David R. Henderson  

Further Reply to Matt: Who is "We"?

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Like some commenters, I found Bryan Caplan's post on health care today to be one of his best. And he's already set a high bar. But, believe it or not, given that Bryan is a more-radical libertarian than I am, I think he sold freedom short.

In his point #1, Bryan wrote:

If the problem with free-market health care is just that poor people can't afford health care, then the smart response is simply to give poor people more money (or possibly a cash voucher), and leave insurance companies alone. Think about how we usually handle hunger among the poor. We don't set up byzantine regulations for grocery stores. We give the poor welfare checks and/or food stamps, and leave the grocery stories alone.

His first sentence is absolutely correct. The smart response is to give them more money or health care vouchers. But in the last three sentences, he used the word "we" where he really meant "the government." The government is not us. It's some of us, but it's not us. Many of us do give money to poor people to provide various things and, as Russell Roberts documents in his article on Charity, a large fraction of charitable contributions, before the government started massive welfare programs in the 1930s, was to poor people. Notice Russ's Table 1 showing that as the Great Depression deepened before the New Deal, charitable contributions to poor people rose. Government welfare rose too but it rose massively during the first years of the New Deal and then charitable contributions to poor people fell.

Because Bryan used "we" where he meant "the government," he got himself in a box with his point #4. He wrote:

My most controversial point: While redistribution is the most logical response to the health market's performance, I still oppose it. In the grand scheme of things, poor people in the First World are doing fine.

What happened to his idea that the smart thing to do is to give poor people money or health care vouchers? Did it quit being the smart thing to do? It's clear from context that by "redistribution," Bryan meant forced distribution by government. I oppose it too. And here's where I think he sold freedom short. If he hadn't used "we" to mean the government but had instead used it to mean "Americans" or "people who live in America," then he wouldn't have had to take the position he took in the part of point #4 that I quoted above. If Bryan opposes giving money to poor people in America, then, fine, he doesn't have to and, if he so chooses, he can persuade other people not to. But there will be some of us who still want to give money to poor people in America knowing full well that Bryan is right that we are helping people who, in the larger picture, are already quite wealthy. That's what's so great about freedom: everyone can choose whom to help and whom not to.

The problem all came about because Bryan used the "we" word inappropriately. For more of the hot water that can get you in, see my "Who is 'We'?" and "Who is 'We'? Part Two."

Comments and Sharing


COMMENTS (10 to date)
Les writes:

I think this point goes to the heart of a very important issue: namely liberty versus subjugation.

Free people own themselves and speak for themselves. That is expressed by citizens as "I" not "we."

Subjugated people do not own themselves nor do they speak for themselves. That is expressed as "we" as in the royal "we" - meaning a despot speaking for himself and for his subjects (whether they agree or not).

jake writes:

some people forget that, but charity is too part of a free society. look at victorian england: private organisations like church took care of orphans, hospitals for poor were widespread and provided cheap or free healthcare to the poorest.

RON writes:

The english language uses the word "we" for two things and I have elsewhere proposed that it shoud never be used unless it is made clear which of the two is meant. Where it means "each and every one of us" this can be made clear by simply adding "each" perhaps orthographically joined with a hyphen "we-each". Where it refers to a thing such a nation, a state, a society, corporation etc, the name of the thing should be given and, where it is alleged that all members of the thing have some property, this can be best expressed by saying "all americans" "all christians" "all shareholders" etc.

A problem arises when it is an authorised organ of the thing (such as a government, a legislature, a board of management etc.) is empowered by some constituative rule to take some action or to make pronouncements on behalf of the whole thing.

This problem boils down to a more fundamental question: "does the alleged thing (e.g. America) have a meaningful existence in that some property is shared by all its constituent members and which the authorised organ, in taking the action it does, makes the action into the action of all the members".

Intentionality is to be placed alongside outcome. It may be that a person was opposed to an act (such as the invasion of Iraq) but is happy to accept any benefits which flow from that act. The invasion of Germany in 1945 is widely accepted and supported both in terms of intention and outcome, and when people say "we invaded Germany" the assertion is plainly false but few would disagree with the sentiment as Germany was portrayed as having placed itself outside of the family of humanity and it was humanity (i.e. we) that invaded. I have discussed the invasion of Iraq with people who quickly assert that "all invasions are wrong" only to rapidly change their tune when I ask if the invasion of their own country, Germany, was right.

Another fundamental question is whether metaphysical constructs such as "america" are always to be considered as solely existing by virtue of the organs which act on "its" behalf. This is the precise legal fiction which says that a town council here is spain is no more nor less than its organs, and only if an organ takes a decision within its competency has the council acted. Similarly with corporations the world over. Individual members in these instances are incidental to the legal existence of the collective, though the fiction that "the people are sovereign" is maintained via a phrase in the spanish constitution. It is a fiction as "the people", similarly to "we", has the same duality of meaning and here it means the organ of the state, the electorate, when it votes within the constitutional rules. NRA adherents may disagree.

