Sunday, January 29, 2006

Chainsaw Surgery: Using the State to Help the Poor

So you want to help the poor. After gazing at pictures of homeless men living in cardboard boxes under the shadows of skyscrapers, you’ve been struck with the urge to expand the welfare state, just a little more, to even things out. Or you’ve seen pictures of sad-faced women abandoned by men and ringed with children, and want to help them out. Or – and these are always the most pitiful and heartbreaking – you see pictures of the children themselves, hungry and hollow-eyed and sleeping three to a bed.

And you want to help. You want to make it all better. And you should be applauded for your intentions. But before you start waving the magic wand of altruism around (or invoking the might of the State), it might be worth educating yourself a little on some of the complexities of poverty – just so you know what you’re getting into.

There are, in general, three types of poor people. There are those who are poor by choice, those who are poor by habit, and those who are poor by circumstances.

Poor By Choice
Many people choose to be poor – and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. A monk who has renounced all worldly goods earns virtually nothing, but cannot be considered among those ‘struck by poverty’. Giving him money will not help him out of poverty, since that is where he wants to be – he will simply give it away. Graduate students often live on a pittance, but are going for the gold of academic tenure, and so are merely investing in their future, not trapped in penury. What about medical interns? They earn almost nothing, but are they poor? Would-be actors? We can safely assume that acting is fun, since many actors do it even after they become rich, so those shooting for movie stardom cannot be considered among the sad and needy poor. The same goes for all the other wannabes in the cultural arts. If you quit your job to go audition for ‘American Idol’, it’s hard to count you as among the downtrodden.

A man who has taken Emerson’s commandment to ‘simplify’ and has quit his stressful corporate job to start an ostrich farm cannot be considered a poor person in need of help. Even if he did it to cool his ulcers, it is still his choice. A family where one parent stays home to raise the kids is ‘poorer’ than another family where both parents work – but so what? By eschewing the rat race of the dual-income family, they are voluntarily paying for time with their kids – and reducing the risk of teenage problems thereby. These are not people who need to be ‘helped’.

Poor By Habit
We can also called these the ‘controversial poor’. Among these are the man who blows his paycheck betting on the ponies, or the woman who spends more than she can afford on drink and smokes. Here we also find those with very short tempers, whose personal volatility interferes with their ability to hold down a steady job. Those who cannot navigate the perils of authority also show up here – those who quit high school because of a mean teacher, or blow interviews because they resent being judged. Women who have children with shiftless men are also poor by habit, since we can assume that they know the basic facts of life, and have chosen risky intercourse over other forms of social entertainment. This category is stuffed with those who prefer short-term gains over long-term gains – and who can stop them, or tell them they’re wrong? All decisions must balance short term and long term gains. Going to university is a good idea in many ways, but not so much if you’re on your deathbed, or if you don’t think you’re going to live past twenty, or are below average intelligence. Choosing a life of self-indulgence is a perfectly viable strategy in the short run – and so who can tell the gambler that he is fundamentally wrong for gambling? Sure he is blowing his future, but his present is verrry exciting! And even if he is wrong, how can you help him? By giving him money? Of course not – that will merely fuel his addiction. By lecturing him? Nonsense – that never works. Getting him into treatment? What if he doesn’t want to go – or even admit that he has a problem?

No, the only way to truly help those who are poor by habit is to refuse to shield them from the consequences of their decisions. A gambler facing bankruptcy will experience at the very least an interruption of his habit – and at best a life-changing catastrophe. As many drunks will tell you, you usually have to hit bottom to change. Thus any money that you give these people merely prolongs their bad habits, further ruins their health and numbs them to the consequences of their decisions. Charity towards those with bad habits is a form of self-indulgent cruelty. If your neighbour screams at her children whenever she drinks, what do you say when she comes over and asks for a bottle of whiskey? Should you be ‘generous’? Of course not! You might be frightened of saying ‘no’, but for heaven’s sake don’t pretend that it’s any form of virtue!

Charity always carries the risk of perpetuating dysfunction. Let’s say that your neighbour is a nice man who seems down on his luck and asks you to lend him a few hundred dollars so he can retrain as a typist, since his manufacturing job went to Mexico to escape the unions. What are you to do? It doesn’t seem quite right that a few hundred dollars will be enough, but he tells you that he’s getting money from other sources as well.

If you give the man the money, you are either helping him out, or hurting him. If he really wants money to retrain for a better job, perhaps it will help – but perhaps not. What if there’s just not that much demand for typists? Surely if there was such a great demand, on-the-job training would be available. Is he going to a good typing school, or is it a scam that preys on the unemployed? And what good does typing do without computer skills? And how much chance for success does a person have if he asks a virtual stranger to lend him money? What does that say about his friends and family? Could there be a good reason why they don’t lend to him any more?

And what if he doesn’t really want the money to retrain for a better job, but to avoid working? If you give him the money, you’re hurting him, because he will have an even-longer gap on his resume, will be that much older, and will have further diminished his already-meager work ethic. And what if he buys pot? Your money harms his lungs and his brain. All his bad habits will further embed themselves into his personality, and so what looks like kindness will actually be cruelty.

If you lend your neighbour money, and he does not end up getting a job, you will become more and more uncomfortable as the months go by. He will have to evade you, or come up with excuses. You will feel cheated, resentful – and guilty, deep down.

There are many significant down-sides to charity, and so it is a very tricky business to get involved in. The transfer of money and resources is the least of it – and yet that is where everyone wants to jump in and starting waving the guns of the government around!

Poor By Circumstance
The poor in this group are worthy of charity, since they are poor through no fault of their own. The vast majority of those in this category are children, of course, who were scarcely able to choose their parents.

This group also includes the mentally ill, those struck by unforeseen illnesses – and, to a much smaller degree, those struck by a bizarre series of unfortunate and unpredictable circumstances – the pregnant widows whose husbands died by accident and whose insurance company went bankrupt and so on.

Surely this category clears up the problem of who we should help though, right? Well, not exactly. First of all, you cannot really help children without giving money to their parents – and, if you give money to parents based on the poverty of their children, the sad fact of economics is that you will end up producing more poor children. As demand rises, so does supply. (If you doubt this, look at the poverty statistics before and after the ‘Great Society’ programs of the 1960s.)

The mentally ill are very challenging to help, since they have a marked deficiency in the ability to balance short-term and long-term gains. Here in Toronto, for instance, there are more than enough beds for the homeless, yet they can still be seen outside in freezing weather. Short of incarceration, they cannot be reliably protected from themselves, and being crazy is no crime.

The ill are easier to help, of course, but are very much in the minority of those we call ‘the poor’. They are also a lot easier to find and identify, since they have objective symptoms and seek medical help.

That just leaves those who are poor by circumstance – that most elusive prey of the do-gooder, the poor person who genuinely wants to better himself and just needs a helping hand. How easy are these people to find?

Well, they would be a lot easier to find if they weren’t so constantly eclipsed by those who are poor by habit trying to pass themselves off as poor by circumstance. Those who are poor by habit are fully aware that they can receive significant subsidies if they can successfully pass themselves off as poor by circumstance – and so work as hard as possible to obscure their own choices and pass themselves off as helpless victims. They know that the process of untangling the tangled web of personal choice and circumstances requires a significant investment of time and energy – usually far more than the charity itself involves. The uneasy feeling that we get when handing five dollars to a panhandler – will he buy food or booze? – is precisely due to this problem. This is why panhandlers ask: ‘Help a man down on his luck?’. We also know deep down that when someone asks charity of strangers it is because he has exhausted the patience of friends and family – scarcely a good sign that he uses benevolence to good purpose.

