What Do We Owe Each Other?

Do I owe something to the beggar on the street? If so, can I discharge that obligation by writing him a check? Does he have a claim against me? If so, can he make that claim by presenting me with a bill?

Is my obligation smaller if the beggar lives in another city? What if he lives across the Rio Grande? What if he lives in Africa?

More generally, there are one billion people in the world living on about $1 a day and another one billion living on about $2 a day. If the beggar on my street earns more than that, is my obligation to him smaller than my obligation to the two billion people in the world who are worse off than he is?

Does inequality by itself create moral claims and obligations? If so, is income inequality the most important kind of inequality? Or, is inequality of IQ, attractiveness, life expectancy or social status more important?

These are interesting questions, provided you start with the premise that need is a claim. They are not very interesting if you start with the Jeffersonian idea that we each have a right to pursue our own happiness — and that the needs of others do not obviate that right. (See What is Classical Liberalism? ) It is a good thing when we choose to be charitable, but the recipients of our generosity are not entitled to our gifts.

What makes all this topical are three developments:

  1. A presidential campaign in which the winner campaigned on class warfare, implying that the success of a few is somehow connected to the economic problems experienced by everyone else.
  2. A group of academic economists who — in TV appearances, in editorials and in other venues — imply that something akin to “theft” has occurred, where those at the bottom have less because those at the top have more.
  3. A recent tendency on the left to use the language of ethical obligations and ethical claims when discussing inequality and public policy.

Can you spare me a dime?

So as not to keep you in anguished suspense, nobody on the left — and I mean absolutely no one — even tries to answer the questions I asked in the beginning of this post. When we use terms like “obligation” and “claim” we are using the language of individualism. But almost no one on the left who writes about inequality believes in individualism. They’re all collectivists. What they really believe in is collective decision-making. So what you see happening in post after post is an ethical bait and switch.

You get hooked in by the language that is personal and that most of us can identify with. And before you know it you are being asked to agree to something that is completely impersonal — transferring power and money to government bureaucrats.

What has caused the latest stir is Greg Mankiw’s very excellent essay, Defending the One Percent. Mankiw argues that high-income individuals are more than paying their own way. He also points to the total lack of consistent reasoning on the part of the redistributionists — making many points similar to my own discussion of the issue.

In response, Harold Pollack says the issue is not about high-income earners paying their own way,

It’s about what we owe each other given our differing roles and resources in a prosperous, interconnected society.

Mankiw reports that he received a mass email message from the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute with this morsel:


Since the 1970s, the United States has become increasingly unequal in terms of income, wages, wealth and opportunity. Today, 1 percent of Americans are taking home nearly 20 percent of the country’s total income and own nearly 35 percent of the country’s wealth. This means that you (yes, you!) are probably making less money than you deserve to. (emphasis mine)

Pollack even individualizes his argument by describing help he got from a tow truck driver at road side. Presumably, the tow truck driver got paid. So there was a mutually beneficial exchange ― the kind of exchange that is at the heart of the free enterprise system. But Pollock thinks he owes the tow truck driver something more:

My taxes help provide his child with subsidized lunches and preschool. I help provide his family with health insurance. That’s as it should be. I still get a very good deal. He had my back. I should have his.

But wait a minute. What exactly does he owe the tow truck driver? Does he owe more or less than he owes people living on $1 a day? Or people living on $2 a day? Or…?

If the tow truck driver has a moral claim against Pollack, we never learn what it is. Oh and how much does the driver deserve to earn? The Economic Policy Institute can’t tell us that either.

In some ways this is all very surprising. After all, the 20th century was the century of collectivism. It was the century of communism, socialism, national socialism (fascism) and the welfare state. Each and every one of these isms was devoted to taking from some and giving to others. After all these years and all that misery you would think that someone, somewhere would have perfected an argument for forcible redistribution of income. And yet what we find today at the leftwing blogs is truly pitiful.

I have said this before, but it bears repeating. The left is intellectually bankrupt. It has been that way for almost a half century.

Comments (63)

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  1. Ken says:

    Brilliant. Well done.

  2. Vicki says:

    I like your moldy oldie song.

  3. Peter Ferrara says:

    A social safety net to prevent human suffering is morally justifiable and done well would not be costly. Going beyond that to tax and spend to make people equal makes us all poorer by shrinking the pie for everyone.

