Friday, September 05, 2008

Who decides what a human "needs"?

I was recently thinking of various conversations I have had with my friends on the socialist left. In particular I was thinking about debates concerning Marx’s concept of “from each according to his ability to each according to his need.” That concept appears to be at the heart of almost every progressive, socialist, or socialist-lite program around.

On the surface it sounds very good, even compassionate. And I’m the kind of person who gets riled up when people are being hurt and I want to see them made better off. I’m the kind who cheers when some total stranger wins the lottery just because I love to see people happy. In that sense I’m a softy -- I want people to prosper and be happy. I often find it hard to live up to my greedy, capitalist stereotype.

What could be wrong with taking from those who have and giving to those who need? My immediate reaction is -- “A lot!” And my first thought is the amount of violence needed to do precisely that. This redistribution does not rely on the good will of people but on the brute force of government. And I’m too committed to living as non-violently as possible to support the institutionalize violence of government.

But then I also worry about things like genuine equality between people -- and by that I mean equality of rights, not necessarily of material comforts. To have the one pretty much excludes having the other.

When it comes to those things we call needs the list is virtually endless. People want more and more all the time. So if I were to ask my Marxist friends about such wants as “color televisions,” DVD players and computer games they might well respond by pointing out that Marx spoke of “needs” not “wants”.

And this is where I start to get really worried. I won’t dispute that there are differences betweens needs and wants. These things are like obscenity -- we know it when we see it. But the definition is a bit hazy.

And that is where the authoritarian nature of Marxism has to rear its ugly head. Somebody has to decide what is a “want” and what is a “need”. That somebody or collection of somebodies then becomes the authoritarian body that can impose its will on the masses.

No society can give people everything they want. So the socialists have to create power structures who have the ability to decide what people need and what people don’t need.

We see this in the socialized health systems all the time. Consider Avastin or bevacizumab, a drug produced by Genetech at the cost of over $2.25 billion. Actually when all the testing and research is done it will probably reach $3 billion.

Obviously with research and production costs like that it is not cheap to use. But many cancer patients cling to it because it does seem to work -- by which I mean it extends their lives a bit and eases their pain. It isn’t a cure but it gives them something they value very highly -- a little more time with the people they love.

England’s socialized health system has bodies of bureaucrats who do what Marx’s maxim requires be done -- decide what is truly a “need”. And they have said that Avastin, while “clinically effective” is “not cost-effective” and have decided to forbid NHS patients from using it.

Some patients in the UK have revolted over that and raised funds privately to pay for the drug. They were told by the NHS that if they did that then the NHS would cut them off from all medical care -- care they paid for through taxation for a lifetime. In essence, all cancer patients in the UK are denied the use of Avastin unless they are 100% private in their medical care. In the greedy, heartless medical system in the United States about 100,000 people are currently using Avastin. Not every patient in the U.S. who would like to use Avastin can do so but 100,000 can. In socialist England zero patients can use it.

Many socialists seem to find that inspiring because everyone is equally denied. I have heard such comments from some on the Left. But if they want equality of misery that betrays their true motives. They are not pushing for socialism to raise up those who are worse off but promoting socialism to tear down those who are better off. They are not seeking to make the poor better but make the better miserable. In other words these types of Leftists are not inspired by lover of humanity but hatred for wealth.

I can’t get my head around that sort of hatred for the well-off because they are well-off. Hatred doesn’t work well for me. It doesn’t fit me.

So I can’t be a socialist. I can’t be a socialist because I don’t want to use state violence to achieve the things I want to see for people. I can’t be a socialist because I don’t believe anyone should have the authority to determine what is a “need” and what isn’t. And I don’t hate people merely because they prosper.

The reality is that no system can give people everything they want. So when the distribution of material welfare is in the hands of the state it means that politicians decide for people what it is they should want and what they shouldn’t want. That is inherently authoritarian. And inevitably the politicians find ways to give people things which, in the end, benefit the politicians and the powerful and wealth elites who hobnob with them.

When the state distributes goods and services that means politicians distribute them. And that means they have power and privilege. And they end up working, not with the poor and powerless -- but with the wealthy and powerful. After all it costs money to win office and the more power the office has the more money special interests are willing to spend to grab it. So campaign spending goes up and up and the wealthy elites, and the political elites, get together and decide what benefits the poor and the needy. That’s how we got disasters like ethanol.

I am a libertarian by temperament because I wouldn’t use violence to take from some in order to allegedly help others. And I won’t have the state do that for me. I don’t want to try to control others and tell them what it is they may “want” and what they may not want. I don’t to create political structures that end up being captured by those who redistribute wealth -- usually from the working classes to the special interest groups with political clout.

I want a society where voluntary exchange predominates, where people are left to live their lives in peace, where we are not required to love each other but where we are required to tolerate one another and respect the equal rights of others to live their lives, according to their own values, provided they respect the equal freedom of everyone else. I believe in a society where helping is something we do naturally and voluntarily, not something done at the point of a gun.

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