Finally, if we do decide to attempt to untangle the complex web of choice and circumstance, in order to apply our charity more productively, we expose ourselves to significant risk of emotional or physical attack. Imagine asking the following questions of the above-mentioned neighbour who wanted money for a training course:
  • Was there any way to see this problem coming?

  • Why don’t you have any savings?

  • Why are you not borrowing from friends or family?

  • Why are you not part of any cultural group that might help you out?

  • Can you not get a scholarship for your training course?

  • Can you not get on-the-job training?

  • Can you make arrangements with an employer to subsidize your education in return for a post-graduation time commitment?

  • Can you take out a loan to pay for your education?

  • Can you not work nights to pay for your education?

  • Can you show me the brochure for your vocational program?

  • What is the placement success rate for this program? Is it verified by outside auditors?

There are literally dozens of questions that can be asked to qualify the intentions of a person hoping to receive charity. A person who is genuinely poor by circumstance will appreciate being asked such questions – and will probably, through this process, end up discovering productive alternatives to anonymous charity. A person who is poor by habit, however, will inevitably become offended by and aggressive towards his interrogator – and that is precisely how the wheat is separated from the chaff! A person who gets angry at questions probing personal responsibility for poverty is probably poor by habit, and will be hurt, not helped, by financial generosity.

In the past, before the welfare state, the separation of the unlucky from the unmotivated was the primary function of charitable organizations. Those seeking help had to face a panel of means-testers, who probed and grilled and constantly offered alternatives to direct charity, such as jobs or babysitting services. Even if direct charity was approved, the investigative process would then have to be repeated at regular intervals in order to avoid the problem of dependency on charity. The process was analogous to the prescription of a powerful drug such as morphine. You don’t hand it out like candy, and you work as hard as possible to avoid addiction – precisely because it is so dangerously pleasurable!

In hindsight, we can see the opposite process occurring during the late 60s and 70s, when ‘means tests’ for welfare and unemployment insurance recipients were gradually diminished and eliminated. Charity became a ‘right’, and legal limits on its distribution were slowly eliminated. (The elimination of the ‘means test’ is precisely the goal of those who are poor by habit, of course, since they always want to pretend to others that they are poor by circumstance, and so gain illegitimate charity.)

The welfare state, sadly, has eliminated the most important skill of productive charities, which is the deep knowledge required to separate those who will benefit from charity from those who will be harmed by it. Centralized State bureaucracies mailing out checks to unknown recipients can never know whether they are promoting good habits or subsidizing destructive ones. Overburdened social workers with no power to control benefits have no capacity or ability to redirect charity to the most deserving cases. And because of the rise of the welfare state, private charities have mostly eliminated the ‘means test’ process (also because they are dependent on State subsidies, which specifically forbid such tests).

All empathetic and sympathetic souls want to help the poor as much as possible. However, as the above complexities illustrate, really helping the poor is no simple matter. Sometimes it is just giving a sympathetic hug, a coffee and an ear to bend. Sometimes it is the withdrawal of sympathy and resources. Sometimes it is offering a job rather than money. Sometimes it is offering a treatment program for addiction. Sometimes it is a combination of all these things.

Charity is like surgery – it is complex, delicate, dangerous, and requires deep knowledge and skill. If you really want to help people, you have to know what you’re doing – and you have to really know the people you’re interested in helping, in a deep and very personal way. Using the welfare state to deal with poverty – despite it being a moral evil due to taxation – does far more harm than good. Using the violent power of the government to redistribute resources and calling it charity is like throwing blunt knives at a crowd and calling it surgery. Any benefits are purely accidental, and far more people are harmed than helped. It’s time for Libertarians to answer the inevitable question: how can the poor be helped without the State? with the answer: a heck of a lot better than they are now!

Sunday, January 22, 2006

War, Profit and the State

It has been often said that war is the health of the State – but the argument could also be made that the reverse is more true: that the State is the health of war. In other words, that war – the greatest of all human evils – is impossible without the State.

The great Austrian economist Ludwig Von Mises was once asked what the central defining characteristic of the free market was – i.e. since every economy is more or less a mixture of freedom and State compulsion, what institution truly separated a free market from a controlled economy – and he replied that it was the existence of a stock market. Through a stock market, entrepreneurs can achieve the externalization of risk, or the transfer of potential losses from themselveSs to investors. In the absence of this capacity, business growth is almost impossible.

In other words, when risk is reduced, demand increases. The stagnation of economies in the absence of a stock market is testament to the unwillingness of individuals to take on all the risks of an economic endeavour themselves. When risk becomes sharable, new possibilities emerge that were not possible before – the Industrial Revolution being perhaps the most dramatic example.

Sadly, one of those possibilities – in all its horror, corruption, brutality and genocide – is war. In this essay, I will endeavour to show that, in its capacity to reduce the costs and risks of violence, the State is, in effect, the stock market of war.

All decent economists know the ‘fallacy of the broken window’, which is that the stimulation of demand caused by a vandal breaking a window does not add to economic growth, but rather subtracts from it, since the money spent replacing the window is deducted from other possible purchases. This is self-evident to all of us – we don’t try to increase our incomes by driving our cars off cliffs or burning down our houses. However it might please car manufacturers and home builders, it neither pleases us, nor the people who would have had access to the new car and house if we didn’t need it for ourselves. Destruction always diverts resources and so bids up prices, which costs everyone.

(In fact, breaking a $100 window removes more than $100 from the economy, since all the time that must be spent returning the window to its original state – calling the window repairman, deciding on the replacement, cleaning up the shards of glass etc – is also subtracted from the economy as a whole.)

There will always be accidents, of course, and so repairs are a legitimate aspect of any free market. However, war can never be said to be an accident, is never part of the free market, and yet is commonly believed to be good for the economy – and must be, for at least some people, since it is pursued so often. How can these opposites be reconciled? How can destruction be economically advantageous, when it is so obviously bad for the economy as a whole?

We can imagine an unethical window repairman who has as part of his nefarious business plan the goal of smashing windows in order to raise demand for his business. This would certainly help his business – and yet we see that this course is almost never pursued in real life in the free market. Why not?

One obvious answer could be that business managers are afraid of going to jail – and that certainly is a risk, but not a very great one. Arsonists are notoriously hard to catch, for instance, and there are so many hard-to-trace sabotages that can be undertaken. Poison can be added to the water supply that would incriminate a water supplier, which would take months to resolve – at which point the trail would be long cold. Foreign hackers could be paid to infiltrate competitor’s networks, or mount denial-of-service attacks on their web sites – sure doom for those who sell over the Internet.

Not convinced? Well, what about eBay? If you have a competitor who’s taking away your business, why not just get a hundred of your closest friends to give him a bad rating, and watch his reputation – and business – dry up and blow away?

All of the above practices, while occasionally partaken of, are very rare in the free market, for three main reasons. The first is that they are costly; the second is that they increase risks, and the third is the fear of retaliation.

The Cost of Destruction
If you want to hire an arsonist to torch the factory of your competition, you have to become an expert in underworld negotiations. You might pay your money and have the arsonist take off to Hawaii instead of setting the fire. You also face the risk of your arsonist taking your offer to your competitor and asking for money to not set the fire – or, worse, return the favor and torch your factory! It will certainly cost money to start down the road of vandalism, and there is no guarantee that your investment will pay off in the way you want.