    • Buster says:

      Peter raises a good point. But, the line between human suffering and political redistribution is a slippery slope.

      Social Security and Medicare were started to alleviate human suffering. Over time they became redistribution schemes to benefit the politically powerful.

  4. Joe Barnett says:

    Henry Kissinger’s recent book, On China, recounts conversations with Mao in which it is clear that the Great Helmsman still anticipated the eventual achievement of communism — a stateless society without alienation or inequality. Leftists have always been vague about how, precisely, that blissful condition is to be achieved (following, of course, a proletariat revolution). Armed with what in his view were good intentions, however, Mao was sanguine about the 30-60 million who had died as a result of the Great Leap Forward fiasco. Thus the path to hell is paved with good intentions.

    • John says:

      Sad thing is that we are far from even getting close to a better system. We tend to like to be on the right side of ideologies, but ideologies are all exposed by our innate fallacies and most come from good intentions.

  5. Greg Scandlen says:

    Egads, John, you are asking them to actually THINK, instead of just spouting the slogans they learned in college. That will never happen, at least as long as those slogans work politically. Because that is the only thing that matters — power gained through politics.

    • John says:

      To claim some sort of magical categorization of a mass of people coming different education levels don’t collectively “think,” to me, is the epitome of arrogance and why our country is engendering a silly battle that only perpetuates disdain instead of foster new ideas and solutions.

      • Greg Scandlen says:

        On the contrary. Getting people to think is a prerequisite to “fostering new ideas and solutions.” To date, the track record of academia is not promising.

        If you have paid attention to my “MythBusters” series on this blog, I have shown how academic policy prescriptions have, almost without exception, not only failed to do what was promised, but have resulted in mass chaos and ruined lives. These include —
        — National Health Planning
        — Hospital rate setting systems
        — Price controls
        — Certificate of Need
        — Insurance “reforms”
        — “Universal” insurance programs
        — Physician controls
        — Payment “reforms”
        — Managed Care
        And many others.

        It isn’t just in health care, either. Let’s throw in public housing, the AFDC program, urban renewal, “open classrooms” in elementary schools, and so on.

        Not one of these was a good idea when conceived. All of them were predicted to fail, and fail they did. But all were embraced by an elite which congratulated itself on being so enlightened. But none of this elite was personally affected by their own foolhardy prescriptions. All were prescribing ideas that affected only other people. All got paid good salaries for their work, both before and after their failures.

        Demanding that people actually think (and listen) is the least we can do.

        • Ralph Weber @ MediBid says:

          I agree Greg! The “media” has become an entertainment industry extension, or government propoganda at best. I’m sure the spying on the AP was only the tip of a very large iceberg. This is likely how the “Media” is controlled. Meanwhile the collectivists sit in front of the boob tube like in the movie “idiocracy” and gobble up the pablum from the socialists on the left and the right, and the fascists that are trying to fool us all

        • Sal says:

          Right, asking people to THINK sounds like a sensible solution. Asserting a mass category of people DON’T think is a complete opposite claim and issue. Group think happens across the board, not just to “them” or whatever that means.

      • Greg Scandlen says:

        They do indeed “collectively think.” That is also known as “group think” and that is the problem.

  6. Harold Pollack says:

    “In some ways this is all very surprising. After all, the 20th century was the century of collectivism. It was the century of communism, socialism, national socialism (fascism) and the welfare state. Each and every one of these isms was devoted to taking from some and giving to others. After all these years and all that misery you would think that someone, somewhere would have perfected an argument for forcible redistribution of income….”

    Having grown up with refuseniks and the children of holocaust survivors victimized by the first three isms you mention, I find this crude paragraph especially insulting. Social democracies and liberal welfare states–whatever faults they may have–should not be likened to to criminal authoritarian regimes. That’s not the way to conduct reasonable political discourse.
    Harold Pollack

    • JD says:

      Unfortunately, they are based on the same fundamental ideas. Obviously social democracies and liberal welfare state have not had the same dramatic effects as the -isms mentioned, but they certainly adhere to the same immutable laws and their continued expansion will ultimately lead to the same place.

      • Allan (formerly Al) says:

        Some of us that also have primary connections with holocaust survivors and escapees from these “isms” that have memories recognize that these collectivist tendencies were a proximate cause of the horrors of the 20th century. Being so close to these horrors I don’t find John’s statement crude, rather a necessary warning to protect us from more of the same.

