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Trying to Hold up the Sky Alone
California State University, Dominguez Hills
University of Wisconsin, Parkside
Created: March 2, 2006
Latest Update: March 2, 2006
This backup copy is to be used only if the original site on the Web is not accessible. It is meant to preserve the document for teaching purposes, when sometimes the URLS are changed when sites are updated, or sites are eliminated. Please be certain to give credit if you refer to this to the original URL: http://www.frontiernet.net/~kenc/redhen.htm. Original URL, consulted: March 2, 2006.
Prescription Drugs, the Little Red Hen, and the Common Good
Copyright © Kenneth Cauthen 2003. Republished in Vol II no. 25 December 9, 2003, by Protestants for the Common Good, 200 N. Michigan #502 • Chicago, IL 60601 PH: 312-223-9544 • FAX: 312-726-0425 •firstname.lastname@example.org
Highlights added by jeanne.
Why should my hard-earned tax dollars go to pay for your DRUGS! I'm 21, work 80 hours a week, and I guarantee the average retiree has more $$$ than I Do!
What makes you think you deserve for me to pay for what you can afford yourself!?!
This message was posted on the AARP discussion board dealing with the recently passed Prescription Drug Bill. This evoked a number of equally emotionally-charged outbursts, including one from me:
Mr. 21-year-old. If you do not understand why many seniors need help with prescription drugs, then you should inform yourself before making any more comments. Meanwhile, I suspect a small brain with not much information, an even smaller heart with little compassion.
I am 73, and my children graduated from high school more than 20 years ago. Why should I pay the taxes that sent your generation to school a few years ago? In your childhood you went to schools you did not personally pay for, rode on highways, depended on a police force to protect you, and so on. Come on, get real. We all pay taxes to benefit all. OK, I don't always approve of how taxes are spent, but democracy allows for a change of policies. I was against the war in Iraq, but my taxes are helping pay for it. That is the way the system works. You need a lesson in democracy. And do you not have compassion for those who do need help with prescription drugs? Or you do believe that we are all on our own and nobody should help anyone else?
Leaving aside the fact that this brief exchange served no useful purpose other than to allow the authors to vent some strong feelings, the young man’s question raises issues of fundamental importance: Should the state coerce some to benefit others? What is the purpose of government with respect to promoting the common good? The variety of answers would identify the major options in political and social philosophy.
I sent the young man’s message and my response to a number of friends, which itself provoked a variety of responses. A friend sent me a rewritten version of the Little Red Hen story by an anonymous author that can be a useful starting point for considering some important questions.
Once upon a time, on a farm in Arkansas, there was a little red hen who scratched about the barnyard until she uncovered quite a few grains of wheat. She called all of her neighbors together and said, "If we plant this wheat, we shall have bread to eat. Who will help me plant it?" "Not I," said the cow. "Not I," said the duck. "Not I," said the pig. "Not I," said the goose. "Then I will do it by myself," said the little red hen. And so she did; the wheat grew very tall and ripened into golden grain. "Who will help me reap my wheat?" asked the little red hen. "Not I," said the duck. "Out of my classification," said the pig. "I'd lose my seniority," said the cow. "I'd lose my unemployment compensation," said the goose. "Then I will do it by myself," said the little red hen, and so she did. At last it came time to bake the bread. "Who will help me bake the bread?" asked the little red hen. "That would be overtime for me," said the cow. "I'd lose my welfare benefits," said the duck. "I'm a dropout and never learned how," said the pig. "If I'm to be the only helper, that's discrimination," said the goose. "Then I will do it by myself," said the little red hen. She baked five loaves and held them up for all of her neighbors to see. They wanted some and, in fact, demanded a share. But the little red hen said, "No, I shall eat all five loaves." "Excess profits!" cried the cow. "Capitalist leech!" screamed the duck. "I demand equal rights!" yelled the goose. The pig just grunted in disdain. And they all painted "Unfair!" picket signs and marched around and around the little red hen, shouting obscenities. Then a government agent came, he said to the little red hen, "You must not be so greedy." "But I earned the bread," said the little red hen. "Exactly," said the agent. "That is what makes our free enterprise system so wonderful. Anyone in the barnyard can earn as much as he wants. But under our modern government regulations, the productive workers must divide the fruits of labor with those who are lazy and idle." And they all lived happily ever after, including the little red hen, who smiled and clucked, "I am grateful, for now I truly understand." But her neighbors became quite disappointed in her. She never again baked bread because she joined the "party" and got her bread free. And all the Democrats smiled. 'Fairness' had been established. Individual initiative had died but nobody noticed; perhaps no one cared, as long as there was free bread.
One can, of course, rewrite this classic story to make it illustrate any social philosophy one desires. The version above is in the vicinity of the laissez faire doctrines of Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, Robert Nozick, and other contemporary libertarians.
To oversimplify to the point of risking distortion, they want a minimalist state that would eschew redistributional schemes to promote greater equality. It would limit itself to the role of guaranteeing free and honest exchanges between autonomous individuals. Individuals are, of course, free to give as many of their assets to the needy as they care to.The story could also be rewritten to advance other social philosophies. John Rawls, for example, like the libertarians insists on equal liberties for all but prefers a more extensive state with redistributional powers. All social benefits are to be shared equally except when an unequal distribution will advantage all.
Karl Marx envisioned an state of pure communism in which the rule would be "from each according to ability, to each according to need."
I am tempted to do my own revision of the Little Red Hen, but instead I will take the version of Anonymous as a starting point for, first, a critique that will then lead to my case for a more equalitarian society with equal liberties for all. This will be linked to an understanding of the economic and cultural production of goods and benefits as a social process which justifies measures to correct unjustified inequalities.