There are other tertiary costs to pursuing a path of ‘competition by destruction’. You can only target one competitor at a time, which is only partially helpful, since most businesses face many competitors simultaneously – some local, and some overseas and probably out of reach. Even if you are successful in destroying your competitor, you have opened a ‘hole’ in the market, which will just invite others to come in – and perhaps compete even more fiercely with you. When it comes to competition, in most cases it is better to stay with ‘the devil you know’. It wouldn’t make much sense to knock out a software competitor, for instance, and end up giving Microsoft a good reason to enter the market.

Also, if you are a business owner, competition is very good for you. Just as a sports team gets lazy and unskilled if it never plays a competent opponent, businesses without competition get unproductive, lazy and inefficient – a sure invitation to others to come in and compete. Successful businesses need competition to stay fit. Resistance breeds strength.

Also, what happens if you do manage to successfully sabotage your opponents? If you do it right, no one has any idea that you are behind the sudden spate of arson. Well, what happens to your insurance? It goes through the roof – if you can even get any! With random arsonists around, your most competent employees will probably start looking for other jobs, hoping to avoid being burned to death – or even just face the risk of a work stoppage due to arson. Thus you have increased your costs and destabilized the loyalty of your best employees – creating a dangerous situation where competitors are highly motivated to enter your field just when you are the most vulnerable to competition! Overall, not a very bright idea!

The Risk of Destruction
Let’s say you decide to pay Stan to go and torch your competitor’s factory – well, the basic fact of the transaction is that Stan, as a professional arsonist, knows how to work the situation to his advantage far better than you do, since you are, ahem, new to the field. Stan knows that no matter what he does, you cannot go to the police for protection. What if he tapes your conversation and then blackmails you? Then your exercise in amoral competition suddenly becomes a lifelong nightmare of expense, guilt, fear and rage! Verrry bad!

As mentioned above, what if Stan decides to go to your competitor and reveal your plan? Surely your competitor would pay good money for that information, since he could then go to the police and destroy you legally even more completely than you were hoping to destroy him illegally? No, a basic fact of criminal activity is that once the gloves come off, the results become very hard to predict indeed!

And what if Stan goes to your competitor and says: “For $25,000, I was supposed to torch this place – for $30,000 I can just turn around and set quite a different fire!” This pendulum bidding war can turn into a desperately stressful money-loser for everyone concerned (except Stan, of course!).

And who is to say that Stan is even a ‘legitimate’ arsonist? What if he is an undercover agent of some kind? What if he has been sent by someone else in order to get some dirt on you? What if it turns to be blackmail or a set-up by your competitor. How would you know? Again – very risky!

The Risk of Retaliation
Let’s say that all of the above works out just the way you want it, and Stan goes and torches your competitor’s factory – well, what might happen then? You have just created a bitter enemy with nothing to lose who suspects foul play and knows that you have a good motive for torching his place! He’s going to hire private investigators and put an ad in every local paper offering a cash reward of a million dollars for information leading to proof of your participation – so he can sue you and recover far more than a million dollars!

Either your new enemy will find out actionable information, and then go to the police, or he will find out unactionable information – hints, not proof – in which case he may choose to retaliate against you. Since you’ve been able to do it in a way that cannot be proven – and he now knows how – you have just educated a bitter and angry man on how to torch a factory and escape detection. Are you going to sleep safe in your bed? Are you sure that he’s going to only target your factory?

What does all this look like in terms of economic calculation? Have a look at a sample table below showing costs and benefits of competition through arson. If we assign arson a cost of $50k, with a 50% probability of success, and a resulting economic benefit of $1m, we see a net benefit of $450k (50% of $1m - $50k in costs). So far so good. But if we include a 10% risk of blackmail, a 20% chance of retaliation, a 25% chance of increased competition – all very low numbers – and finally $100k in increased insurance and security costs – we can see that the economic benefits are erased very quickly (see below).

(Note that the above table only shows the economic calculations – these do not include the emotional factors of guilt, fear and worry, which are of great significance but hard to quantify. This is important because even if the above numbers are disagreeable, the emotional barrier would still have to be overcome.)

No, as the above conservative example shows, it’s not really worth it to attempt economic gain through the destruction of property. And that is exactly how it should be. We want people to be good, of course, but we also want strong economic incentives for virtue as well, to shore up the uncertain integrity of free will!

How does this relate to war and the State? Very closely, in fact – but with very opposite effects!

The economics of war are, at bottom, very simple, and contain three major players: those who decide on war, those who profit from war, and those who pay for war. Those who decide on war are the politicians, those who profit from it are those who supply military materials or are paid for military skills, and those who pay for war are the taxpayers. (The first and second group, of course, overlap.)

In other words, a corporation which profits from supplying arms to the military is paid through a predation on citizens through State taxation – and under no other circumstances could the transaction exist, since the risks associated with destruction outlined above are equal to or greater than any profit that could be made.

Now certainly if those who decided on war also paid for it, there would be no such thing as war, since war follows the same economic incentives and costs outlined above.

However, those who decide on war do not pay for it – that unpleasant task is relegated to the taxpayers (both current, in the form of direct taxes, and future, in the form of national debts).

Let’s see how the above analysis of the costs of destruction change when the State enters the equation.

The Cost of Destruction
If you want to start a war, you need a very expensive military – which must also be maintained when there is no war. There is simply no way to recover the costs of that military by invading another country – otherwise, the free market would directly fund armies and invasions, which it never does. Or, if you’d prefer another way of looking at it, you can only invade another country by destroying large portions of it, killing many of its citizens, and then fighting endless insurgencies. Given the costs of invasions and occupations – always in the hundreds of millions or billions of dollars – what profit can be conceivably gained from the bombed-out country you are occupying? That would be like asking a thief to make money by fire-bombing a house he wanted to steal from, and then staying and keep the occupants hostage! Nonsense. Thieves don’t operate that way – and neither would war, without the presence of the State and the money of the taxpayers.

Since the money of the taxpayers pays for the war, the costs of destruction are almost nothing. While it’s true that those who profit from the war also pay the taxes need to support the war effort, they pay it to an equal degree as all their competitors, and the amount they pay in taxes is far less than they receive in profits – again, facts we know because there are always people willing and eager to supply the military.

The Risk of Destruction
Those who decide on war and those who profit from war only do so when there is no real risk of destruction. This is a simple historical fact, which can be gleaned from the fact that no nuclear power has even declared war on another nuclear power. The US gave the USSR money and wheat, and yet invades Grenada, Haiti and Iraq. (In fact, one of the central reasons it was possible to know in advance that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction capable of hitting the US was that the US was willing to invade it!)

Avoiding the risk of destruction was the reason that the USSR and the US (to take two obvious examples) fought ‘proxy wars’ in out of the way places like Afghanistan, Vietnam and Korea. As we shall see below, the fact that the risk of destruction is shifted to taxpayers (and taxpayer-funded soldiers) considerably changes the economic equation.

The Risk of Retaliation
The ‘risk of retaliation’ in economic calculations regarding war should not be taken as a general risk, but rather a specific one – i.e. specific to those who either decide on war or profit from it. For example, FDR knew that blockading Japan in the early 1940s carried a grave risk of retaliation – but only against distant and unknown US personnel in the Pacific, not against those in Washington. (In fact, the blockading was specifically escalated with the aim of provoking retaliation, in order to bring the US into WWII.)