        I’m not ready to permit others to force me or my family to take that horrendous walk again. Thank you John Goodman.

        • JD says:

          Exactly, Allan. We need to be on guard to never let them happen again.

          • Buster says:

            When I took the classes, Theories of Political Economy I & II in grad school, we were taught that all despots derive their legitimacy by claiming to protect the downtrodden against abuses — real or perceived.

            No disrespect to Mr. Pollack, but I believe all political systems that profess to aid the poor, downtrodden or defenseless through central planning and collectivism suffer similar problems of political actors pandering to the masses for their own political gain. The only difference is how much damage the political actors are willing to inflict to achieve their own gain.

            For instance, Congress is full of Democrats who seek to stay in office by turning a blind eye to looming shortfalls in Social Security and Medicare; and who run up huge deficits while pandering to constituents. Unfortunately, Republicans are only a little better in this regard.

            Maybe Members of Congress aren’t killing people. But their policies are unpatriotic if building a strong, financially-secure nation is the goal.

            • Don Levit says:

              A lot of this motivation is pathological altruism, intending to do good for others, when, in reality, one is trying to “toot his own horn.”
              Don Levit

      • Don Levit says:

        Could you provide us what you believe those immutable laws to be?
        Personally, I think that virtually all good-intentioned projects eventually end up corrupted – even if begun with not only good intentions, but good execution.
        One of the immutab;le laws, I believe, is that once businesses (or governments) evolve 2 or 3 generatiobns beyond the founder, particularly businesses, they tend to completely disintegrate. This disintegration is due to the immutable law that as one grows further apart from the founder, and more importantly, his ideals, mission, and purpose, the closer the organization comes to failure.
        Don Levit

    • John Goodman says:

      Harold makes a point that deserves a thoughtful response.

      I do indeed see all the collectivist isms of the 20th century as forming a continuum. Some were more brutal than others in practice of course — a lot more brutal. But ideologically speaking, the differences among them are differences of degree, not of kind.

      This is how people in the 20th century also saw things. Roosevelt, Stalin and Hitler all believed they were more ideologically similar to each other than to classical liberalism. In fact for all three, the principal philosophical enemy was liberalism. This is also how Woodrow Wilson and other progressives thought. (See Jonah Goldberg’s lay history of the early 20th century progressives for a very readable summary.)

      Also, this is the way they thought in the universities.

      • Harold Pollack says:

        My last comment on this unfortunate thread. The distinction between the first three isms and the rest resides in institutions which respect political liberty, the rule of law, checks and balances, and other features of constitutional democracy. The U.S., Sweden, Britain, France, and year-2013 Germany have these institutions, laws, practices, and political norms. Nazi Germany, the USSR, and many other authoritarian regimes of the right and left did not.

        • Frank Timmins says:

          Mr. Pollack, do you really not see the erosion of political liberty, the rule of law, checks and balances and other features of a constitutional democracy in the last 5 years? Are you not aware of the IRS scandals, the illegal spying on citizens and the media, the purposeful obfuscation of the facts surrounding Benghazi and surreptitious handling of weapons related to drug cartels? Do you not notice the overreach of the Obama administration in setting policy without congressional approval?

          No, we are not the USSR or Nazi Germany. But Russia was not the USSR in 1917 and Germany was not a fascist state in 1932. It took years to consolidate power in these regimes using methodology of seizing upon real or imagined crises to undermine governmental checks and balances and erode individual liberties.

          You cite the social democracies of western Europe as standards for beneficial socialism. Perhaps you are not aware of the economic crisis in these countries that are a direct result of their “socialized” economies. Surely you don’t feel this is the ultimate societal model.

          • Greg Scandlen says:

            Good point, Frank. Pre-Hitler Germany was probably the most culturally, technologically, and scientifically advanced society in the world. It is hubris to think “it can’t happen here.”

            • Buster says:

              When I was in grad school, my professors repeated a mantra commonly taught to students of political science/public policy programs:

              The most efficient form of government is a competent, benevolent dictatorship.

              The caveat that always accompanies the above statements is:

              However, dictatorships rarely remain both benevolent and competent.

              Advanced Social Democracies may respect the constitution in the early stages. However, it is not much of a leap from redistributive policies (i.e. a benevolent dictatorship with the power to seize and redistribute resources) to a state run by parasitic, predatory elites.