The reconstructed story by Anonymous has several contrasts that both express the background ideological framework and reveal its weaknesses. Perhaps the most important one is between "the productive workers" and "those who are lazy and idle." From this biased understanding flows a social vision like unto that of the twenty-one-year old complainer. The obvious problem with this division is that it ignores the fact that some citizens are too young, too old, too sick, or too disabled to work. What are we to do with them? The libertarians say: Let their families help them, aided by individual charity and perhaps limited governmental assistance, all within the constraints of a minimalist state. I will attempt to show that when measured by a theory of justice and the good society based on an understanding of the social nature of economic production, this perspective is inadequate.
Consider another contrast. "She never again baked bread . . . and got her bread free. . . . Individual initiative had died but nobody noticed; perhaps no one cared, as long as there was free bread." A sharp contrast is made between baking bread yourself or getting it free as if everybody could get free bread without anyone working. The problem here is that unless somebody grows grain and bakes bread, there will be no bread at all.
Let us take note also of the ambitious slogan that flourishes in popular American mythology – the Horatio Alger myth – about unfettered capitalism. "That is what makes our free enterprise system so wonderful. Anyone in the barnyard can earn as much as he wants." It would not be sportsmanlike to shoot a sitting duck like this, since the statement is obviously false. It ignores the fact that there are a lot of poor people who would like to earn more. Paul Newman was once asked why he gave all the profits from selling his products to charity. He replied, "Why not! I don’t need it." There are not many Paul Newmans, even among the wealthy. Most people want more whether they need it or not.
The major problem with this rendition of the Little Red Hen story is that it ignores the social elements of economic production and destiny. The traditional American norms of equal political liberty and equal economic opportunity have been expressed within a dominating framework of individualism. This view assumes that all social processes and economic outcomes can be understood as the aggregate product of individual actions. Within this framework the state's domestic role is basically to make and enforce fair rules of the game and to guarantee equal liberty to all.
When these assumptions are in force, it follows that policies designed to redistribute income and wealth as their primary goal are seen as pure and simple theft. To the extent that individuals are separate and independent agents interacting with each other on the basis of voluntary contract and exchange, any efforts by the state to go beyond guaranteeing equality of opportunity to enforce any degree of equality of results are clearly unjust. A society out of charity may decide by democratic means to give aid to the poor and helpless, but justice as such does not require it. Of course, individuals are free to equalize matters by any kinds of voluntary or cooperative actions they care to undertake.
My opposing point is that the economy has holistic features that cannot be reduced to the sum total of all individual transactions. Economic processes take place in a network of interdependencies. A multitude of factors and forces influence and sometimes determine each other. Involved in this complex system are human beings whose lives and destinies are dependent on the health and vitality of this whole dynamic and complex system.. Their own actions, taken singly, cannot control its ups and downs. Individuals, even when they do the best they can, are at the mercy of forces that may leave them unemployed and devastated.
Luck – just being in the right place at the right time – along with hard work and skill do, in fact, help to determine success or failure. But the truth is that we are all in it together.
We are bound up in a common system of operations that are more than the sum of its individual parts and specific processes. Hence, individualism is totally unfit to serve as a presupposition for understanding the reality of today's economy and for developing a theory of justice. Society simply cannot be reduced to the aggregate of individual actors and actions.
To paraphrase the words of Paul the Apostle, "For as in one [physical] body we have many members, and all the members do not have the same function, so we though many are one body as an economic system, and individually members one of another" (Roms. 12:4-5). There is a common good to which we contribute and from which we receive as members of a common system.
The moral argument is that this commonality creates a ground for some measure of equality of outcome as well as equality of opportunity. The intuitive presupposition is that good created in common should be enjoyed in common.
To illustrate, Bill Gates is a gifted creator of software and a talented, if ruthless, businessman. These abilities have made him billions. But his wealth depends not simply on his own efforts but on all the scientific and technological advances that made computers possible. In addition, he requires workers to create and manufacture his software. He must have customers with a need for his products. He functions within an economic system that permits him to establish a business and make a profit. He depends on the government to protect his patents, provide general law and order, enforce legal contracts, and guarantee his rights and privileges. His whole operation is set within an infrastructure of transportation and communication that tax money from the past and present from all citizens created. He accumulated wealth within a complex system that is prior to him and on which he absolutely depends. In short, the creation and distribution of goods and services are part of a social process to which we all contribute and from which we benefit. Hence, a reasonable and fair social sharing of benefits is morally justified.
Ethical theorists despair at the inability to give precise weighting to all the moral factors that determine just distributions. Likewise, economists despair at being able to measure accurately all economic determinants and to make precise predictions about the consequences of alternative economic policies. The proposition being defended is that ethical theory and economic reality create a presumption in favor of some measure of equality of outcome and put the burden of proof on those who would propose the contrary. I have argued for this in detail in my The Passion for Equality (1987).
My less emotionally charged but still passionate message to the young man who didn’t think he should contribute to a prescription drug programs that would benefit others is this:
We are all in it together, and I would urge you to recognize that you are part of a complicated economic system to which you contribute and from which you benefit. When the state coerces you to pay taxes to help others, I hope you can see this not as robbery but as a way of enabling everyone to share in a common good that we have produced together.
Of course, we have to make decisions about the wisdom, justice, efficiency, and practicality of particular policies. We need to make sure any given proposal is properly expressive of our interdependence. It should also offer an effective way of requiring individual responsibility.
On these terms, the prescription drug bill recently passed by Congress is, in my view, an awful policy that itself is driven by an excessively individualistic ideology that serves powerful corporate interests to the neglect of equity. What we really need, I contend, is a plan that provides universal health care. It follows from what I believe justice and an adequate understanding of the common good require.
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