If other people are exposed to the risk of retaliation, the risk becomes a moot point from an amoral economic standpoint. If I smoke, but you get lung cancer, my decision to continue smoking will certainly be affected!

Externalizing Military Risk
The power of the State to so powerfully shift the costs and benefits of violence is one of the most central facts of warfare – and the core reason for its continued existence. As we can see from the above table regarding arson, if the person who decides to profit through destruction faces the consequences himself, he has almost no economic incentive to do so. However, if he can shift the risks and losses to others – but retain the benefit himself – the economic landscape changes completely! Sadly, it then it becomes profitable, say, to tax citizens to pay for 800 US military bases around the world, as long as strangers in New York bear the brunt of the inevitable retaliation! It also becomes profitable to send uneducated youngsters to Iraq to bear the brunt of the insurgency.

Externalizing Emotional Discomfort
The fact that the State shifts the burden of risk and payment to the taxpayers and soldiers is very important in emotional terms. If the ‘arson’ example could be tweaked to provide a profit – say, by reducing the risks of blackmail or retaliation – the other risks would still accrue to the man contemplating such violence. Such risks would cause emotional discomfort in all but the most rare and sociopathic personalities – and the generation of negative stimuli such as fear, guilt and worry would still require more profit than the model can generate.

Thus the fact that the existence of the State externalizes almost all the risks and costs of destruction is a further positive motivation to those who would use the power of State violence for their own ends. Once you throw in endless pro-war propaganda (also called ‘war-nography’), the emotional benefits of wars funded by others can become a definite positive – which ensures that wars will continue until the State collapses or the world dies.

In Other Words, The State Is War
If the above is understood, then the hostility of anarcho-capitalists towards the State should now be a little clearer. In the anarcho-capitalist view, the State is a fundamental moral evil not only because it uses violence to achieve its ends, but also because it is the only social agency capable of making war economically advantageous to those with the power to declare it and profit from it. In other words, it is only through the governmental power of taxation that war can be subsidized to the point where it becomes profitable to certain sections of society. Destruction can only ever be profitable because the costs and risks of violence are shifted to the taxpayers, while the benefits accrue to the few who directly control or influence the State.

This violent distortion of costs, incentives and rewards cannot be controlled or alleviated, since an artificial imbalance of economic incentives will always self-perpetuate and escalate (at least, until the inevitable bankruptcy of the public purse). Or, to put it another way, as long as the State exists, we shall always live with the terror of war. To oppose war is to oppose the State. They can neither be examined in isolation nor opposed separately, since – much more than metaphorically – the State and war are two sides of the same bloody coin.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Welfare and the Argument from Morality

In my last article on, I used the argument from morality to approach the problem of health care. Today I would like to show how it can be used to prove the immorality of welfare.

We’ll be as kind as possible and define welfare as the redistribution of money and resources from the rich to the poor, with the state as the enforcing agency. To simplify the math, we’ll say that there are three categories of people: those who make less than $10,000 per year, those who make between $10,000 and $20,000 per year, and those who make more than $20,000 per year. The welfare system in place is equally simple – those who make more than $20,000 per year are taxed to provide money to ‘top up’ those making less than $10,000 per year, to ensure they have at least $10k per year. Those making between 10k and 20k per year are left alone.

So one fine dinner party, you are sitting across from a lady who expresses admiration for this scheme. “Expecting any family to survive on less than ten thousand a year is inhuman,” she says. “We have a duty to help the less fortunate, and asking the rich to give up a little of their income is right and proper!”

Of course the first thing to do is point out that she is in fact damning the welfare system, since she is couching her approval of it in terms of charity and voluntarism. She is saying that ‘asking’ the rich to help the poor is moral – and so forcing them must be immoral, since it is the opposite action in ethical terms. Asking a woman to go on a date with me is not immoral – forcing her to is!

Thus this fine lady must clarify her terms and tell you that, in fact, she approves of using State violence to achieve her goals of helping the poor. You can then say, if you like, something along the lines of the following:

“Advocating the use of violence to achieve an end is a very serious business indeed, and is not a position that should be taken lightly. Once you decide that guns should decide matters between men, it is almost impossible to put them away. We know from history that giving the government power to use violence usually results in some form of dictatorship, and often the incarceration, starvation or murder of many millions. I am certainly not saying that you are advocating anything like that, but I’m sure that you will agree that governments do not always use their powers wisely or well.”

This lady will (perhaps grudgingly), agree that there is a grave risk in giving the government the power to use violence to achieve its ends – as there is in approving any use of violence other than pure self-defense.

The reason that I have added this wrinkle to the argument from morality is that it takes the discussion out of the academic world. Once everyone at the dinner table understands the terrible risks of advocating state violence, the importance of the subsequent discussion becomes much clearer (and, dare I say, more dramatic and interesting?).

Then, you can outline the proposed welfare state framework: every citizen has a right to a minimum income of $10,000 per year, which means that those making more than $20,000 per year must be forced to ‘top up’ the income of the poor man.

This welfare state thus contains three moral categories – those who are ‘owed’ money (Tribe A), those who are left alone (Tribe B), and those who ‘owe’ money (Tribe C). Those who inhabit those categories are subject to opposite moral rules – those in Tribe A have a moral right to the money of those in Tribe C. Those in Tribe C have a moral obligation to provide money to those in Tribe A, while in this scenario those in Tribe B have no specific rights or obligations at all.

Universal moral theories – like any scientific, mathematical or logical theories – must be absolute, consistent and independent of time – otherwise, they are mere subjective opinions. Certainly any moral absolutes that are to be enforced through state coercion must satisfy those criteria, since the legal power of the state is absolute, universal, consistent and independent of time! If we advocate irrational and contradictory moral laws, we will inevitably end up with an irrational and contradictory legal system, which is a central aspect of dictatorship.

The above example of a welfare scheme fails each of the tests of universality. The ‘right’ to a minimum income is not absolute, since it requires another person to fulfil it, and the same man can have that right one day, when he makes $9,999 per year, and not have that right the next day, when he gets a raise and now makes $10,001.

Also, the $10,000 cut off is somewhat subjective, since there is no objective way to measure $10,000. Inflation is a constant occurrence, and strikes different sectors to different degrees. Purchasing power varies depending on the goods being purchased, and the cost of living differs greatly depending on location. Thus $10,000 might be a decent income in a small town, but starvation wages in a large metropolis. Does the ‘minimum income’ then change from location to location and depending on inflation and sector-by-sector circumstances? Is it updated daily? Should it be posted on the Internet? What if the poor person is an economist? Can he then take money from the rich according to his own calculations?

Also, what if the income differential is a single solitary penny – does a man making $9,999.99 have the right to use violence to gain the penny he is owed from a woman making $20,000.01? What degree of violence is acceptable? Is murder allowed? For a penny? That seems somewhat indefensible – and thus the ‘welfare’ rule is not absolute. What degree of violence is allowed to recover what amount of money? It cannot be determined in advance, and so cannot be an absolute moral rule.

What about the man who gets a raise from $19,000 to $21,000 – at what point does he suddenly start owing the money? When he gets the raise? When he cashes his first check? What if his raise just allows his income to keep pace with inflation? What if his wife has just given birth to triplets? What if his mother has gotten sick and needs live in help? Also, if his raise occurs half-way through the year, does he have to pay for the whole year, or just six months?

