Reflections on a House Divided

Just the Tip

Beneath the visible point of the Wal-Mart Health Care legislation recently passed in Maryland - and the movement for similar measures elsewhere - below the half-buried layer of union politics, or that of pure success-envy lying just under the surface, is another - one stranger and, in a way, more troubling. Consider, just what is meant by statements such as this: "Effectively, Wal-Mart forces taxpayers to subsidize what should be a company-funded health plan. According to a study by the Institute for Labor and Employment at the University of California-Berkeley, California taxpayers subsidized $20.5 million worth of medical care for Wal-Mart in that state alone, 48"  (Wages: The Hidden Price We All Pay for Wal-Mart)?

Just how does a benefit offered by many employers - generally as a means of securing good employees and keeping them on-the-job - become an obligation incumbent on employers who don't offer it, and, one whose fulfilment - if refused - now constitutes an act of both neglect and - apparently - extortion as well? There's an alchemy at work here, one that puts this commentator in mind of tales told concerning rituals alleged to have been once performed by some Island tribes when newly exposed to the idea of money-commerce - of passing handfuls of coins back and forth between bowls in expectation that doing so would lead them - the coins - to multiply in number. Or, more pointedly, of the custom said to have once been in practice among some other populations - of holding persons responsible for the lifetime upkeep of anyone whose life they were - hence - so "unfortunate" as to have preserved from accidental death.  One suspects that practices of the later kind did little to encourage feelings and actions of mutual concern amongst those peoples who practiced them. Perhaps even less, in those regards, than obtained through means of passing coins back-and-forth towards economic growth and development amongst those who practice that art.

There is an element in these things as well - in their shear seeming randomness along with the dubious nature of the cause and effect relationships they seem to rely on  - that evokes a sense of incipient danger, even if the outcome - as in the coin-passing rite - is not itself actually one of direct harm. They resonate with sentiments, assumptions and imagery such as those expressed in old adages like "if you step on a crack you (really will) break your Mother's back," and "Yee better not be 'round the old Church-yard after night-fall, even if yee've good and innocent reasons for so being - if'n ya knows what's good for yee," etc. "It" - whatever that might be - can happen to anyone, anytime, anywhere, and good intentions, let alone benevolent self-interest, is no defence at all. And that same sense carries over to the transformation of health-care benefit- into-obligation as well.

In fact, in the Judao-Christian Tradition, there is an obligation to help those truly in need, and a good case can be made that a similar requirement can also be derived from the assumptions underlying rational self-interest as well. But, such requirements do not generally fall on anyone-at-random, but extend to the community as a whole, including those receiving said assistance - when in position to do so. One can argue then over the best means by which such aid might be rendered. And conservatives - including myself - will normally support those proposals most consistent with all other rights and obligations as well - including those pertaining to property and economic exchange. But, slights-of-hand such as those that seem to underlie the current attempts to transform benefit-into-obligation - being born of ignorance and magical thinking - should have no place among them at that table.

(C) David Aronin 2006