Saturday, April 5, 2008

Social Goods and Individual Exceptionalism

From Stuff White People Like:

"Though their passion for national health care runs deep, it is important to remember that white people are most in favor of it when they are healthy. They love the idea of everyone have equal access to the resources that will keep them alive, that is until they have to wait in line for an MRI.

This is very similar to the way that white people express their support for public schools when they don’t have children."

From The Straight Dope:

"Which gets us to the heart of the issue. Ban small cars? Don't be ridiculous, CAFE advocates say. We'd all be safer and use less gas to boot if we banned SUVs. A 2002 study of 84 cars, trucks, SUVs, and minivans conducted for the U.S. Department of Energy concluded that SUVs and pickup trucks had the highest combined risk of any vehicles — that is, risk to both their occupants and occupants of other cars. True, the average SUV protected its occupants better than the average small car. However, some midsize cars protected their occupants just as well as SUVs without unduly endangering the occupants of other vehicles. The study also found that the safest compact and subcompact cars were as safe for their drivers as the average SUV, and safer from a combined-risk standpoint."


This is a nation where the right of the individual is prized. We are "rugged individualists" and personal responsibility is listed as a defining characteristic of the American Identity. It fits this pattern that we only want the best for ourselves - the best health care, the best schools, the safest car. Certainly, we're worth it, right?

Some of us are. The best, the quantifiable and marketable best, is available to some Americans. Good healthcare insurance requires a substantial investment of wealth, or a competitive job that attracts the highly qualified and the highly educated. Good education goes to the children of those with the wealth for private school or those who have the clout to select a home based on school quality, often in detached communities far removed from the problems of urban poverty, where property taxes can be low in percentage but huge in the money they collect, and where municipal integrity against the neighboring beast of a city is a right fought-for and maintained by the diligence of neighboring lawyers on their off hours. The safest car is a fortress for the individual, with clear lines of sight, an insulating and expertly-designed body, and the latest and best-rated safety equipment; it may get into a crash, but it will come out on top, protecting the precious insides like the skillfully crafted "mars lander" egg drop contraption sitting on Timmy's lap. This is what the best is, and the crude summary of its worth can be listed as "available to those making at least six figures a year, as a bare minimum".

Income and benefits are a primitive assessment of personal worth, but in the context of entitlement to the best that can be offered, its an appropriate one. The problem with using wealth to allocate benefits is that it is impersonal and it assumes that "more wealth=more deserving". The benefit of using wealth to allocate benefits is that its a system that works, and produces immediate results. It's not a system that can easily be changed, and I'm not really going to decry wealth here. But I'll say the system is flawed for another reason: it's self-centered.

Not "self-centered" in the Ayn Rand way. Well, yes, in the Ayn Rand way, but not for the normal reasons. A focus on the individual to the exclusion of all else provides the best possible for the capable individual. This is the goal of microeconomics, of the single player in a game of scarcity. What it fails to do is the best total for everyone.

Economics is, at its core, about calculating how to use scare resources to meet the greatest number of wants. Wants range from "food so I don't die" to "an Island in the pacific". The logic that equates these wants is that the wealthy have more to spend, and so have more wants to satisfy. In arguing for this simplified system, we ignore harms caused by individual actions.

This leads to the second of the above examples. The modern SUV is a remarkably safe vehicle for the people on the inside, but the combined risk of SUV + non-SUV in a crash is greater than the risk of a non-SUV crashing into a non-SUV. The SUV driver has, in the name of individual safety, protected themself at the expense of others. The total danger of crashes involving SUVs has made driving more dangerous for everyone. This is a social negative, and it is caused something that leads to two uncomfortable solutions - the individual can buy an SUV, exacerbating a process begun in the name of the self, or government can step in and say "Cars that make driving more dangerous for everyone should be banned." Neither of these is a good proposition for people who drive or government, and so the option chosen has just been to step back, at least somewhat. The person writing in to Straight Dope was specifically asking about the safety of small cars after a federal fuel efficiency standard was imposed, and why they just haven't been banned for being unsafe. The federal government has gone on to impose other standards, requiring such infringements on the freedom of business such as requiring cars to come with quality seatbelts, and infringements on individual freedom as mandatory seatbelt wearing. Bur the furthest step has not been taken, which would be the banning of vehicles which cause greater combined risk to occupants and other drivers. There are some universal standards, but wealth and choice can still give a person more safety at the expense of the safety of others. The individuals want is satisfied, but damage is done to the community as a whole.