What if a bad waiter making $10,000 per year suddenly starts becoming rude to his customers, and so loses $500 worth of tips – does he have an absolute right to have his rudeness subsidized by an polite waiter making $20,500?

Also, what about those who had lower taxes before this new welfare scheme was introduced? Is it fair that they got to accumulate all their assets prior to the imposition of the new taxes the welfare scheme requires? Since the moral rule of a ‘minimum income’ is a universal absolute, it must have been true for all time, not just for today and tomorrow. Those who didn’t pay their just dues in the past, then, were in fact stealing from the poor, since if the poor now have a right to the money of the wealthy, they have always had the right to said money. It cannot be moral or fair, then, that those who stole money from the poor in the past should now have their thefts subsidized by those who have to pay higher taxes in the present and future. What is to be done about this situation? Surely we must strip the unjustly-stolen property accumulated by the wealthy before we can even imagine taking money from a young man with no property taking home his first $21,000 paycheck!

At what age does a citizen suddenly have the right to his $10,000 per year? Eighteen? Well then please explain exactly what happens to that young man between 11:59pm and 12:00am on the night of his birthday! How can his moral rights change so much in one split second? Also, isn’t that a small but still unfair subsidy to those who were born early in the morning rather than late at night?

However, we don’t have to nit-pick the idea into atoms, since it will be as foolish and silly even if we grant its initial premises – so let’s wave our magic wand and dismiss all of the above objections. Even so, all we have done is establish that poor men have the right to the property of wealthier men – and that they have the right to use violence to collect on those debts.

And how would this work in practice? Well, if I have paid you for a sofa, and I come to collect it, and you attempt to stop me, I can use self-defense to protect myself and my property from your aggression, since I am the legal owner of the sofa. Under this moral theory, if I am a poor man, a portion of the ‘property’ of a richer men is in fact my property, and I can walk into his house and collect it – and if he attempts to stop me from picking up my property, I can use whatever force is necessary to protect myself! There is no need for any form of State intervention of any kind – all we need do is turn the poor loose in rich neighborhoods for justice to become manifest!

What? That isn’t a good idea? Why not? Do you feel that the poor may be themselves unjust, and take more of the property of the rich than they should? Do you feel that the rich may unjustly defend themselves against the poor? Do you feel that general mayhem and violent predation will result? Yes? Then why do you assume that the result will be any different from a government-run program?

Remember – the government is nothing but an aggregation of individuals – and so any moral judgment that you apply to individuals you also apply to those running the government! You think that people in a mob can lose their rational self-interest in a collective orgy of self-righteous greed? Yes? Well, if it is true for a gang rampaging through a rich man’s house, then it is equally true for politicians, bureaucrats and voters! If you believe that turning the poor loose to prey on the rich would result in blind chaos and violent mayhem, then draping that in a ‘government program’ will not change its moral reality or eventual outcome! In fact, using the violent power of the State it will make it worse, since government programs virtually eliminate the effort required to prey on the property of others. Emailing one’s congressman is far easier than rampaging through the streets of the rich – who might have iron gates, guard dogs, bodyguards and very different definitions of property rights!

And what about this – on balance, would you say that those on the rampage would be more likely, or less likely, to take property from those they knew were not at home? If more likely, then by golly you have recognized the basic fact that people prefer taking property from the defenseless. If you have grasped that, you already understand one of the greatest evils of government programs – that they always end up stealing from the unborn, in the forms of national debts, or liabilities like Medicaid/Medicare, or social security and other such predations on children.

And if armed gangs of looters worries you, then you are concerned about the problem of those taking property outnumbering those who trying to defend their property – but what, then, do you think happens in a democracy? The poor outnumber the rich – and politicians always pander to those with the most votes – and so what is the difference between looting gangs and looting voters?

What? You say that those who live in a rich neighborhood will take steps to protect themselves from the looting poor? And just how do you think that differs from a modern democracy? Do you think that complications in the tax codes benefit the rich, or the middle classes? Offshore accounts, trust funds, R&D tax credits, self-employment, state contracts, subsidies and preferential trade laws – are these the tools of the average salary slave? Do you not know that the rich hold up the middle classes as human shields for the poor to savage?

No, if you do not like the idea of the poor racing through the streets, breaking into houses and snatching what they think is theirs, then you have no right supporting state programs that grant all the mad profit of such crimes while removing all the risk. If you did not like what Baghdad looked like in 2003, or New Orleans in 2005, then take careful note – these are mirrors of what is actually occurring in our economy. And this is the world you inevitably bring into being when you support government programs.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

False Forgiveness

This weekend, my wife asked me my opinion of a particular chapter in a ‘self help’ book she was reading. I did so, and was suitably horrified, because although I know that the world is in terrible shape, and everyone seems to believe false things, I can still be shocked.

The basic gist of the chapter was that if you have been wronged, the highest and most exalted state you can achieve is one of pure forgiveness. The key idea was that everyone chooses the best course of action based on their knowledge and development at the time – and so, the person who wronged you was doing the best they possibly could. Thus it is essential that you ‘not judge’ others, otherwise you will ‘become trapped’ by your own judgments, and become harsh, self-hating and unforgiving.

Of course, not a single shred of evidence or logic was presented to back this idea up. Instead, vague threats about ‘getting stuck’ in anger or ‘refusing to let go’ were made. Plato showed up, as he often does when windy nonsense fills the air.

However, since it is high time that we as a species grew up and stopped indulging in foggy mental obscurations, let’s take this on, shall we?

There are a very large number of mental activities that we can have opinions about, but cannot control in the least. We may be shocked and appalled by the contents of our nightly dreams, but we can’t do anything to alter them, other than engage in the long-term pursuit of wisdom and self-knowledge. We may wish to fall asleep, but it is largely outside of our control if we are light sleepers. We may prefer not to think on a certain topic, but if our brain leads us there, so be it. We may prefer not to be guilty if we have done wrong, but it happens nonetheless. We may desire sloth, smoking, gluttony and good health, but we cannot have them all.

Love, as well, is absolutely outside of our control. Love is like physical health – it exists as an involuntary state, which depends on a number of practical habits. Weight control, for instance, requires exercise and calorie management. Love requires moral behaviour and sound mental habits. If you are good, then you can love and be loved. If you are not, love will never come to you. The state of love cannot be pursued – the actions which produce love can be. You have no control over ‘health’ – only the actions which produce it. You have no control over ‘love’ – only the actions which produce it. Love cannot be produced by words – any more than repeating the word ‘exercise’ constitutes a work-out.

The same is true of forgiveness. Forgiveness arises not from the will of the wronged, but only from the genuine contrition of the wrong-doer. Like health, it exists as an involuntary state, which depends on the actions of another. Obviously, you cannot have a loving – or even friendly – relationship with me if I wish you harm. If I harm you, it can only be through malice, ignorance or accident. If I am going to pick you up in a car, I can either pick you up, run you over on purpose, forget to show up, or hit you by accident. If I pick you up, all is well. If I run you over on purpose, all is not well. If I forget to show up, all may be well, since forgetfulness is a fact of life. If I hit you by accident, all may be well, since accidents also occur – unless this one was due to carelessness or drunkenness on my part.