              Over time these elites begin to feel justified in doing whatever is necessary to maintain power because they believe they know what’s best for the country. After all, socialists who seize power do so mostly because they want to protect citizens from other predatory elites (e.g. capitalists) who would abuse their positions.

        • Allan (formerly Al) says:

          Harold, I don’t necessarily see the collectivists falling into the trap of hate and brutality, but people don’t make these types of decisions. The decisions are made for them and they are drawn into them despite their better natures. Frank and Greg both have good points and unless we heed their warnings we can face the same fate as others faced with brutal dictators that say they have the one solution for societies ills.

          Just think of the progressive era and the progressive’s eugenics solution. The US was the leader and Hitler built upon a lot of those ideas.

          John G., were you talking about the book by Jonah Goldberg Liberal fascism? That is an excellent book that should be widely read. If you were talking about a paper or another book can you provide the name, please.

      • Nick says:

        “Harold makes a point that deserves a thoughtful response.

        (See Jonah Goldberg’s lay history of the early 20th century progressives for a very readable summary.)”

        You’re a hilarious guy, John.

        I just wish more of your readers were in on the joke.

    • John Goodman says:

      When I was an undergraduate at the University of Texas in the 1960s my economics teachers never had a bad word to say about the ideology of the soviet communists, or any other communists (even in a course on comparative systems!) But they had plenty of bad things to say about Milton Friedman.

      They were democrats (with a small “d”), but neither I nor the other students ever doubted that our teachers were more sympathetic to communism then to classical liberalism.

    • Frank Timmins says:

      Harold, none of the “isms” you reference as criminal authoritarian regimes started out as “criminal authoritarian regimes”. They all developed into such after obtaining such massive corruptive power (should I use the obvious and appropriate cliche?). And how else would they have gained power without making the same promises of “utopian paradises” made by the current “social democracies and liberal welfare states”?

      You seem to operate under the illusion that we can control this power as it takes more and more control of our lives, and that the power will never be used for anything other than good deeds for all.

      I submit that we cannot have “reasonable political discourse” until everyone on the left comes to admit…no..to “understand” the dangers of powerful bureaucracy.

      • Don Levit says:

        Excellent point, Frank.
        The left, generally, tend to believe in the inherent goodness of man. This is the first and most destructive fallacy. They tend to believe the other is good, so they can believe in their inherent goodness, that they do not have a ‘bad bone in their body.”
        Don Levit

      • Ralph Weber @ MediBid says:

        You’r right they didn’t start that way, but many of them likely knew they would eventually have ot move that way in order to maintain their power.

  7. Devon Herrick says:

    My taxes help provide his child with subsidized lunches and preschool. I help provide his family with health insurance. That’s as it should be. I still get a very good deal. He had my back. I should have his.

    This analogy raises more questions that answers. For instance, Pollack referred to some implied reciprocity, saying… “I still get a very good deal. He had my back. I should have his.”

    Isn’t that why the tow truck firm requires me to pay for their services? The reciprocity isn’t implied; it’s required. I’m assured there is a substantial fee in exchange for their service.

    Do I owe the tow truck driver less if he’s the truck owner; or the owner of the towing firm than if he’s merely an hourly wage earner driving a tow truck? What if I consider the towing fee is exorbitant, say, $200 for traveling two miles to tow my disabled car a couple miles further to my mechanic’s shop? Don’t we pay towing firms relatively high fees (say, $120 for a short tow) because their services are only needed occasionally, keeping the number of suppliers low? Should be pay a moral obligation bonus on top of the high fee? Maybe the total fee should be $200 then? But, aren’t poor people more apt to suffer car problems that rich people with newer cars? Does the single mom, earning a moderate income, owe the tow truck driver (earning a moderate income) a moral obligation bonus on top of the high fee? That would push her further into poverty.

    It was mentioned that the tow truck driver’s kids get a free education and subsidized school lunches. Is this charity? Or does society assist low-income kids in an attempt to prevent social problems that might occur absent educational incentives?

    I don’t want the tow truck driver to be destitute. I also don’t want huge public subsidies to towing companies or regulated towing fees designed to guarantee the driver a “living wage”.

    As a society, we owe the tow truck driver the opportunity to rise above the station in life he was born into if he wants to pursue it. To fully participate in the American dream, society owes him the opportunity for a decent primary education. Unfortunately, society can do little to encourage parents to help kids achieve their potential — parents must want to do this.

