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.

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