If I run you over on purpose, then forgiveness is impossible. The purpose of forgiveness is not to repair the past, since that is impossible, but to repair the future. If I run you over because I am angry at you, how could you ever trust me again? Let’s say that I am so horrified by my own actions that I enter therapy and learn why I am so malevolent. Let’s say that I emerge from therapy a kinder, gentler person. In other words, I always had the capacity to stop being malevolent, but chose not to.

This is an essential concept. If I harm you, and then beg your forgiveness by promising to correct my behaviour, then I am saying that I could have corrected by behaviour in the past, but chose not to. If I sleep around on my wife, and then promise never to do it again, then obviously I could have chosen not to sleep around on her in the past as well. I am damned either way. I can only excuse my past behaviour by claiming that it was very hard to remain faithful. But if it was very hard, then I obviously cannot be trusted in the future. I can only be trusted in the future if it is easy to change my ways. But if it is easy to change my ways, then surely it was easy to change them in the past – and so I have no excuse for my past behaviour!

Thus conscious wrongdoing can never be forgiven. It is logically impossible, and vain to even try. If you try, you will only be fooling yourself, like a smoker who pretends cigarettes are not dangerous. It has no effect on reality.

The question of what constitutes ‘conscious’ wrongdoing is often overcomplicated. ‘Conscious’ wrongdoing is simply wrongdoing that is hidden. If a mother beats her son at home, when they are alone, but refrains from doing it in public, where she can be seen, then her actions are malevolent. There’s really nothing else to it. If she refrains from beating her son in public, then she is capable of refraining from abusing him. Because she is capable of refraining from abuse, then she is malevolent. This is how we know the difference between moral evil and mental illness. A schizophrenic cannot stop hallucinating, even if he is offered a million dollars to do so. If offered the same million dollars, a man will stop beating his wife for a day.

Cultural issues have absolutely nothing to do with it. If a woman acts differently in private than in public, then she has the ability to control her behaviour. If she does not beat her children in front of a policeman, then cultural matters are irrelevant. She knows that it is wrong to beat your children, and so she wants to hide her crime. The moment she tries to conceal her or her wrongdoing, she reveals her naked malevolence.

Forgetfulness and accidents are a different matter, as long as they are not chronic, and steps are taken to avoid them or reduce their occurrence.

Thus forgiveness cannot be controlled by will, since it is an involuntary state responding to external reality. Forgiveness is a recognition that harm is very unlikely to come again from a particular person, because past harm arose from forgetfulness or accident, and is in the process of being addressed. Forgiveness depends on the actions of the wrong-doer, not the will of the victim.
So why is this view of ‘willed forgiveness’ so prevalent?

As always, simply follow the money.

Religion makes a great deal of profit from forgiveness. An evil man can pay the church for absolution. What would happen to those profits if forgiveness was recognized as the involuntary reaction that it is? Why, then the priest’s god would not have the power to forgive the evil man – and so neither could the priest. The bad man’s money would be forever lost to the church.

That would be unthinkable. The evil man can be neither reformed nor forgiven. Thus the priest goes to work on the victims, telling them that they must forgive the man who has harmed them. They must love him.

Thus the evil man is paying the priest for two services – the first is to pretend that he is not evil, and the second is to retain the false loyalty of those he has harmed.

If one views the economic dependency of old age, then the evil man is making a very sensible economic decision. He pays the priest, who then convinces the evil man’s children to continue supporting him when he gets old. The money that the evil man pays the priest is far less than the support he receives from his children as he ages. Thus it represents a current investment in future exploitation.

And the only way to combat this largely intergenerational corruption is to accept the fact that forgiveness are love are utterly beyond our control. If we are consciously harmed, then we cannot forgive, or love – and any fantasy to the contrary simply rewards those who have harmed us, and corrupts the world even further.

How Will We Win? (or: what will the weather be like in 2015?)

All freedom-lovers hunger for an answer to a basic and seemingly-essential question: when will we win? When will the headlong rush of State power be arrested – let alone reversed? We can we begin the process of exploring just how little violence is needed in a free society?

The odds are formidable, of course. The State has overwhelming force, almost all the money, control of education and the media, and massive phalanxes of well-bribed dependents. So how on earth are we going to win?

Here are my thoughts, for what they’re worth – but first, some methodology.

My first premise in examining our possibilities is to work with both current empirical and past historical evidence. My second is that it is only rational to apply our willpower to spheres we have the greatest effect on. The third is that the future of society as a whole is – except in the broadest categories – unpredictable. The fourth is that if we have ideas which we do not put into practice in the spheres we have the greatest effect on, they are not worth having at all.

So – first of all, we have to accept the fact that the current system is so embedded in the hearts, minds and wallets of the general population that no mere argument can prevail against it. From von Mises in the 1920s onward, over eighty of years of powerful arguments for the free market and limited government has done almost nothing to reduce the modern State’s continued aggregation of power, violence and wealth. I doubt anyone out there can write better philosophical novels than Ayn Rand’s, or better books than Adam Smith, Ludwig von Mises or Murray Rothbard.

Thus it seems fair to say that abstract argument, compelling evidence or passionate speeches will never grant us victory. The logic of the free market does not convince. The historical success of capitalism does not convince. The ongoing failures of government do not convince. Barn-burning speeches do not convince.

There is also no society in history that I have ever read about (I have a Masters in history from the University of Toronto) that has been able to reverse the growth of government power. From the ancient Egyptians to the Greeks to the Romans to the Enlightenment English and Americans to the Russians, Italians, Germans and modern Western societies in general, the pattern is everywhere and always the same: more state, more compulsion, more corruption, more democratic bribery, more debt, more taxes, more regulations – more of everything except freedom.

All such societies eventually and inevitably crash – and ours will be no exception. It is not a question of whether, but when. When will this crash occur? It is impossible to say. My own opinion is that within 10-15 years, everything will absolutely fall apart. The demands of the elderly for health care and pensions will shatter the economy, and a fascistic form of youth-power will emerge, as the young violently attempt to throw off the exploitation of the aged. (This is what happened in Germany and Italy in the 1930s.)

Sadly, history shows that institutional violence is a pandemic virus that must just run its course – it grows exponentially, peaks and then self-destructs. State violence becomes so deeply embedded in society (and so carefully hidden through the corruption of common sense) that its exponential growth cannot be stopped.

Thus it makes little sense for us to spend our energies attempting to oppose the state in its current form. Governments were far smaller in the 1920s than they are now, and the freedom movement failed to restrain their growth even then – what chance do we have now? We must look elsewhere to effect change.

If the lesson of the past is that argument and reason do not work, the question becomes: what will?

The first thing to recognize is that we only have control over our own thoughts and actions – controlling others is impossible save through violence, and violence can never build a free society. Thus we can only change our own behaviour, not the minds of others. (Changing our own thoughts and behaviours will have an effect on the thoughts and behaviours of others, but that effect cannot be predicted in advance.)

We currently live in a society so bereft of logic and evidence that people generally judge the truth of a belief based on the passion and conviction of the speaker. Knowing the truth is all well and good, but we will never convince anyone until we act on it. Thus freedom-lovers must display the greatest possible integrity if freedom is to have any chance at all.

This simple fact is the greatest challenge involved in advocating freedom. If I oppose state violence, but remain ‘friends’ with those who support it, they immediately understand that I are merely posturing, and my ideas mean very little. If I constantly say that I passionately oppose racism, but continue to associate with outright racists, what does that say about my convictions? Won’t they appear little more than a shallow form of oppositional pomposity?