    However, I cannot agree society collectively owes the driver a comfortable living if he refuses to purse the opportunities offered him; or if his parents failed to motivate him when he was a child.

  8. Dewaine says:

    They look around and see wealth and poverty, but have no understanding of how it came about. Merely that it exists, that 5+5=10 the same as 9+1=10. But in a dynamic world, you must thing past stage 1, 5+5 /= 10, it matters who has what. They see things how they are, but it is more important to see things why they are.

    • JD says:

      I agree with you, wealth is created by the hands of the productive via the incentive to better oneself. Without that incentive, resources are squandered and wealth declines.

      It would be great if we could satisfy everybody’s wants and desires, unfortunately we live in world of scarcity, there isn’t enough stuff to go around. That seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding of many on the left.

  9. Al (Formerly Big Al, Formerly Al) says:

    “Do I owe something to the beggar on the street?”

    Well, actually you do. Sorry, they are called entitlements. Obligations your representatives entered into on your behalf over the years.

    To blame 1)Obama, 2)Krugman (again), and 3) the evil left for long standing public support mechanisms [Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, SNAP, TANF, etc.] and progressive tax structure is inaccurate.

    P.S. I think ‘class warfare’ was originally a conservative term.

    • Frank Timmins says:

      Well big Al I think you have it right. We need to rid ourselves of those representatives who support such entitlements, and support those who would roll them back.

  10. Charlie Bond says:

    Good morning John,
    Health care is different from charity. Both have moral imperatives. You have no legal obligation to give to the beggar. Your individual contribution probably will not mean the difference between life and death for him.
    There is a teaching, however, that was spoken 2,000 years ago about a man lying in a ditch, naked, robbed and badly beaten. Many passed by, but a man from a rival tribe stopped, bound the wounds and took the injured man to an inn, paid for the inn and told him he would return for the man when he was better. This teaching was spoken in answer to the question, “If I am to love my neighbor as myself, who is my neighbor?” and it concludes with “Go thou and do likewise.”
    94% of Americans, regardless of religious affiliation, agree with this teaching. The other six percent probably didn’t understand the survey question. The fact is our health policy was set 2,000 years ago. The question is not whether we will take care of Americans, but how. There is a moral imperative–an obligation to care for the sick and the elderly. It is what distinguishes us as a civilization and as a compassionate culture. We are not a let-them-lie-in-the-street-and–bleed society. We take care of people now. We just do it very inefficiently and with a wide degree of variability, but we do take care of folks. The reason most of us are involved health policy is to be sure that we extend our society’s collective compassion as effectively as we can.

    Health care is different than charity. Everybody has a body, and we are all patients or prospective patients. And when we need care, we will want access to a physician whose ethical oath compels him or her to treat us as the doctor would treat his own mother or child. This expectation is borne of an ethos that we all embrace.

    You, yourself, have made eloquent arguments in favor of improving how we use our health care resources. So American policy will not revert to laissez-faire medicine. The morals and mores of pre-Dickensian days are not likely to sweep the country.

    This does not mean that solid American values are inapplicable. Free market solutions abound. And we as patients or potential patients can and must assume individual responsibility for our health and well-being. As a society we can ease the cost crisis created by the Baby Boomers if we learn how to take care of one another. Rather than looking to large institutions–like big government, big insurance companies, big hospitals, nursing homes, big clinics, big Pharma–we need as neighbors to volunteer to care for our neighbors, and mobilize our communities to promote wellness. Such efforts draw upon the collective conscience of Americans without invoking legal mandates.

    In sum, there is a moral imperative to help the sick, but there are plenty of ways we can extend our resources using good, old-fashioned American values. We do not have to embrace the views of Dickens’ villains to fix health care. The Bah-Humbug school of health policy is not where our hearts, nor our heads are or should be. We are a kind people, who do care about our neighbors. And health policy is about expressing that kindness. It is why I volunteer my time working with the Patient-Physician Alliance–to reform health care from the bottom up, not the top down.
    Have a great week!
    Charlie Bond

    • Al (Formerly Big Al, Formerly Al) says:

      Well said Charlie. Funny, that’s my son’s name, both first and last.

