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The Compassion Trap

Friday, July 29, 2011

Governments are bad at compassion, in part because it is a candle to power-seeking moths. The heavy lifting of compassion belongs in the private sector, where it is divorced from the impulse to impose continually greater levels of control.

In the Florida ObamaCare case, the government argued that it had the power to impose an individual mandate to buy healthcare because the law requires healthcare providers to administer emergency treatment, and it is neither fair nor practical to allow irresponsible citizens to free ride on those who pay into the system.

U.S. District Court Judge Roger Vinson rejected this bootstrap argument, saying that the government cannot set up its own regulations as the justification for such an extension of its power into new fields of control.

The legal issue is interesting, and millions of pixels will be spilled on it before this business is done. The phrasing of the issue will be in terms of “activity” versus “inactivity,” but that does not quite capture its essence. The basic moral and political dilemma, which is at the core of not only the healthcare issue but of other dilemmas of public policy, is the extent to which our reluctance to let people bear the consequences of their acts justifies and indeed requires ever-expanding and intrusive government control.

Perhaps all food should be doled out through ration centers? If not, define the principle on which the power to control stops.

A hyper-rational being would find the health insurance issue easy. People can buy insurance or not, as they choose. But if they choose not to, and something happens to them, we would leave them to die in the gutter.

We are unwilling to do this, though it is unclear whether the reluctance is due to genuine compassion or a need to maintain a do-gooder self-image. (We allow many people to die for lack of DDT, but they are safely out sight, so my money is the second explanation.)

So, because we are not willing to let people suffer consequences, we, acting through the government, must control increasingly large dimensions of everyone’s behavior for the sake of our own amour-propre.

The healthcare dilemma is a prime example, but there are many others. Take policy toward illegal drugs: We put tens of thousands of people in jail, spend hundreds of millions of dollars on enforcement, and send billions of dollars to some of the nastiest people in the world. We also condemn people to serious pain when they cannot get the medicines they need because of the government’s hyperventilating fear that opiates will leak out of the medical system into the illicit market. All of these costs are imposed because our compassion prevents us from saying “use drugs if you so will; it is a bad idea, but it is not my problem.” It is like the old joke about the tender-hearted surgeon who could not bear to amputate the whole leg, so he took off an inch every day.

The more sensitive we become, the more we are empowered to intervene in people’s choices, not really to help them but to prevent ourselves from being offended. Because the overall level of national compassion is rising like a thousand-year flood, the result is a relentless upward ratchet in the imperative of control.

If we can’t have a mandate for treatment without a mandate for individual control, the proper resolution is to repeal the mandate for treatment.

A financial meltdown morphs into the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act and its imperial consumer protection agency, where control of human behavior will be limited only by the bottomless well of bureaucrats' sensitivity to suffering.

Home buyers who took bad risks with a highly leveraged asset must be protected with increasing layers of disclosures and bailouts.

Health policy is now expanding into lifestyle compulsions. Soon, perhaps, the advocates of the Atkins diet will be at the FDA to duel with the disciples of Dean Ornish or the Serotonin Power Diet as to which approach will be compulsory. Perhaps all food should be doled out through ration centers? If not, define the principle on which the power to control stops. And let’s issue everyone a pedometer, to be checked weekly at the local ration center. (This will create a new industry of walking other people’s pedometers, which will spawn new needs for yet more control as pedometers must be welded on, and so on.)

When anyone tries to call a halt, the trump card is played—the children! We might let you die in the gutter, but how can we possibly let your children do so? A good, and not easily answered, question, which puts us back to square one, because there is no area of control that cannot be justified as “for the children.”

In the end, one must come back to the distinction between government and society. Governments are bad at compassion, in large part because it is a candle to power-seeking moths. Perhaps the government can provide some minimal safety nets, but the heavy lifting of compassion (for the children!) belongs in the private sector, where it is divorced from the impulse to impose continually greater levels of control.

With lower taxes and higher growth rates, an astonishing amount of money will be available for the directed, but more realistic, compassion of individuals and private groups, to the great benefit of all.

So the ultimate answer to the question in the healthcare case is the reverse of what the government argued: if we can’t have a mandate for treatment without a mandate for individual control, the proper resolution is to repeal the mandate for treatment. That is where the logic of Judge Vinson’s opinion takes us, which is precisely why I fear for the nation when I look at the Supreme Court.

But, in fact, the Court does not have the last word; the political system does. So apply this basic philosophy that the government cannot be in the compassion business to one area after another, then rinse, and repeat.

The unfortunate won’t die in the gutter. Indeed, with lower taxes and higher growth rates, an astonishing amount of money will be available for the directed, but more realistic, compassion of individuals and private groups, to the great benefit of all, including those whose behavior must otherwise be controlled so as to avoid jeopardizing the sensitivities of the most neurasthenic amongst us.

If the political system goes the other way—toward ever-greater competition as to which party is the absolutely positively most compassionate—invest in pedometers and move to Asia.

James V. DeLong is vice president and senior analyst of the Convergence Law Institute. He can be reached at jvdelong@comcast.net.

FURTHER READING: James DeLong discusses the government's abuse of the eminent domain process in "Eminent Domain (at a Price)" and collective action in "Tea Time for Vets." John Hoff and John E. Calfee identify other shortcomings of President Obama's healthcare plan in "The Contradictions of ObamaCare."  Ryan Lirette examines the individual mandate's odds in the U.S. legal system in, "Will the Individual Mandate Hold up in Court?"

Image by Rob Green/Bergman Group.

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