If, on the other hand, I make my convictions clear to those around me – and then refuse to associate with those who reject them – then I am beginning to treat the truth with the seriousness it deserves.

For instance, if I oppose the initiation of force used in the invasion of Iraq, and make the case to my friends and family, I must insist that they either refute my case or accept my position. If they do neither, I have a choice. I can either reject my beliefs, or stop associating with them. There is no honourable ‘third way’.

In the 19th century, the abolitionists who successfully opposed slavery didn’t sit around endlessly arguing with slave-owners. They made their case, and then refused to associate with anyone who turned a deaf ear to reason and evidence. The fact that they took their ideas so seriously helped society in general see that the ideas themselves were serious.

Thus if we love freedom, we must stand for the truth against all social convention. This hard, of course, but wins us several significant benefits.

The first – and most important – benefit is that we rid our lives of irrational people, and so of empty and difficult relationships. We can never gain satisfaction from any ‘relationship’ based on conformity, accidental family history or a rejection of what we know is good and true and right.

If you refuse to give up either your beliefs or your false friends, you undermine the cause of truth in an abhorrent fashion. You may choose to betray the truth for the sake of social conformity, but at least have the decency to stop pretending that the truth is at all important – if you don’t, you make it that much harder for the rest of us!

What is important in life is not family, or spouses, or careers, or money – but truth, integrity, morality and rationality. The reason for this is purely practical – nothing in life is worth a damn if it is not earned honestly. Whether we like it or not, we are so constituted that truth and integrity are all that can give us joy. We can only truly relate to people through a mutual respect for reality and rationality – everything else is habit and illusion and corrupting conformity, and will only bring us pain in the long run.

Thus don’t worry about the State or how we will ‘bring it down’. The first step is to recognize that rationality is its own reward. Standing up for what is right – although difficult – will bring you deep and intense pleasure – and ditching the corrupt and blind people around you will give you self-respect, since you won’t be playing both sides of the fence anymore.

The State will likely fall of its own accord. We cannot predict when, or what will follow. We only know that speaking the truth and living with integrity is the greatest service we can do for the truth, reality, goodness – and those who will come after us, who we hope, if we fail, will inherit our thoughts and take their own stand.

The Argument from Morality in Action: The Right to Health Care

Those who have read my recent series of articles on know that I believe that libertarians can achieve great success by using the argument from morality. This argument demands that those who propose moral theories must prove that those theories are both consistent, universal and absolute. Since the only way to know the difference between an opinion (“I like ham!”) and a fact (“Ham comes from pigs”) is through consistent logical analysis, anyone who claims that their moral prescription is a fact must prove their case.

I thought it might be interesting to subject a well-known and contentious topic to the argument from morality, to see how this theory might shake out in practice. I chose health care, since I live in Canada, where our friendly neighbourhood state maintains a rigid grip on medical services. (To my friends in the US, just imagine you are 10-15 years in the future!)

The proposition that is generally believed here in Canada is: everyone has a right to health care. (In the US, generally, it is: the poor have a right to health care.)

Faced with this proposition, libertarians generally point out that government-run health care is inefficient, debt-ridden, coercive, unsustainable, slow and subject to pressure-group influence – and that is all true, but the sad fact is that these arguments don’t work because people just don’t care about efficiency. If the poor have a right to health care, it doesn’t matter if it’s difficult to provide. It’s like telling a couple with a new baby that babies are expensive, exhausting, loud and so on – who cares? They have to take care of their baby. Practical arguments never trump arguments from morality.

To oppose the government, then, we have to take aim against the soft underbelly of the beast, which is the moral absolutes that all government programs feed on.

So – if you find yourself chatting with a man who says that the poor have a right to health care, you can begin by asking him if that is just his opinion, or if it is an objective fact. If it is just his opinion, then you can say sure – that you would also like a Lamborghini and Brad Pitt’s washboard abs, and part as friends, since the law cannot be used to enforce opinions. If, however, he replies that it is an objective fact, then you can begin the rather enjoyable process of getting him to prove his thesis.

If a moral proposition is a fact, than it must be true for all people, and for all time – just as a physics theory must be true for all matter, and for all time. If not – if there is a single exception – then it fails.

Here are some problems with the proposition that everyone has a right to health care.

In the realm of medicine, there are three categories of people. The first is those who are sick, the second is those who are healthy – and the third (a subset of the first two) are those who provide health care. For the sake of brevity, let’s call the sick group Joe Ailing; the healthy Donna Vital and the health care providers Doctor Al Truism.

As long as Joe is healthy, Dr Al owes him nothing. As soon as Joe gets sick, Dr Al now owes him a debt which he is morally obligated to pay off. However, this moral commandment fails the test of universality. Joe is a man, and Dr Al is a man, and yet they are both subject to opposing moral rules at the same time, since Joe is ethically entitled to resources, and Dr Al is ethically required to provide them. When Joe becomes ill, Dr Al suddenly owes him money, time and resources, without reference to any sort of contract. How can that be resolved? How can two men be subjected to both absolute and opposite moral rules at the same time? Have their fundamental natures changed? If not, then the moral absolute that everyone has a right to health care fails, just as a physics theory which posits that, at the same time, one rock falls down, and another falls up, also fails.

Ahhh, if only it were as simple as a single paragraph! Let’s continue. What about the test of time? Theories which claim universal absolutes must also be true without regard for time. Murder cannot be wrong today, but right yesterday. This is clearly not the case with Joe. One day, he has no right to Dr Al’s time and money. However, the next day, he has an absolute right to them. When exactly does this occur? At what point in time does Al become subject to these new and opposite moral rules? How many symptoms does he have to have? What if his illness is imaginary, or psychosomatic, or he is a hypochondriac? How severe does his illness have to be for the complete reversal of this moral right to occur? If he has a cold, can he demand treatment at 2am? Does that right change at 9am? And does Joe even have to be sick? What if he’s just curious about Avian flu? Can he drop in for a nice chat with his doctor about that? And if he does, what about the right to health care of everyone else in Dr Al’s waiting room?

Of course, the argument can come back that Joe must be sick, and that is the substantive difference between Joe and Dr Al, which is why they are subjected to opposite moral rules. Very well – even though illness (except for very rare forms of mental illness) does not change a man’s moral nature – let us take it on faith that there is a substantive moral difference between healthy and sick people.

In this case, the proposition that everyone has a right to health care becomes more problematic, not less! Can the following questions be answered objectively and rationally? What degree of illness is required to change Joe’s moral nature? Does a cold suffice? What about stubbing his toe? There is no objective line that can be drawn. But even if a moral line could be drawn, what about preventative medical care? If Joe has a right to health care, then we can assume that he has the right to regular check ups. Thus if Joe goes to Dr Al for an exam and is pronounced perfectly healthy, Joe is not sick – and so the presence of illness cannot be used to claim any substantive moral difference. How, then, can Joe and Dr Al, as healthy males, be subjected to diametrically opposite moral rules at the same time and in the same room? The question cannot be answered.

And what about Dr Al himself? Doubtless he also has the right to health care, and so can go to Dr Bob for a check up. Thus one day, Dr Al is morally obligated to provide heath care to Joe. The very next day, Dr Al has the moral right to demand health care from Dr Bob – and while he is being examined, is not required to provide health care to anyone else. Thus moral absolutes are constantly changing – and sometimes for the same person overnight – which makes no sense, and invalidates the moral absolute that everyone has the right to health care.

