I've been having an interesting but frustrating discussion over on Facebook with a 26-year-old that's really making me feel my age in some ways. He's a proponent of free-market capitalism at its most extreme, a Libertarian wedded to the theory of complete government non-interference. Economists, I've concluded, are a strange bunch. The field is a combination of complexity studies, human psychology, and faith, as far as I can tell, though it leans very heavily on the latter, more than the former. Market behavior seems to be like gravity: everybody experiences it, but nobody knows what it is or how it works.
One thing that really sets us apart in this discussion is my lack of faith in theories. I'm not talking about things like scientific theories that explain natural laws, but theories of human behavior, whether they're theories of altruism, politics, criminal behavior, or economics. Humans are such complicated, complex systems individually that ascribing behavior to any single factor, no matter how complex it is itself, will always lead to exceptions. Our societies are such complex organisms that I'm not sure we'll every understand how even a large crowd works, let alone cities, states, or nations. The more I travel, the more true that seems to me. I've always been interested in what, exactly, goes into making of national character, and China really challenged me to define that as much as I could, which wasn't much. Simplified, US character vs. Chinese character is rugged individualism vs group harmony, but that's so simplified that it's actually worthless. What kind of groups do you have when everyone's an only child? When more and more Chinese are alone in cities rather than together on family farms? Theories like this are like statistics: you can make assumptions and predictions on a group level, but those predictions break down on an individual level.
Anyway, we've been arguing about universal healthcare. He thinks it's not a right, and I say it is and there's really no possibility of reconciliation of those two views. It seems to me that it is an excellent investment for any nation to ensure the health and education of its citizens, to increase their productivity. In his mind, the interference of government in our personal lives (i.e., demanding we help fund healthcare for those less fortunate than us) is more abhorrent than others going sick and possibly dying prematurely. He believes this should be funded voluntarily, which is a lovely thought. But I've learned over the years that people are not that generous, and not that kind. Sure, when asked to give in individual cases we very often come to the rescue and are happy to do so. But to ask us to fund a system for the faceless and unknown, for people we may not think deserve it, is ludicrous. I wish it weren't so, but it is. And this is where the role of government comes in: to push us, as Ted Kennedy so often did, beyond our base and selfish impulses to have compassion for people we do not even know. Unregulated systems are dangerous because they treat human beings and their lives as abstractions and numbers. Any theory about human behavior does this, even the theories that lead to helping people. Regulation provides, to some extent, a correction of that impulse. But what each system really needs is compassionate administrators to correct the rigidity of any system. This is not to say that we should all get what we want. Sometimes, what we want isn't necessary, but when you're gambling with people's lives, I think it's better to err on the side of generosity than strict adherence to law.
That's because a life of compassion is far more fulfilling, far better for everyone, than a life dedicated to theory. I don't think I've learned this just as a humanities teacher or student, but in the life experiences I've had too. I've been so down it looked like up to me, emotionally, physically, and financially. Yes, my friends pitched in, but I really could have used some help paying for that $35,000 worth of therapy that made me a productive citizen again. I still would have had to do the work involved, but the difficulty would have been halved. I don't regret the investment, but neither would my government. It's never a bad idea to invest in people, not to make them dependent, but to help them get where they want to go. The people who don't want to go anywhere? That's a different matter. But the people who can't and want to? Why would we not want to help? And in the case of healthcare, not helping them is tantamount to passive euthanasia: standing by while nature takes its course. Sometimes that's appropriate, but often it's not. Good healthcare decreases the burden on the state and the burden on its citizens.
And a little compassion never hurt anybody.