?
The recent 5-4 decision by the Supreme Court to uphold the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, or “Obamacare,” has raised the issue of health care to the forefront of this year’s election season once again. I will not talk about the merits of the decision, or my views on the merits of the Affordable Care Act itself at this time. What I wish to comment on today is a more fundamental issue that is at the heart of the health care debate.
The role of government in our lives is one of the basic questions of politics, and also the basic point of disagreement between our two most influential political parties, the Republicans and the Democrats. Republicans believe that the government ought to be small, and should only perform those functions necessary to protect the liberty and rights of the people. In essence, the basic Republican argument is that the government should not play a large role in the average citizen’s life. Democrats, on the other hand, believe that the government plays a role in providing for people who cannot provide for themselves. This belief requires that the government play a larger role in the life of the individual. This is a simplified version of what I believe the basic conflict of our parties to be. Whether it is oversimplified is for the reader to determine, but I think it makes a good starting point from which we can base the larger discussion.
The basic conflict that I glean from the beliefs of the parties stated above is one of liberty vs. welfare. The Republicans want a nation based in liberty for every citizen, and the Democrats want a nation based on welfare for every citizen. I cannot say who is right, not because I don’t have an opinion on the matter, but because the conflict itself is a false dichotomy. The notion that we must choose between liberty and welfare is a fallacy because the two are inextricably linked.
Liberty, from long before the Founding of the United States, has been viewed as a fundamental requirement of human happiness. Liberty is the reason the American colonies opposed the British, it is the reason the Civil War was fought (for both sides), and it is what led the Civil Rights Movement of the past century. Liberty, the right to choose what sort of life you want to pursue, is that the core of what it means to be a person in any real sense of the word.
Welfare, the quality of living well, is also something that a person must have. Struggle and hardship, while they may build character in some, is not a state conducive to the Pursuit of Happiness that is enshrined as one of the unalienable rights in America’s Declaration of Independence. Liberty and rights are meaningless if a person doesn’t have the ability to exercise them, at least modestly. What would the right to speak be if a person’s mouth were bound? What is the right to move freely if a person is bound by chains? Such “rights” would be nothing more than words that are not worthy of the name. They would be an insult to the people who are told that they are free, but who are oppressed.
Some will say that a person is given the freedom to live their life, and that it is up to them to make what they can of it. This is true; an adult with full capability of reason and physical movement should be able to live and work, and to bear the consequences of their actions. A person is not really a person if they do not have to account for the results of their actions, both good and bad. In philosophical terms this principle is called “dessert,” as in “just desserts.” Not holding someone responsible for their actions doesn’t really treat them as an adult in any real sense of the term. Protecting a person from the consequences of their actions is more akin to a parent shielding a child from scorn. But I digress…
The answer I wish to give to those that would say a person is to be given freedom, and to do with it what they like is twofold. First, such a position assumes that people are given an equal starting point in life, which is not true. People are born with different capabilities naturally, and are born into different economic and social situations. Circumstances beyond a person’s control can oppress a person more severely than a government ever could. The rifles and tanks of a tyrannical government are nothing to the restrictions placed on a person by severe poverty. Second, it assumes that the only consequences that a person must deal with are a result of their own actions. Many people who live hardworking and honest lives are brought to ruin by events that are beyond their control, whether it be the actions of others, or of nature. This brings me back to my point regarding welfare. A person must not only be guaranteed rights, but also the ability to exercise those rights.
To those that would give more room to welfare and to a role for government to provide it, I would also give an answer. People ought to be free to decide what life it is they want to live. Nothing good can come out of a small number of people imposing on others their view of the best way to live. The most basic reason is that the small group can never fully know what is best for every person in every circumstance. We live in a world limited by time, space, and our own understanding of the world. A person must be free to pursue their own happiness, and to fail to attain it. Suggestions of the best way to live are sometimes beneficial, but demands by the few to the many are not.
And now I come back to the starting point of this post, health care. Again, I will not comment on the Supreme Court decision, or whether the Affordable Care Act itself is going to be effective in doing what it seeks to do. I will continue with the more fundamental question; is health care something the government ought to provide? My answer is yes.
In order to guarantee that a person is able to exercise the freedom that they ought to be guaranteed, the government must act to stop a growing health care catastrophe that endangers the practice of freedom. A Harvard Study found that in 2007, 62% of personal bankruptcies were caused by medical issues. Of that 62%, 78% of the people had health insurance, 60.3% of that insurance being private . These are staggering numbers. These numbers indicate that a large number of people, who have insurance, are one medical emergency away from seeing their lives crumble financially, and of having their liberty seriously impaired as a result. And we know that the cost of health care is only going up.
To conclude, the basic disagreement that our politicians are fighting over, and which is causing the hyper-partisanship of our politics, is a false one. The idea here should not be to choose either liberty or welfare, but to find a balance between the two because the extreme of either is bad for both. We must begin actually coming to agreement on the issues that matter most, and finding solutions to the problems that ail our society.
 Study Links Medical Costs and Personal Bankruptcy
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