The wonderful thing about false moral premises is that, no matter how they are approached, they always fall apart. So let’s take another tack and see how this nonsense unravels.

Let’s say that all the above problems and contradictions have been magically solved, and we have justified the premise that the sick have the right to health care. In other words, we accept that, when Joe gets sick, Dr Al owes him a debt. So what? That doesn’t mean that the government should take control of anything. We already have a legal system in place to facilitate debt collection – and so we don’t need any additional agencies. Since Dr Al owes Joe a debt, Joe can just use the legal system to collect it! If Dr Al doesn’t ‘pay’ Joe the services he is ‘owed,’ then Joe just takes him to court and all is well.

All right – let’s just see where this little premise takes us. If everyone who is sick is ‘owed’ services by everyone who can provide health care – if it is a universal moral absolute – then everyone with any form of ailment – or who desires any form of check up or preventative care – can take any doctor to court for restitution. Given a world population of 6 billion, we can assume that hundreds of millions of men, women and children are in need of health care at any given time – all of whom have the absolute moral right to sue Dr Al for what he ‘owes’ them (and so the justice system also ‘owes’ them resources as well!). Does that sound like a good idea? Yet that is where the moral theory takes us.

If that doesn’t sound like a good idea, how about this? If someone has stolen my car, I am completely within my rights to go and get it back – using force if necessary. Thus if Dr Al owes his services to anyone who is sick, then hundreds of millions of people have the right to go and extract those services from him – by force if necessary! Sound like a good idea? Yet there it is.

And why would the theory that everyone has the right to health care apply only to services provided by doctors? What if I possess some kind of medical knowledge that might be helpful to anyone out there? What if I’ve gone on a diet and know what works? What if I’m an athlete who’s learned about sports injuries? What if I’m a diabetic who’s learned how to manage my symptoms? Does everyone who can benefit from my medical knowledge have a right to my expertise?

Let’s take another angle. Those who provide health care services ‘owe’ health care to the sick. But who is that exactly? Doctors, sure – but what about nurses? Receptionists? The phone companies who maintain the lines? The petroleum companies that supply the gas that powers the ambulances? The janitors who nightly clean up the offices of the insurance companies? The investors who lend money to pharmaceutical companies? The teacher who instructs the computer programmer who writes a medical billing system? What about the babysitter who looks after the kids of the nurse so she can work a night shift? Does the babysitter also ‘owe’ services to the sick? Can she be sued if she doesn’t show up, and the nurse has to cancel her shift? Where can the line be objectively drawn between those who provide health care services and those who do not? Isn’t the moral theory of a ‘right’ to health care obviously foolish, illogical, subjective and unworkable?

But let’s say that somehow the above problems have all been solved – here’s another problem. When does a woman in the process of becoming a doctor switch from someone with a right to receive health care to someone with an obligation to provide it? In other words, since from one day to the next she becomes subjected to completely opposite moral absolutes, what changes in her nature? Does she somehow become a different species? And at what objective point does it occur? It’s certainly not the first day of her classes – and yet it is also not ten years into her career. Is it at 12:01am on the day before she sees her first patient? Is that when she flips into this alternate and opposite moral universe? Think about how silly this is as a moral theory – 12:00am, she is owed health care – 12:01am, she owes everyone else health care. Madness!

If people have a right to health care, then can Dr Al take a vacation? Can he retire? Is he obligated to answer health questions while on vacation? What if he doesn’t? What if he decides to quit medicine and become an actor? Is he no longer required to provide health care? Why not? What has changed? How can moral rules switch so randomly for the same person? How can this be called any kind of consistent and logical moral theory?

So far we have only been talking about the sick and the doctors – Joe and Dr Al – but usually at this point in the argument, we see the entrance of Donna Vital, the healthy taxpayer. In order to solve the above problems, it turns out that Joe does not have the right to Dr Al’s services, but rather has the right to Donna’s money so that he can pay for Dr Al’s services. This solves some of the problems outlined above – but raises even more substantial silliness!

The transactional sequence of the “taxpayer” solution is that sick people have the right to the money of healthy people – including those who provide health care – as long as that money is used to pay for health care. Thus it doesn’t matter how much money you pay into the system – you are owed health care even if you’re a new immigrant, or a baby. Very well. What are the results of this excellent moral theory?

So Joe gets strep throat, and wants to see Dr Al. On the way, he just has to make a quick stop at Donna’s house to pick up the cash. He can take a gun if he wants, since his right to health care is a moral absolute. Doesn’t that sound like a fabulous idea? What if she’s not home – should Joe go to her neighbour? What if her neighbour doesn’t have the money?

Of course, it’s never presented that way. Cloaked in the magical fog of government force, the problem of individual use of violence is bypassed and buried in sentimental rhetoric. So let’s take that as an axiom, and say that the government has the right to take Sally’s money and give it to Joe to pay Dr Al – or pay Dr Al directly after Joe visits him. What could be wrong with that?

Well, nothing at all – except that the above is a mere description of the uses of violence, and has nothing to do with any moral theory whatsoever. If I say that stealing is wrong for everyone, that’s a moral theory. If I say that stealing is wrong for everyone except for people named ‘Joe’ between the hours of nine to five, I’ve expressed a random and rather silly opinion, not a moral theory. If I say that everyone has a right to health care, that’s a moral theory which can be examined rationally – however, if I say that some people have a right to limited degrees of health care under certain circumstances, and that only certain other people have a right to procure that by the use of force while wearing certain blue-colored clothing, and then only to a certain degree, and that doctors must provide health care, unless they’re on vacation, or it’s after 5pm, and so on and blah de blah – then that’s not any sort of moral theory, but just a bunch of silly and self-contradictory statements that don’t even add up to a coherent subjective opinion, let alone a consistent and objective proposition. It would be like proposing a scientific theory which says that sometimes rocks fall up, and sometimes they fall down – and sometimes they fall up and down (and sideways!) at the same time! A person proposing such a theory invites a prescription for lithium far more than a rational response!

Let’s take one final example. If something is moral, then it must have been moral for as long as men have been rational. Murder cannot be wrong today but right yesterday. Thus the poor have always and everywhere had a right to heath care. Does that mean that any doctor throughout history who ever charged a patient was immoral? Dental care is health care, but here in Canada dentists charge for their services – are they then immoral? My wife charges her patients – is she immoral? Is every American doctor immoral relative to Canadian doctors? If not, why not?

And finally, if the belief that everyone has the right to health care is based on people’s right to goods and services that give them life, then food and water are more critical than health care – and yet no one is advocating that the government take over all the farms and supermarkets? Why not?

Why is this so important? Why bother with all this logical analysis? Well, because the power of the State rests entirely upon supposedly-universal moral theories. Opposing the consequences of government programs has no effect – as we have seen for decades – if people believe that government programs are moral. If someone claims a moral absolute, they must be responsible enough to know what they are talking about. A moral absolute puts guns on the street – it puts people in jail, and sets the whole machinery of state violence in unstoppable motion. If you meet a man who advocates the use of violence to solve social or economic problems, you must insist that he must submit his moral premises to rigorous and relentless logical examination – if he does not, then he is just calling for universal violence to enforce his opinions, which is a very great evil.

Moral beliefs are irresistible universal absolutes, and must be opposed at their source if we are to begin reshaping the fundamental decisions of mankind. Ethics is the hidden physics that shape the world of the mind, and we can only truly oppose the power of the state by attacking the false moral premises that support it.