The assertion that the government is not the people can only be valid if you deny individuals are members of America and/or that the organs of the state act act on behalf of the members. To throw democracy as a mechanism for human action away so lightly presumes that other suitable substitute mechanisms are available to us-each. Answers?

One small point: It is nonsense to say a person owns him/herself. "Les" in using the plural "people own themselves" is guilty of the "we" equivocation. If you say no person can be owned, that excludes self-ownership. In any event ownership is always an assertion by an individual, and the concept of individual implies no need for self-ownership to be asserted and Occam comes to the rescue.

Kurbla writes:

In my opinion, state is important, not government. "We" are not government, but "we" are the citizens. If you claim that citizens have no power, but only government has the power, you will be unable to explain how it happened that top 10 000 US government officers combined earn less than single top capitalist.

Those who vote are clearly responsible. Hitler didn't fallen from the sky. But even those who do not vote, as long as they pay taxes, are responsible. I do not direct Hermann Nitsch's performances, but if I pay ticket to be there, then I am responsible for animal torture. Even if I do not care about torture, but I like, say, ambient. On the same way, if I pay tax to be able to live in country that practices torture, I have my share of responsibility. Even if I do not care about torture. Sure, I have to be somewhere, but not there.

Then - if we are responsible for good and bad things states do - not only that we have the right to say WE, we have no moral right not to say that.

Robb Lutton writes:

What do you mean Bryan is "more radical" than you? I thought Libertarianism was a pretty complete package. How can you pick one part and not another? Does that mean that that you think you should be allowed to pick certain things that Bryan is coerced to provide funding for? Isn't that like being a little bit pregnant?

mark writes:

You are absolutely right. Misuse of the word "we" is one of the ways in which progressives slyly try to control the terms of debate. You can't read a progressive tract without being exposed to it.

Other rhetorical tactics include (1) always describing distributional issues in the passive voice to avoid recognizing that the distribution results from voluntary acts of individuals and (2) extrapolating from low frequency events where government is useful, like fire and police, to justify persistent and sweeping government intrusion in other facets of life.

George writes:

I can't believe nobody's yet mentioned Arnold's "Lose the We" tenet, found here:

So You Want to Be a Masonomist

maurile writes:

Re Bryan's point #1:

The problem is that health care in the U.S. costs us about 16% of our GDP, which is insane.

You can't solve the total cost problem with money transfers.

ron writes:

"mark" questions whether any statements can legitimately be made about actions taken in the outside world (n.b. my use of two passives already) without referring (an impersonal use of the gerund) to the individual actors.

(N.B. by "outside world" I do not mean "outside the USA" but merely what goes on and is not attributable to specific individuals.)

Thus maurile (apart from flagrant use of "we") is saying that in the US 16% of GDP is spent on healthcare. Should that be "so and so individuals (giving their names?) together spent x on healthcare and that equals 16% of the total of all spending in the USA?

The outside world really does exist and things happen there which we (yes, we) can talk about, and in this case, since we would be talking about a system which is bounded, we can legitimately refer to properties of the system, avoiding the passive, if you prefer, viz: "we, citizens of the United States, spend 16% of all we spend, on healthcare".

But such statistical truths are both inherently collectivist and imply the very passive that mark complains of.

It is also a meaningless truth unless more information is available. For instance the average for developed countries is between 8 and 9%, while health outcomes in the US are lower than these same countries (in some indices below Botswana), and this alone should inform a disinterested observer that there is something very wrong with the system. It should also reveal that there must either be many more individual people taking money out of the healthcare system or that those individuals who do take money, take more in the US than elsewhere (or a mixture of both).

In any system with a substantial private component, a small part of the population will spend a higher sum as an individual on healthcare while it probably represents a smaller percentage of their personal spending (i.e. they are rich).

It is also the case that in terms of where in the population healthcare money goes, 5% of the population accounts for 50% of healthcare costs. Thus unless it is only the high spenders who get healthcare, a large section of the population, at any one time, is contributing far more than receiving. It is in just such a situation where a universal system is normally thought (by us rational folk!) to be useful.

From across the pond, it does appear that only some quasi-religious attachment to individualism and/or the political sovereignty of the privileged, that keeps the US, in terms of healthcare, a backward country.

We (us rational folk) can see nothing wrong with people collectively supporting a system which gives aid to those who suffer some misfortune, and we accept the coercion that is involved because the greater good outweighs the loss of personal "liberty". We are not at liberty to damage others and this is interpreted "over here" as meaning that we are not at liberty to decline to help those who suffer ill health.

Insurance companies charge those who inflict ill health on themselves by increasing premiums on those who smoke for example. Rational countries seek the same by putting a high tax on tobacco. Likewise there is a large tax on gas (petrol) with at least a component of social policy involved.

The low cost of gas in the US is a scandal seen from over here. You are all polluting the world carelessly thoughtlessly and selfishly, while declining to implement universal healthcare.

What kind of people are you?

George writes:

Ron wrote:

What kind of people are you?

The kind who don't have to get up and clean our own hospital rooms.

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