Liberty and Fairness
“The natural distribution is neither just nor unjust; nor is it unjust that persons are born into society at some particular position. These are simply natural facts. What is just and unjust is the way that institutions deal with these facts.” ― John Rawls, A Theory of Justice
Recent events in my own life have forced me to re-examine some of my most deeply held convictions. During the time I’ve been absent from this blog (wait – you didn’t notice???), four events in particular gave rise to self-reflection:
- Crohn’s Disease, with which I’ve done battle for 22 years, once again reared up and forced me to the sidelines
- My eldest son, who was born with a developmental disability, is now caught up in the nightmare that is the state mental health system
- I’ve rented a room to a family that is emblematic of all that is wrong with the way government abuses good people
- Another of my tenants passed away during the night
You’re probably wondering why I would spend the time to ponder what one prominent politician describes as “esoteric debates” when life brings such immediacy. You’re probably wondering further why I would take the time to write about that internal debate. The answer is that such internal debates are neither esoteric nor a thriftlessness exercise. It is by determining if our views are malleable to the events in our lives that we discover if our core values are the result of dogma or the sound exercise of judgement.
The overarching theme of President Obama’s tenure is that of “fairness.” Only, in Mr. Obama’s world, the fairness is defined by outcome; one in which those aggrieved receive what they deem to be their just share. This doctrine is exemplified in the policy objectives of his administration. Be it the underlying argument for Obamacare (that the only fair medical system is one in which everyone has health insurance), economic policy, the tacit embrace of the Occupy Wall Street movement, the management of foreign policy (attempting the equal embrace of islamist and democratic ideologies abroad) or dozens of other initiatives pursued, Mr. Obama is clear in how he defines “fair.” Further, his actions (including his insistence on defending the possibly unconstitutional and certainly intrusive domestic spying program) demonstrate a certainty that governmental institutions are the best method of obtaining this measure of fairness while denigrating the roles of other, traditional venues.
Unlike many of the President’s critics, I do not think he is an uncaring ogre bent on instituting a draconian new way of life on the American people. Although we disagree on most issues, I certainly applaud his efforts to afford all people equal protections under the law. I think it is indicative of his nature, in that he actually cares about the quality of life afforded ordinary Americans. I think most of my fellow countrymen have that same feeling and that underlying belief in his nature is the ultimate reason he won re-election – even though most of us remain opposed to his specific action plan.
I also think that more than a difference in political philosophy, we have divergent views on reality and possibility that slice to the core of our differences. The President is what might best be termed a government interventionist. Government Interventionism infects both the modern liberal and conservative movements. It is characterized by a belief that not only can the government positively effect outcomes, but that it should. While conservatives and liberals often have different goals in mind, they agree with the principle of a results-based system. As anyone who follows me on Facebook or Twitter is well aware, I have never subscribed to this view of governance.
My introspection of the past weeks has called me to wonder if, perhaps, this approach is best. One of the criticisms of Libertarians is that we are a callous bunch, uncaring about how life’s travails affect our fellow men. Those who know me personally know this isn’t the case. Of the root causes for my self-reflective journey, two involved people that I know cursorily. Yet, they are people who strike me as somehow getting less from life than their character would indicate they deserve.
Allow me to begin with the woman who died in her room last Wednesday. Although I knew her only a few months, what I did know belied her situation. She worked full-time (a rarity in today’s economy) and was well-respected by both her coworkers and employer, she had a large and close-knit family and she was outgoing, gregarious even. Yet, she died alone in rented room, the victim of a long battle with a chronic illness; in her case, diabetes. From what I could see, it was not a pleasant or painless death. She must have known she was in desperate trouble – I found her collapsed at the foot of her bed, in a position indicating she struggled to get to her door, with her phone fallen from her outstretched hand and smashed into bits. If we live in a results based society, why did she die in this manner? What could society have done differently that would have ensured that at the very least, one of her family would have been with her in her time of greatest need? At her funeral on Saturday, meeting her family and friends and seeing the outpouring of grief that overcame them all, I wondered why a woman so beloved by so many, who had done all society asked of her, should have been subjected to such a terrible death?
The week prior to her passing, I rented a room to a family of four. One room, four people, sharing a kitchen and bath with three other tenants. These are decent people, again doing all society says they should do. Both parents work and the mother attends nursing school; the children are incredibly well behaved (I wish mine had been so well behaved!). But they are victims of governmental bureaucracy as much as anything. The father openly admits to making mistakes when he was younger, which resulted in a felony conviction two decades ago. Since then, he’s done the things we tell him he should do: work to support his family, avoid the drama of street life, return to school and complete his GED. He would like to continue his education, but supports his wife as she works towards getting her degree. This is a family, in short, that is playing by all the rules our society dictates – yet they are reduced to living four to a single room, because it is all they can afford. The welfare system, the one that liberals tell us prevents this type of thing from happening and conservatives insist is too generous, is unavailable to them unless the father abandons his family. It is his decades old prior conviction that denies them access to it. Somehow, this result doesn’t seem fair to me.