This leads me back to the first quote. There is an ideal and a holier-than-thou aspect to the promotion of the wonderful idea of universal healthcare, and while I am an ardent advocate, I can't say I share the same belief about the perfections of "the European way". Universal healthcare means waiting, it means delays and slowdowns, and it means an incredible step down for those have the wealth that allows them the best. This would not (will not?) be a pleasant change for the people who have the clout and the resources to make their discontent the subject of national policy. It will hopefully, however, be a step up for the people who are going without, or who are only just getting by. In terms of total wants satisfied, the number goes down, but in terms of people with wants satisfied, the number goes up. This is a social good.

Stuff White People Like draws a parallel to public education, and this is a worthy point. There was a time, not long ago, in American public education where a system that functioned for a limited class of people was opened up, and the system broke. The event in question? Desegregation.

This is not to say that desegregation made schools worse. White people were afraid that it would, but those who had been attending the second class schools finally had a chance up, into the effective system that existed alongside the dysfunctional one. The opportunity existed for more peoples wants to be satisfied, even if it meant a change in the number of wants satisfied for the individuals. So, a shot at college for every student, instead of the segregated schools more rigid delineation between the group who were more guaranteed spots, and between those who had little option. This was a social good, but it came at the cost of individual entitlement.

People reacted to this in an unsurprising but disappointing manner. Suburban schools, which were accessed by moving out from the city (expensive), commuting to work in the city (expensive), and being part of a separate municipality (not expensive, but required work to prevent incorporation) to avoid national education mandates. A multiple-tier system re-emerged, with private schools the pinnacle, and then suburban schools the standard bet for those who could afford it. The individuals certainly acted in their best interests, and it is hard to fault people for that.

It is easier to fault people for that when one looks at the harm caused by the white flight. They took incomes with them, and with those incomes they took away the tax base that had made schools once highly functioning. I am not putting the whole public education crisis on this, but certainly this is responsible for some of the harm. Vouchers have gained popularity as a way to provide the option of flight to more people, and this will directly hurt the public education system, thereby greatly increasing the incentive for those still in it to leave, and hurting the education of those who cannot, even with vouchers, hope to go elsewhere.

A friend of mine said to me yesterday that he thinks public education is dead, that it is in its last days and that, because it is so messed up, people won't stand for it much longer. He's a lifelong Louisianan, who grew up across the lake from New Orleans and who went, like most white Louisianans I've met at college here, to a private school. This state is consistently one of the worst in education, trading places withMississippi and New Mexico regularly. Private schools, in the form of Catholic schools, have a long tradition of providing education in this state. The education is generally quality and reasonably priced. It's not the exception of the uber-wealthy, as I've stated most exceptions are. But it is an exception borne of some wealth, and it is an exception that allows for money that would go into public education to go elsewhere.

I think of universal healthcare and public education especially as social goods. I think of safe driving conditions as a social good. I'm generally a big fan of that which incurs a universal fee for a universal benefit, and feelings will not change when I'm on a long waiting list for vital surgery, or when my children have to compete with a larger group of brilliant youths for college applications, or when I buy a car that isn't the safest individually but that does little to increase the risk and danger to others. It's selfish, in both the affirming "I Matter!" way and in antisocial the "I think I Matter more than everyone else!" way to do otherwise, and while it is an easy sentiment to sympathize with, I still cannot justify it as rational, beneficial action.

Social goods are those which benefit the whole of society, and they do so at a cost applied universally, so that no segment of the population feels an undue burden or is entitled to an undue benefit. Highways are awesome, and I'm perfectly happy with the ones paid for by taxes being a bit worse than the one's with tollbooths that I am inclined to avoid. Yeah, the product is inferior than one that would be produced by a free market, but this allows those without the means to derive the same benefit from those with means. This reduces individual exceptionalism, which is fine for houses and for luxuries but is harmful for education or healthcare or a myriad of number of factors which are unified by a simple fact: they help society be a meritocracy.

