The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

What do we owe each other?

What do we owe to each other?

A while back, I was having dinner with some friends, one of them a lady I’ve known for decades. She is wealthy, very overweight due to lifestyle choices, riddled with health problems and under the care of a dozen different doctors.  During the meal, she spoke about how Government shouldn’t be in the health care business. 

Initially, she tried to make her point that Universal Health care was bad for the patients.  Frankly, that isn’t what I’ve heard from, say, Canadians and Brits.  Then she fell back on a relatively unassailable position: it’s not her responsibility to pay the bill for the poor.

Considering that this lady would be dead without her husband’s money, I felt that she was being…hmmm, somewhat ungracious, but that’s just me.  I’d be lying if I didn’t say I understood her position.

But  invariably, living within a society means your tax dollars going to support things you disagree with. That’s just the cost of living among others, I always figured.  The lady claims to Libertarian principles…and I suppose she’s right.

My problem isn’t the idea of “Limited Government.”  I’ve never met anyone who didn’t want government to be limited.  But everyone wants it limited to those things THEY think valuable.  Public schools?  Roads?  Military?  Everyone I’ve talked to who espouses Libertarian principles can agree on certain things…but school lunch programs, welfare, health care, and certain other things tend to be anathema.

I could be wrong, but it seems to me that human nature will always have those at the top suggesting services be cut for those at the bottom.  And those at the bottom will always want those at the top to be taxed more heavily, to pay for certain services.  The problem is the question of what should be done by government, and what by private entities.

I’ve always thought that governments and corporations have much in common with single-celled organisms: they want to grow and grow and take as much power as they can.  So there is a natural, and desirable tension between the two.  Will competition naturally drive down prices without government intervention?  Only if the corporations are prevented from collaborating with one another—and who will stop that? 

I remember a line from “Thank You For Smoking” where a spokesman for the tobacco industry asks an interrogator why an industry would  deliberately kill its customers.  The answer, of course,  is that it makes sense to kill your  customers if all you have to  sell them is something that kills them.  That, yes, you would prefer they live a full, healthy life, but as long as more are born to replace those who die, the industry really isn’t hurt much.  If tobacco is what you are selling, you can get very very rich indeed selling death.

I can’t imagine anything other than government intervention that would have forced the tobacco companies to admit their product kills, and label their products  accordingly.  In my mind, very good show, because these bastards KNEW tobacco was addictive and carcinogenic decades before they were forced to admit it.

But does government go too far in banning tobacco from public places?  I’d say in many instances, yes.  Banning tobacco in all bars strikes me as slightly absurd.  People aren’t going there for their health, dude. 
But back to my thoughts on my friend.  You know what?  I think that rich people who have a “let them eat cake” attitude would, if they were poor, be in the “tax the rich until they’re dead” category.  And wealthy people who feel a sense of compassion and obligation to the least fortunate among us would be the same ones who would deal with poverty with grace and dignity. 

But I’m not sure.  What I wanted to ask is: what services do YOU guys think the government should provide?  And what services now provided should they stop “wasting” our tax dollars on?

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