Thursday, August 30, 2012

crash course

Students in my Professional Ethics and Bioethics classes confront issues of social justice very early in the semester. Professional Ethics begins with outlining what professionalism consists of, and how the claims to professional status of many occupational groups are undermined by Friedmanism, bureaucracy, and technocracy. Bioethics begins with the issue of allocation of healthcare, and I frame the issue alternate as a matter of deciding how much they are willing to contribute for certain kinds of healthcare, what principle(s) of distribution are to be followed, and who deserves healthcare. 

It has to be pretty heady stuff for my students who are paying attention and being reflective. (By the way, at least this semester, that's looking to be around 33% so far - a very promising start.) The very idea of cooperative social arrangements or a common good is, I would argue, ruled out by the dominant neoliberal individualistic ideology in US politics. It's an implausible ideology, to say the least. The hardline libertarian view of social justice essentially ignores that practically everything we need for survival is produced through social cooperation that no single individual has a strong incentive to contribute to. 

In any case, I think I'm becoming more direct about this, more willing to challenge any knee-jerk view. For instance, today in Bioethics I asked "who deserves healthcare?" One student responded with what is basically the hard libertarian line on this: nobody deserves healthcare; those who can afford it through their own resources can acquire it. I asked why this was an appealing position for this student, and the student replied that people should be self-supporting and that no one has any obligation to provide for anyone else. I responded that this was a peculiar position for someone in a publicly supported institution to take, and noted that the public is contributing (around) 49% of the cost of a CSU education. I also noted that when I started teaching here 14 years ago, the public provided closer to 70% of the cost of a student's education. 

(On the flip side, there is a libertarian faculty member on campus who asserts that all taxation is theft and that the state should not be in any way in the business of "redistributing wealth" from the haves to the have-nots.* I always want to ask whether this person has, therefore, renounced the portion of salary provided by taxation, since, obviously, it's theft. I'm sure, not. "So," I would want to reply, are you a liar, or a hypocrite? Take your time.")

I am an equal-opportunity gadfly, I hasten to point out. Today another student took a stance as opposed to the libertarian as one might be, suggesting that a broad program of social and cultural change could lead us to make compassion a core value. If scarcity of resources (in this case, healthcare) is the result of decisions to distribute on the basis of what is profitable, then scarcity could be undone to some extent by taking away the profit motive and seeing people as in need of care. Great, I responded, only, this doesn't mean we'll have significantly more resources to distribute -- so we'll still have to make decisions about rationing, about "cutting off" access to healthcare (as we say, charmingly).

I suppose from my tone and arguments today it was clear I regard the hard-core libertarian position as unspeakably inhumane, socially implausible, inconsistent, and ultimately immoral. I hope that it was also clear that I regard compassion and empathy to be useless as bases for social policy. 

I will say, though, that the libertarian view is more pernicious, more prevalent, and more lacking in humanity. I don't think there's anything wrong with my saying so in class. I say so because, unless and until a student complains enough to get me investigated, nobody really cares what I do in my classes except me, some of my students, my Loveliest, and a few of my friends.


* Never mind the myriad ways that the state has actively redistributed wealth from the have-nots to the haves, e.g., Mitt Romney's effective tax rate, the amount Wal-Mart's employment practices cost in welfare and other forms of assistance without which their employees could not live even on Wal-Mart's famed low prices, subsidies to industries, etc.

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