    • Peter Ferrara says:

      Mr. Bond, You have made an argument for a social safety net. But that has zero to do with equality. A social safety net to prevent human suffering due to deprivation is morally justifiable and done right to prevent counterproductive incentives would not be costly. But to try to achieve equality of income and wealth would literally mean the end of civilization.

      • Al (Formerly Big Al, Formerly Al) says:

        Are you talking about the ‘redistribution of wealth/asset equality/Robin Hood’ argument, simply meaning ‘a progressive taxing system and social safety net’?

        Since some would still complain about a flat tax or fair tax systems, let’s use the fairest of all taxing systems …fixed amount tax system. Everyone pays the same amount. So, including the current Federal budget and paying off the debt over 10 years … each woman, man, and child in America would have a $20,000 annual tax bill. Is this what you’re suggesting? How reasonable is that for ‘continued civilization’?

        Do I enjoy paying SS taxes to seniors who did not prepare for their retirement properly or who receive benefits far exceeding what they paid in or what normal annuities would pay? Absolutely not, but this is part of our social safety net and as a citizen I participate and work to make the system better.

        Are all aspects of the ACA equitable and fair? Absolutely not, but this is part of our social safety net and as a citizen, I participate and work to make the system better.

        Other than suggesting abolishing the progressive tax system and repealing the ACA, what are you doing to help?

        • Peter Ferrara says:

          Big Al, My comment was not hard to understand at all. So I don’t understand why you didn’t get any of it. I did not say anything about what the best tax system would be to finance the social safety net. I said a social safety net to prevent the poor from suffering material deprivation is morally justifiable and would not cost much, done right to minimize perverse incentives. But policies to tax and redistribute beyond that to achieve equality of wealth and income are not compatible with any form of civilization, because they eliminate ANY incentive to save and invest, or even to work. That is inherently evil, not a desirable moral goal.

          • Al (Formerly Big Al, Formerly Al) says:

            Peter, I did understand what you were saying. You are unhappy with current “policies to tax and redistribute.” The term ‘redistribution’ is subjective and used as a political stir stick. Any taxing and subsequent use of those taxes is technically redistribution, but necessary for the continuance of civilization. My guess was that you were unhappy with the current legislative balance and utilization of our taxes; hence my questions, what equitable taxing mechanism and what cuts to our nation’s social safety net would satisfy your discontent?

            I agree that the recovery has been a tenuous balancing act between national and private survival but understanding and cooperation work more quickly than obstructionism and divisive semantics.

            • Peter Ferrara says:

              Al, Here is further explanation. What I most object to is the idea of equality of wealth and income as a social goal. If we had a society governed by redistribution policies guaranteeing equal income and wealth for everyone, there would be no rational reason for ANYONE to save, invest, or even work. Think that through. Yet, among the intellectual classes of the West that is embraced as precisely the social goal. As a graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School, I know from first hand experience that John Goodman’s experiences with those intellectual classes are the dominant experiences.

              From this foundation, I draw the conclusion that once a social safety net is established, any further tax and redistribution to achieve equality of income and wealth tends toward or brings us toward the same result as full equality, and so is counterproductive and anti-social. Sop yes that does include opposition to the progressive income tax, which should be replaced by a flat tax. That is a truly fair tax in that if you earn 20 times what I do, you pay 20 times what I do, not 30, 40 or 50 times, as is possible under progressive income taxes.

              I also favor replacing the social safety net encompassed by Social Security with the far superior safety net of personal savings, investment and insurance accounts, as adopted more than 30 years ago in Chile. Then I would not be paying taxes to support improvident retirees, but, rather all of us would be paying for our own family controlled personal wealth engines, producing and accumulating far more than Social Security can even promise, let alone what it can pay.

              • Al Baun says:

                I completely agree that taxes should be kept to a minimum.

                I completely agree that social support should be kept to a minimum and shaped as to reduce dependency.

                My interest in a flat tax has increased diametrically with my income. A progressive tax approach does seem counter-productive at times but we have a ways to go before DC can adapt.

                I have found no laws (or reasonable personal ideologies) with the singular goal of equalizing or redistributing incomes, though I can see ‘any taxes’ would be perceived that way by some. What is disturbing, is the carefree way that the terms like ‘class warfare’ or ‘redistribution of wealth’ are bandied about at the mere mention of tax increases that would address the debt or slow governmental health care costs.

                I applaud your humanity but support the System, which at times, picks away at my wallet too.

