Friday, December 26, 2008

The Libertarian Stance on Abortion

What can a libertarian philosophy professor teaching in a small, private, Roman Catholic college say about abortion? Good question! Although, there is no single libertarian stance on abortion we do offer a common approach to the issue. The first step in that approach is to personally decide whether the non-aggression axiom applies to early life: sperm, ova, zygotes, fetuses, and/or neonates. But even if abortion is deemed an “other-regarding action,” that doesn’t necessarily mean that abortion is unconditionally wrong. There might be circumstances when abortion (like killing in general) might be justified: beneficent reasons (euthanasia), rape, incest, or self-defense (save the life of the mother). Some libertarians defend abortion based on self-ownership and argue that sperm, ova, zygotes etc are “private property:” body parts that we ourselves “own.” Hence, one might argue that sperm and ova are “personal property” while zygotes are “joint-property.” Or one might argue that a zygote is the private property of the female owner of the uterus. But there is no single libertarian dogma that elucidates any of these issues. Libertarians also disagree as to whether abortion ought to be legal or illegal. Obviously, if a zygote is a “person” morally equivalent to an adult, then abortion could be viewed as a crime comparable to manslaughter, homicide, or even genocide. Even if post-conception abortion is outlawed, some libertarians would argue that the law itself would be much more difficult to monitor and enforce than other laws that relate to killing. What would it actually take to monitor every pregnancy in the United States? Would women be subjected to monthly uterine examinations to insure the safety of zygotes? Should these extraordinarily invasive laws be monitored and enforced by local, state, or federal government? Moreover, if government decided to expend the time, energy, and resources necessary to effectively protect early life, it would almost certainly lead to unregulated “black market” abortions. If you think black markets are easily controlled, check out the ongoing drug war. But the most compelling argument against outlawing abortion outright is that it becomes an arcane “legal debate” dominated by lawyers, judges, and juries. In fact, today the political debate over abortion has been co-opted by the Supreme Court, therefore most of the debate now centers on whom the next president will appoint to the court after the next judge dies of old age. My views on abortion politics are pretty straightforward. Abortion is an enormously complex moral issue that invariably invokes deeply held religious, political, and cultural debate. Rather than expending time, energy and resources lobbying government, I prefer rechanneling those efforts. If you have serious moral concerns for the well-being of ova, sperm, zygotes, and fetuses, then you have a personal moral obligation to work to reduce the number of worldwide abortions. As moral individuals, we can more effectively reduce that number by donating our time, effort, and resources to non-governmental organizations that focus on strengthening marriage and providing child care for the poor. Therefore, strategically, pro-life libertarians (in the John Stuart Mill tradition) prefer active participation in the moral debate coupled with personal voluntary action. The old strategy of paying high-priced lawyers to argue cases before a Supreme Court stacked with “old white men” has done little to reduce the number of abortions performed worldwide.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Concept of Health Care

What is health care? Well, let’s start with the basics. First, it involves the exchange of a products and services between buyers and sellers. Second, the health care industry employs an imponderable number of sellers including research scientists, physicians, insurance professionals, malpractice lawyers, allied health professionals, product manufacturers, educational institutions, hospitals etc. For those that are willing (or able) to invest in the requisite education, these are all good paying jobs. Third, our understanding of health care has been masked by a longstanding cultural tradition that obscures its economic basis. Much of the obfuscation takes place within our language: "buyers" become "patients," "sellers" become "providers," and "health care" becomes "whatever health care providers are willing to sell you." Thus, most of us believe that “health” is something that is provided by others and that we cannot be healthy apart from a "health care system." Similarly, the concept of “disease” has become synonymous with “needing” the products and services offered by the health care industry. So a state of disease is anything that attracts buyers to sellers. Modern medicine is based upon the ever-increasing malleability of the concepts of health and disease. Even if you believe that you are presently “healthy” you still might have an undiagnosed disease, a predisposition for a disease, an early stage of a disease, or a previously “cured” disease might be coming back. Therefore, in order to remain healthy you must maintain an ongoing relationship with a health care system and its legion of well-paid providers. One of the more striking features of the American health care has been the exponential expansion in the number of actual and potential “diseases” and “providers.” Today we routinely consult with “licensed” health care providers to lose weight, fight depression, quit smoking, break an addiction (drug, alcohol or gambling), have a child, not have a child, eliminate a potential child, or die peacefully. Critics of the American health care system argue that it provides too much and that it must be refocused on providing “basic health care,” which is even more malleable than the concept of “health care.” Basic health care is whatever politicians say it is. This means that in order to keep their good-paying jobs, providers must lobby congress and persuade legislators to officially decree that their products and services are “basic.” Fortunately, if we wait long enough, every health care product and service currently on the market will eventually become “basic.” But in a free market, the concept of “basic health care” is vacuous. It is a blunt political instrument that governments use to deny some individuals direct access to specific products and services. So what can we conclude about the concepts of “health” and “disease?” Libertarians prefer to let the free market sort that all that out. The first thing that the free market will do is help us sort out what actually works and how much we’ll have to pay for it. Viva Viagra!

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Social Safety Net

Recently, there has been a lot discussion in the media concerning our increasingly porous “social safety net.” Let’s take a look at that under a libertarian microscope. Let’s all admit from the outset that “Mother Nature” has equipped most of us humans with feelings of sympathy that motivate us to assist others in time of need; and that those feelings are stronger toward relatives, friends and other groups with whom we identify, than toward strangers. These feelings are embedded into the moral structure of all human societies. In the Judeo-Christian moral tradition “need” implies a "right" to assistance by others and a "duty" on the part of others to assist. So we have a society where “need” inspires “providers.” When our relatives and friends are in need, we are more likely to willingly assume responsibility for either providing direct assistance or for paying expert providers. As we become increasingly dependent upon strangers to fill our needs we must inevitably deal with the question of compensation. Our growing reliance upon “assistance providers” has generated vast industries: health care industry, social welfare industry, education industry, child care industry etc. Given that all of these “providers” earn paychecks, it makes sense to at least look into “how much providers are paid” and “how providers are paid.” Well, all of the official providers cited above must, by law hold a license before they can provide, which requires at least a college education. A college education requires years of study and hefty tuition payments. Suppose you graduated from a medical school with a debt of say $150,000., and have $10,000 a year in malpractice insurance premiums. Say you have two kids that “need” braces on their teeth, an elderly parent that “needs” living assistance, and you have a spouse that “needs” a reliable automobile to transport those children and parents. As a provider, how much will you charge others for providing? My answer: I’d rather be paid more than less. If payment is too low I won’t provide anymore. I'll change occupations. Now, “how are providers paid?” Well, in our society, we have systematically delegated most of our personal responsibility to government to pay for our providers: physicians, social workers, teachers, etc. We like to pretend that governmentally subsidized providers are free, but we pay for those services indirectly via taxation. When we get the tax bill from those providers we, invariably, complain about the high price. At a bare minimum, libertarians acknowledge that in the real world someone must pay for the providers that comprise our social safety net and that a publically-funded “net” is less cost-effective than a private net. There are no cost-free safety nets in the real world. Unless we either empower governments to force providers to involuntarily work for free, or convince providers to take an “oath of poverty” and voluntarily work for free, we can expect providers to earn paychecks. Anyone that seeks to bolster our sagging “social safety net” must face this reality head on.