06 December 2011

Term Conflation


He was referring to a GOP presidential debate in which Rep. Ron Paul was asked what should be done if a 30-year-old man who chose not to purchase health insurance found himself in need of six months of intensive care. Paul correctly, but politically incorrectly, replied, "That's what freedom is all about – taking your own risks." CNN moderator Wolf Blitzer pressed his question further, asking whether "society should just let him die." The crowd erupted with cheers and shouts of "Yeah!", which led Krugman to conclude that "American politics is fundamentally about different moral visions." Professor Krugman is absolutely right; our nation is faced with a conflict of moral visions. [Emphasis added.]

While Blitzer’s response might make for powerful rhetoric—because most people are idiots—it is completely extraneous to the debate because the federal government is not synonymous with society.  To see the validity of this claim, consider the following question:  of how many people is American society comprised?  (Answer:  Approximately 310 million.)  Now consider:  of how many people is the federal government comprised?  (Answer:  Approximately 3 million).  The difference between the two numbers should indicate that there is a difference between “American society” and “the federal government.”  Specifically, the federal government is a subset of American society.

This distinction is crucial because presidential candidates need not concern themselves with social imperatives.  Rather, they should focus on federal limitations, which is exactly what Ron Paul did.

The federal government has absolutely no obligation to help a 30-year-old man who, having failed to purchase health insurance, is in need of six months of intensive care.  In fact, the federal government is implicitly forbidden from doing such a thing (cf. the tenth amendment).  As such, the federal government should, in fact, “let him die,” as it were.

But as for society, well that’s a different thing altogether.  State or municipal governments could offer health care for this hypothetical man, assuming they desired to and were not prevented by their respective state constitutions and municipal charters from so doing.  Private charities and individuals could certainly pay for the man’s health care out of their own pocket.  Banks could loan the man money to pay his bills.  Or the hospital could simply care for the man for free and absorb the loss. Therefore, society could certainly take care of the man, and could do so in a manner that does not require the federal government's involvement.

The correct answer to Blitzer’s question, then, is:  “Society should not ‘let him die,’ but this does not mean that the federal government should be involved.  Also, you’re an idiot who is apparently incapable of telling the difference between a set and subset.”

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