            • Peter Ferrara says:

              Big Al, What I said is I am perfectly supportive of taxes and redistribution for a social safety net to prevent human suffering due to material deprivation. But zero for any further redistribution for equality of income or wealth which is incompatible with civilization and is not a moral goal. See e g Cuba, North Korea, former Eastern bloc. I don’t favor any cuts to the current social safety net. I am in favor of reforms proven in the real world that will allow us to do more with less. – See more at: http://healthblog.ncpa.org/what-do-we-owe-each-other/comment-page-1/#comment-190111

  11. Mike Braun says:

    Great piece on self reliance.

    Charlie Bond it is not the role of government to be the moral compass. Charity fills that need. Local communities helping each other.

  12. Ray Wooldridge says:

    Very well said on a subject that most folks prefer to ignore. My own pride in life is not what I give to charity, but rather the jobs I have been able to provide others and their success through intelligence and hard work.

  13. Charlie Bond says:

    Are we related? Most Bonds are.

    How and where a social safety net is deployed is a debate that hearkens back to Athens and The Republic. All major leaders in history have recognized the need to help organize resources for those who are sick. The degree to which those resources are organized and how they are distributed has been the subject of debate for centuries. It just happens to be acute right now because we not only have the Baby Boom presenting us the largest demographic bulge in history, but it is timed with the greatest advances in medicine giving us longer lifespans and more treatment options–a true crisis of abundance. Whether a social safety net or communitarian voluntarism are invoked, under the exigencies of our time, we have to learn how to take care of ourselves and each other.

    While I do believe that government should provide a high moral example in all fields, government need not provide all the solutions to health care. Indeed, I believe health care will be reformed from the grass roots up–at least that is what I have been working on very hard with the Patient-Physician Alliance while the government has been busy passing laws that get delayed in their implementation.

    Regards to all,
    Charlie Bond

    • Al (Formerly Big Al, Formerly Al) says:

      The current spelling of my last name is Baun. Prior spellings of the family name have been Bond, Baum, Braun, etc. Since your post shows that you have both a heart and conscience, we must be related;-)

    • Peter Ferrara says:

      Mr. Bond, I do not see how your comment is responsive to my comment at all.

  14. John Baden says:


    Neat post indeed! Great seminar fodder.

  15. Roger Waters says:

    Extremely well done, John!

    You have an incredible knack for ferreting out the “elephant in the room” and shedding light on not-so-sacred cows? My apologies for the mixed mammals

  16. Mark Kellen says:

    For Mr. Bond:

    One has to be careful what you wish for. A collectivist system of medical care tends to produce collectivist physicians. In other words, when you have achieved universal coverage, suddenly the doctor no longer cares about you,only about society or how you fit into society. I already know physicians like this, and fear it will ony get worse.

  17. Floccina says:

    It is amazing that in theory we could double the income of the bottom 2 billion for about Trillion dollars and if you take the amount that our welfare system and the other industrialized countries spend on welfare for the rich and middle exceeds that easily yet the left seldom talks about that.

  18. Charlie Bond says:

    For Mark Kellen

    Hi Mark,
    What in the world made you think I am advocating a “collectivist” system? I don’t recall that the Good Samaritan acted “collectively. To the contrary, my view is that health care reform begins with individual responsibility and extends to individual voluntary acts of compassion extending then into the local community to reform health care from the grass roots up–all based on pretty solid American values–voluntarism, free market innovation, etc. .The fact that you are one of the learned readers and participants in this blog evidences your concern about how health care is distributed. Do you happen to be one of the 6%? If so I would really like to understand exactly what you think about care distribution and the role, if any, for the exercise of compassion.
    Thanks again for your provocative comment.
    Charlie Bond

  19. Bart says:

    There is a problem with the concept of social solidarity. It’s to squishy to be useful as a basis for policy. Both in terms of quantity and quality. How much free stuff are we obliged to provide, and how strong is the obligation?

