Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Governments Sometimes Need to Make Selfishness Illegal


The vaccine came too late for this victim, kept alive in an "iron lung."

The world has eliminated polio, a horrific disease, by near-universal vaccination. A case pops up here and there, but not in the United States. We've completely wiped out small pox, a disease I was immunized against as a child, as I was against polio.

Now, imagine if today's anti-vaxxer craze was as rampant during the wars against polio and small pox. Would we have fashioned such a success against those two viral monsters? Probably not. Ryan Cooper of The Week was right to blame selfishness for Chris Christie's pandering about parental choice in the current measles controversy.

What's changed since the days of polio and small pox is an increase in selfishness and a decrease in our sense of community, along with our trust in institutions. It's this drift away from an understanding of the "common good" that is so detrimental to our common well-being.

The best example of this growing failure was a comment I found on an article about Obamacare. It went something like this: "So I'm supposed to pay for the healthcare of my grossly obese next-door neighbor? I don't think so."

That sentiment is wrong on so many levels that it bears analysis.
  • It's true we're, in a sense, "paying" for someone else's healthcare, and if you want to feel that your obese neighbor is getting over on you, fine, go ahead. But the effort to provide more healthcare to marginal members of our society makes us all healthier, in very much the same way that broad participation in vaccines do. A healthier society is more productive -- leading to a higher standard of living -- and, more importantly, provides an environment in which your potential for catching disease decreases. And that's a good thing.
  • Even more obvious -- or it should be -- is that by mandating that everyone purchase comprehensive health insurance, the risk pool grows and costs are driven down, yes, on your policy, as well. Allowing crap policies or allowing insurance companies to only cover the people they want to cover shrinks the risk pool, driving up your policy costs. Yes, expanding the risk pool to include the unhealthy drives premiums up, but that's why we need everyone in the pool, to drive them back down again. Together we live long and prosper.
  • This may not be the most efficient way to lower costs, as many of us well know. European and Canadian models do a better job of both providing healthcare and keeping costs down. But Obamacare is the best we could do without dismantling the insurance system. Single payer systems are much better, but...
There are many more examples of how our selfish tendencies are deeply counterproductive and why governments actually have an obligation to rein in self-destructive tendencies. Here's a list of things we as Americans accept almost without question:
  • Texting while driving causes accidents, so we ban texting while driving, just as we do with drinking.
  • Running stop signs and red lights cause accidents and ruin traffic flow. We accept them because they work. And, yes, it's a government mandate, just like Obamacare.
  • We don't dismantle our fire departments in favor of a private-sector solution. We understand that we need rapid-response fire services that only governments can provide. Why shouldn't that logic apply to healthcare services?
  • We have banned smoking in public places like restaurants, bars, hospitals, stores, etc. Does anyone think life was better when we had a choice to light up?
  • We set rules for food-production sanitation and enforce them through inspection (though that's been undercut lately). Does this violate your freedom to choose contaminated food?
  • We mandate seat belts and airbags in cars and enforce their use. Who in their right mind would want the freedom nowadays to be unbelted in cars without airbags? Some people do, though. When we hear of fatal accidents, we often hear that seat belts weren't in use.
A final frontier that we may not get to cross any time soon is strict gun control. We tolerate around 30,000 gun deaths a year and countless people wounded in order to be safe, although all the research shows that guns in the home -- or concealed-carried for that matter -- make us less safe. The freedom to be much less safe is, to me, the height of insanity.

I don't propose to eliminate all risk. People should be allowed to drive or fly even though some cars or planes crash from time to time. If people want to scale cliffs or hang-glide off mountains, fine. Some risks, like scuba diving, should be protected activities.

Guns are different, though. Guns are specifically designed to shoot people or animals. If you not hunting animals, then you have guns specifically to shoot people. Many societies around the world have figured out that zero guns can equal near-zero gun deaths. America, in its wisdom, prefers 30,000+ gun deaths a year. For the sake of freedom? Really?


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