Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Blind Faith, Dashed Hope, and Unequal Justic

Been thinking about justice lately.

Left sees injustice in the fact that some people are wealthy and others are not.

Right sees injustice in the government taking away their property and giving it to others.

Healthcare Reformers see injustice in wealth determining access to medical services.

Kanye West sees injustice in Taylor Swift winning an award instead of Beyonce.

When we sense the order of things is out of whack, we get a visceral mental reaction. We hate injustice! We are even willing to fight wars to right injustices if they are menacing enough.

But what is injustice, exactly? And why do we so violently disagree on what is just or isn’t?

Justice is all about the proper ordering of things in a society – the distribution of stuff. We sense injustice has occurred when we encounter what we believe is the wrong distribution of stuff – primarily wealth, power, and respect in all their forms.

The trick here is the ‘we believe’ part. What’s fair? How should stuff be distributed?

The ultimate distribution of power is freedom vs. slavery. We struggled with that for a while in this society before creating laws to neutralize it. There is no limit on the amount of freedom we can have, so laws guaranteeing absolute freedom for everyone are rational and enforceable.

Not so for wealth. It is a basic law of the distribution of goods that there is not enough wealth for everyone to have everything they want or need. There are many theories on which method is most ‘fair’ for distribution. Communism, Socialism, Capitalism are all essentially methods of distribution of wealth.

Our society was founded on the principle of meritocracy. Here in America, stuff is distributed based on the value a person creates for society. It’s an imperfect system, but roughly translated, the wealth you accumulate equals the value you create. Goods are distributed based on that wealth. If you create an enormous amount of value for society, you and your ancestors will benefit from the accumulated wealth.

The founders created laws to protect property rights and other unalienable rights in order to protect this system. In meritocracy’s purest form, all goods would be distributed this way - food, shelter, and water among them. And originally this was the case. You were jailed for debt. If you didn’t work, you and your family starved.

But we aren't monsters, so as society developed we created safety nets for those who could not create value themselves - the old, infirm, etc (note - however there was no patience or mercy for the lazy, addicted, criminal, or otherwise self-afflicted –those people were punished or jailed or worse.)

At first we freely offered our wealth to those in need, usually based on religious convictions. Eventually, we softened further creating welfare societies and other social programs to help those who found themselves in need. Eventually government intervened to create these safety nets, taking wealth by force through taxes from those who created it and giving to those who did not.

In western society, as we move across the scale from freely earned meritocracy and charity to forced distribution, we begin to run afoul of our visceral human desire for justice. And therein, lies the root of the current problem.

There is not enough wealth to go around. Taking it from those that create it and giving it to those that do not in order to affect an equal distribution has proven a doomed social strategy – and is so antithetical to the American spirit that any serious attempt to do so now would surely meet massive resistance and ultimately revolution. Even the hint of it has half the population in a panic today.

When taxes are raised high enough, our sense of injustice is stimulated and, as we saw in 1776, all hell breaks loose.

Universal distribution systems may seem fair from afar. Everyone gets the same ration. But they never work. The human spirit is not programmed to excel in order to share, or to involuntarily give up wealth. Innovation grows from desire. It cannot be mandated.

Healthcare wealth is no different than any other form of wealth – it’s just a much more emotional microcosm. There is simply not enough medical care to go around. Not enough doctors, hospital beds, machines, drugs – not enough of any of it, and there very likely never will be. This isn’t freedom, we can’t just mandate that everyone gets healthcare and that’s that. Healthcare is a good –plain and simple. It has to come from somewhere. Hard as that is for the more sensitive and caring of us to accept. It is a good that is, must, and probably always will be distributed unequally. Like we always have, as a society we will gladly provide for those truly in need, but expecting full equal distribution is irrational.

Forced equal distribution of healthcare through universal healthcare such as Canada and the UK is especially problematic. Healthcare resources are a limited commodity. Use of these resources is not evenly divisible. Expensive drugs, procedures, and machinery consume healthcare resources unevenly. Therefore methods of prioritization must be applied. Quality of life and life expectancy are variables often used for prioritization. Again, our sense of justice combines with concerns for personal welfare and that of our families to create a very potent political cocktail.

The method for distribution of goods at the core of this society's DNA is merit measured by value created or more imprecisely, wealth. Every other method of distribution raises our sense of injustice – sometimes to the level of complaining to a friend, fighting with a family member, calling a radio talk show, attending a tea party, or even marching on Washington. And, as we saw in 1776, sometimes it raises our sense of injustice to the point of declaring independence from the oppressing government. Now, luckily we just vote them out.

Hey, we’re Americans, it’s how we roll.

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