  20. Bart says:

    Too squishy

  21. Charlie Bond says:

    For Peter Ferrara:
    Hi Peter:
    I believe we were agreeing. Social safety nets do not equal equal distribution. Where that line is drawn has been historically debated for a couple of thousand years in many, many cultures. What makes the current debate in America unique is that in the last 80 years we have learned more about anatomy, medicine, pharmacology, and medical technology than in all human history combined. This has resulted in a longer average lifespan and an array of treatment options never before imaginable. These phenomena are appearing just as the largest demographic bulge in history is aging. As a result, we are facing social, ethical and practical questions never faced before by any society on earth. Under these conditions, the definition of a “safety net” presents unprecedented questions. So, it is to be expected that there will be debate about the parameters of that net. My intention in responding to you, therefore, was to basically agree with your comment, particularly in light of our place in history.
    Charlie Bond

  22. Rick Weber says:

    Devil’s advocate:

    I think your questions on moral obligations are interesting and the most compelling answers to them require a (classically) liberal society. Ethical obligation is a far cry from a justification for state action! Conceptions of personal (personal!) ethical obligations can be compatible with freedom, which can be compatible with both Christianity and secular humanism. We don’t need to be vulgar Randians to justify freedom!

    There are two interesting movements within libertarianism happening right now. Left-libertarianism is engaging with the non-libertarian left, showing the humane nature of a classically liberal society. Check out the Bleeding Heart Libertarian blog (it’s mostly philosophers, but Steve Horwitz blogs there too if you want an economist’s perspective).

    There is also a movement to engage Judeo-Christian ethics. I don’t know if it has a label, but I know that Art Carden has been working on a project under Dierdre McCloskey’s research program that, among other things, is critical of the collectivist thinking coming from the religious right and shows the moral nature of a classically liberal society.

    Both movements are engaging collectivist ethics on their own turf to show the desirability of freedom.

    ”’When we use terms like “obligation” and “claim” we are using the language of individualism. But almost no one on the left who writes about inequality believes in individualism. They’re all collectivists.”’

    I like the first point you make here! It’s an important idea that warrants building on. I will disagree with the second part though. Again, the word ‘left’ is incredibly muddy, but there are left-libertarians who are genuinely promoting for freedom and genuinely concerned with issues like equality, social mobility, etc.

    I think there’s a fuzzier line between individualism and collectivism than is normally thought of (admittedly, I haven’t thought through this carefully, and I’m neither a linguist nor a philosopher, so it’ll take a lot to settle the thought in my head), and I think we can see some of this fuzziness by looking at spontaneous order scholars such as Hayek and the Ostroms. That said, left-libertarians must be starting from an assumption of individual autonomy so it’s probably fair to say that leftist-collectivists are intellectually bankrupt (as well as the collectivists on the right).

  23. Peter Ferrara says:

    Al, What I said is I am perfectly supportive of taxes and redistribution for a social safety net to prevent human suffering due to material deprivation. But zero for any further redistribution for equality of income or wealth which is incompatible with civilization and is not a moral goal. See e g Cuba, North Korea, former Eastern bloc. I don’t favor any cuts to the current social safety net. I am in favor of reforms proven in the real world that will allow us to do more with less.

    • Allan (formerly Al) says:


      Big Al, formerly Al Baun unfortunately chose to confuse things on a list devoted to serious issues by calling himself Big Al and then later Al, a name I held for quite awhile. I think you are directing this to Big Al so perhaps to avoid confusion that designation should be used at least temporarily.



    • Al Baun says:

      Allan (formerly Al),

      The first time I commented on this site I used the name ‘Al’. The next time, I saw that it was used, so I used Big Al. The next time I used Al again, to my astonishment … someone (to be nameless) had an identity crisis. Therefore, on this site I officially relinquish the moniker, ‘Al’, for you to use as you wish 🙂 You see, radical leftist fascists can be congenial.

      Forgive my ignorance, and bare with me, but if you are not referring to our progressive tax system or social safety nets, could you be a bit more explicit about what ‘income equality or redistribution’ actions you are talking about???

      • Allan (formerly Al) says:

        I took note the first time I saw Al Baun on the list just about 3 or 4 months ago. Then for unknown reasons that name disappeared and the use of Big Al was noted. Following that the designation was again intentionally replaced with Al for whatever reason despite the fact that you were well aware that this use would cause confusion.

        I’ve been on this list for a long time under the name Al or perhaps Allan in the more distant past. Thank you for ending the confusion, however, to prevent such confusion in the future I will continue to use the name Allan instead of Al.

        As far as the identity crisis, I don’t like deceit or confusion. It is quite obvious that you have been playing games with the name Al as a method of self entertainment. I am not interested in your personal enhancements to the blog.


  24. Mary Kohler says:

    That is a good piece.