Friday, September 16, 2011

Welfare Statism and Compassion

Tibor R. Machan*

There are many debates in political theory, most of them focused on what kind of legal system is just. It is an ancient topic, of course, and the various positions do not change all that much, merely get slightly revised by their new generation of champions.

Yet, whatever one’s political convictions, there is widespread enough agreement about what is a political versus an ethical position. The welfare state is a political idea, whereas, say, altruism or utilitarianism is an ethical one. Of course, which is the correct ethical position, which ought to guide human conduct, is also widely debated and has been from time immemorial.

Anyone aware of this elementary point of the history of ideas knows, also, that it is a central feature of any ethical position that when it is practiced by people, they need to practice it voluntarily. No moral credit accrues to someone who does what ethics requires because he or she is coerced to do so. Every parent knows that a child begins to mature ethically when good behavior is exhibited as a matter of free choice, not out of fear of physical punishment. This is regardless of what school of ethics is expected. Whichever ethics is correct, it only earns moral merit if it is done from choice, never because it is done from fear.

Another elementary point is that while support for a given political position can gain one moral credit, that too must be voluntary. If you place a gun to someone’s head and march the individual down to the polling place and he or she votes for a candidate or measure because you have forced it on him or her to do so, that is not credit worthy either. Whichever is the correct political position, it too must be a matter of free choice for one to gain credit for championing it.

So once this is appreciated, let’s suppose that it is morally creditworthy for people to act compassionately, to offer their help to those who need it. Once again one could gain credit only if one acted so because that is what one wants to do. And that’s so with other virtues as well. One is morally praiseworthy only if one practices the virtues because one wants to. Accordingly the flack received by Representative Ron Paul from some of his critics because he does not believe government should engage in welfare policies must be seen in a certain light. It isn’t a sign of Dr. Paul’s lack of compassion to reject government’s role here, not at all. That’s because compassion, too, must come from a free choice, not because government takes one’s resources as hands these to the needy.

So when in his New York Times column on September 16th Paul Krugman chided the likes of Ron Paul (as have some other democrats or liberals) for their lack of compassion in their refusal to back government administered funding of health care, etc., he was quite confused. Just consider: a few days ago the news showed about a dozen people pitching in to lift an automobile so a motorcyclist who was pinned under it could be pulled out and saved. We may assume that these people pitched in voluntarily, not because someone made them do so. But Professor Krugman and his fellow critics of Rep. Paul would have had to consider it far more compassionate had these people reached for their guns at the scene of the accident and forced others to pull out the motorcyclist from under the car. That is the crux of the difference between Professor Krugman's conception of compassion and Rep Ron Paul's.

Those who champion government programs to provide support to anyone, the poor, farmers, artists, or others are not in fact being compassionate. They are bullies aiming to make others act in ways that would be compassionate if individuals did it of their own free will. But they are not being compassionate, not by a long shot.

*Machan is the author of Generosity, Virtue of Civil Society (1998).

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