Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Compulsory Compassion and Freedom

In his classic book, The Road to Serfdom, Friedrich Hayek wrote about the ways in which the movement away from classical liberalism toward socialism threatens the advances that classical liberalism has brought, including individual freedom. When one seeks to order society from above, the refusal of those below to act as they must constitutes interference with the grand plan and must be, if not eliminated, strongly discouraged.

Becoming our brother's keeper - particularly when we are compelled to do so - implies that he truly be "kept" - not only assisted but directed to act in a way that facilitates our assistance.

Isn't the individual mandate a perfect example of this? The justification for this infringement upon the liberty of those who do not wish to purchase insurance is said to be the legally mandated compassion that will provide the care that they cannot afford.

The notion that people not be permitted to act in a way that makes it more difficult to help them has no obvious stopping point. For the left, compassion most often dictates restrictions on economic freedom. But might not social conservatives argue that compassion requires limits on self destructive personal behavior? If I am to be my brother's keeper, then I need to fight an aggressive war on drugs because they will frustrate - and raise the cost - of my efforts to help those who might take them. My brother  should not have children out of wedlock. He ought not freely divorce his wife when there are children at home.

People will answer these questions in different ways but movement toward greater degrees of collectivism increases the frequency with which they must be asked. Obamacare is an extraordinarily ambitious effort to manage a large area of human interaction - to achieve better outcomes than its advocates think will be obtained through the voluntary interactions of individuals. It's not surprising that it requires extraordinary limitations on personal freedom.

Even if we avoid the temptation to micromanage personal conduct, we will inevitably be tempted to choose between deserving and undeserving objects of our compassion. While choices in life are inevitable and compassion can never be unlimited, collectivism centralizes these decisions. It tends to make them uniform.

It takes an extraordinarily sanguine view of human nature and of the capacity of elites to properly order society not to be troubled by this.



Terrence Berres said...

How is an individual mandate a liberty issue when it's an alternative to accomplishing the same end by a tax-funded government-run program? If public education was accomplished through an individual mandate to send one's children to a school of one's own choice, or if social security was an individual mandate to invest for retirement, that would seem to leave us more free.

Anonymous said...

I wonder, if the individual mandate is such a horribly collectivist idea, why Stuart Butler at The Heritage Foundation first proposed it, back in 1989. Amazingly enough, that proposal, "Assuring Affordable Health Care for All Americans," can still be located on Heritage's Web site; it has not been scrubbed. (And Butler still works for Heritage.) Point no. 2 of his program was "Mandate all households to obtain adequate insurance." The point of mandating insurance, he thought, was to avoid the free rider problem of people showing up for free health care, since society won't let folks die when they show up injured or sick at emergency rooms.

Read Butler's proposal. It's a brief for Obamacare.

Why is it that when libertarians propose an individual mandate it's a good idea, far preferable to a collectivist single-payer system, and then when Barack Obama and the Democrats adopt the idea, it's an infringement on liberty with no obvious stopping point?

Is there maybe a little hypocrisy going on here?


By the way Hayek and Milton Friedman would approve of Terrence's notion of an individual mandate to send one's kids to school, or an individual mandate to invest for retirement. Free to choose!

Anonymous said...

N.B.: When Butler proposed an individual mandate back in 1989, he noted that health care consumed 11% of GDP in the United States. Now it's 16%.

Rick Esenberg said...


All you're really saying is that there are other things that raise liberty issues as well. Im my mind, the question is whether something is truly a public good, i.e., the type of thing that the market cannot be expected to provide. We can argue whether education is. I think it's clear that health care is not. Somehting like a market - albeit a highly regulated one - works relatively will for most people.

Anon 10:27

That somebody at the Heritage Foundation endorsed a similar - or even the same idea - doesn't undercut anything that I wrote.

I get the rationale for a mandate. I've flirted with it myself. But that doesn't mean that it doesn't raise troubling liberty and legal issues.

Nick said...

This is exactly where a Libertarian philosophy is ideal. It covers both of these sides... and yet many Conservatives mock Libertarians because we don't use the rule of law to enforce certain social restrictions such as those that create the War on Drugs, Gambling, etc.

Rick Santorum, for instance, has said that he doesn't believe that people should have that kind of individual freedom. See here (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PL9HrU6Y5-s)

So while you bring this up primarily as an argument against ObamaCare, don't forget that both sides have tried to use the government to enforce Compassion at the point of a gun... lest we forget George W Bush's "Compassionate Conservativism"

Anonymous said...

Rick, why is the right always against compulsion to follow one biblical mandate - be your brothers' keeper - but for compulsion to follow other biblical mandates, such as sexual morals?

Tom said...

Compelled charity is not the least bit charitable.

Terrence Berres said...


If most health care is paid for by government programs or tax-subsidized coverage through employers, then isn't health insurance already being treated as a public good?

Rick Esenberg said...


I am not a very enthusiastic drug warrior. Drugs always seem to win. But I do recall that Ann Coulter made an argument against drug legalization quite like that in favor of the individual mandate. She said that, as long as we have a welfare state, we better make drugs illegal since they lead to the need for more welfare. I didn't "forget" that argument, I referred to it in my initial post.

Anon 7:00 AM

Is there really any movement to compel people to follow biblical mandates? You might cite the pro-life movement but pro-lifers believe that there is a second life involved and even libertarians believe that the state can prohibit violence done to others. Aside from that, is it your impression that any significan number of conservatives want to outlaw extra-marital sex or homosexuality. I don't really see that but maybe I'm missing something.

(The opposition to same sex marriage is another matter altogether since it involves, not compulsion or prohibition, but the definition of a government conferred status that some people desire. I don't know that many people are arguing that the law should prohibit same sex lovers from living together. You can argue that government has an obligation to support them in doing so - at least to the same extent it supports heterosexual couples - but that's a different question. It involves issues of affirmation and equality, not liberty and compulsion.)

jp said...

"Democracy... Is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch.
Liberty... Is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote." -- Benjamin Franklin

Rick Esenberg said...

What's the difference? Given the many and varied requirmments that courts impose on lawyers saying that I want a three page singled spaced speech doesn't strike me as offensive.

My own view, again, is that the Court should have ignored the President because DOJ hadn't raised the question of judicial review. They aren't defending - or advancing - the President's position so why give it the time of day?

But to get up in arms about the details seems beside the point.

Anonymous said...

Professor, I believe your 10:01 a.m. response should be for the "President, Judicial Review, and Judge Smith" thread.

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