Along the same lines, my personal struggle with chronic illness – in particular, a 22 year battle with Crohn’s Disease – has become much more difficult over the past two years. Over that time, I’ve had to shutter a business, spent nearly 8 months (cumulative) hospitalized and watched my family’s wealth get drained until we were destitute. I’ve rebounded some financially, but am in no way near the same fiscal position I was in 2011. Most of those around me think it unfair that my life has taken such a drastic turn, or that my reality is I’m likely wheelchair bound within the next two years and probably blind in less time than that. Certainly I wish there were a better prognosis.
Finally, there is my oldest son, Dennis. Some of my long-time readers are aware that he is what society euphemistically calls “developmentally disabled.” His reality is that he will never comprehend things the way you or I do. His IQ is 54; intellectually his development is equivalent to a second grader, emotionally he is at roughly the same stage as most 13- or 14-year olds. So while physically he’s a strapping 25 year old young man, his mind has yet to catch up to his body. Odds are that the two will never be in sync. This is the crux of his current problem. Because of his condition, he finds it difficult to express his feelings, except to occasionally blow up the way most 14 year old boys will. About 6 weeks ago, he found himself in a situation where he was being teased (not an uncommon situation, unfortunately) and lost his temper. The police were called; they followed protocol and brought him to the emergency room for observation. Which is where the nightmare began. Rather than checking his medical records, the hospital diagnosed Dennis as a violent schizophrenic and packed him off to the closest mental hospital. The doctor (I use the term in deference to his degree, not his competence) there confirmed the diagnosis, again ignoring his medical condition. A competency hearing was held, in which the doctor amplified his diagnosis to include the term “homicidal.” And so my son sits in a mental hospital, not understanding what’s happening or why as we fight to have him moved to another facility and have a new diagnosis issued that accounts for his disability. I’m not sure who would consider this outcome “fair.” If the President thought the justice system was ultimately unfair to the family of Trayvon Martin, I can’t see how he could consider this fair.
In reflecting on these incidents, each with an outcome which seems disproportionate in outcome to circumstance, I wondered if the results would be different were the fairness doctrine imposed by society replaced by libertarian values. Chances are that in three cases, the results would be the same but the perception would be different.
- In a Libertarian society, we would acknowledge that the young lady who died chose to live her final days alone. While there still would be sadness accompanying her death, it wouldn’t be considered unfair that she had neither friends nor family with her in her final hours.
- For the family renting the single room, society wouldn’t consider it unfair that a hard working mother and father would resort to housing their family in these conditions. In a Libertarian society, they would be celebrated as examples of how to face adversity.
- As for my health, nobody would consider it unfair that I’m sick and fated to becoming sicker. Unfortunate? Unlucky? Sure, those sentiments would be common. But the choices my family made in previous years were our own and left us in the financial position we find ourselves. I knew my health was precarious before launching my last business; it was our choice to take that route as opposed to my taking a job in what is a poor economy. Using Libertarian values, we took a calculated risk that proved unwise. But in the interventionist society we live in, we demonstrated incredible recklessness and need to be saved from ourselves.
Libertarians believe that fairness in opportunity is far more important than fairness of outcome. After all, if everyone is free to pursue their life’s goals – if they are truly at liberty – then the outcomes are inherently fair. Differences in outcome will have more to do with natural ability and desire than anything a government can do. While the odds are that the above situations would not be dramatically different than in a Libertarian society, there is one important way in which one of those situations would be better. The people above would be less constrained by a restrictive society. The family in one room may well be much better off, since Libertarians tend to look at most drug laws as counter-productive – meaning no felony record for the father. He would certainly have better employment opportunities without that black mark.
As for my son, a Libertarian society would probably mean all the difference in the world for him right now. Without the modern police state in which presumed innocence is nothing more than a tired cliche, it’s doubtful he would be where he is now.
So, yes, I’ve reflected and pondered. You’ve read my conclusions. You may not agree with them, but I end this period of introspection confident in my core belief that the equitable outcomes can only be guaranteed by the one truly fair system ever known to humankind. That is, that by believing in the individual and providing them with the liberty to achieve to their individual potential, a government does its best service to the governed.