A given individual will want all the benefits in society that then can accrue for themself, and a parent will want all the benefits they have accrued in their life to be transferable to their children. This is understandable, but it combines poorly with a society where wealth is commonly accepted as a standard of ones character. The children of the poor are responsible for their poverty only so much as the children of the wealthy are responsible for their wealth. Social goods aim at providing the same benefits to all citizens, and so in a world where public school was the only option, rich children and poor children would have the same quality of education at school. At home, things would be different, as this is outside the sane reach of law, but in the educational system each child would be given more or less a fair shot at the same goal. When in need of medical attention, each person would have the same chance as anyone else at that needed kidney, or at an MRI. When on the road, everyone would be about as safe as everyone else, and no one would endanger anyone else unduly at the expense of personal safety. The social goods would be a leveler, an attempt to acknowledge that everyone is created equal in the eyes of the law and the state, if not with regards to economic status.

I'm a big fan of inherent worth and dignity. I think that alone should be what entitles people to the benefits of society, and that wealth shouldn't allow one to assume and act as though they are more valuable than anyone else. It violates every notion I have of social justice.


Qualifier - I am not opposed to wealth per se. I think wealth is wonderful, and I am fully aware of the benefits that being in a free market society affords me. For a defense of the free market I have written, see the comment thread here (hint: I'm "the boy"). But I feel that the affect of wealth should be limited in some areas of society, and the big one omitted here is on the votes and actions of politicians. Lawrence Lessig is using this as the focus of his latest initiative, and it looks to be pretty effective. I support democracy, and I support the free market, but there is the potential to cause significant harm that most cost calculations ignore. John Fleck has a good bit about the social costs of fossil fuel here, and the potential harm caused by global warming is a big example of something left out of the supply/demand cost-benefit determination that is in place (or hypothetically could be - oil is a commodity that often has a value determined by factors other than the invisible hand of the market).
So, wealth - I think that capital and the further investment of capital into the economic system is good, and I think that some of the wealth that goes to individual exceptionalism should instead go into improving the quality of social goods. Yes, this means that those who were benefiting from exceptionalism now have to settle for inferior goods at a similar cost, but it means the quality of the good goes up for those who didn't have the option of paying more anyways, and this is why its a great leveler, and I think a benefit on the whole to society. The rest of the wealth that would be spent on things like healthcare and private school is freed up for plenty of other things, so long as the other things don't cause undue additional harm to the rest of society. This "undue additional harm" is the other half of my justification for universal healthcare and public schooling - taking monopolizing healthcare resources and taking money out of public schools (in cities, I should add) both cause harm to many at the expense of the few.


Disclaimer - I'm a straight white male benefiting from a middle (probably upper-middle) class upbrining, and I'm attending a private college. And yet somehow I am saying these things and probably mean them. The cynical explanation is that I don't have the greatest opinion of my peers. The optimistic explanation is that I believe everyone is as worthy as fine individuals such as myself, and that I am no more worthy than they are, for the benefits I have received. I am not, as I have hopefully established, a selfish jerk. (Not that you are if you think or act otherwise.)//for those not sarcastically inclined, this last section, and this last section only, has a dash of sarcasm.


Mega said...

There is too much for me to respond to at once, but wow. Amazing and thought-provoking.
And now for my unfocused gut response :)
What really got me thinking was the discussion of inherent worth and dignity. It's something that's been woven into me for generations. But when I took martial arts, it really hindered some things...such as "Why should I respond to violence with violence?" The parting advice of one of my very wise friends and teachers was, "Stop thinking that you are equal to all those idiots out there." ...An interesting comment that really made me think. As best as I figure so far, there are inherent differences in people, and acknowledging the differences as valuable is the key. But there is a still this voice in me telling me, "You are better." And even more so that I should _try_ to be better, and hope everyone else does the same.
I think where we have all gone awry is the cultural (read: not my) definition of better including wealth, race and probably education too.
More to follow sometime soon when I take some time to write...

Kelsey Atherton said...

The trick with degrees of betterness and wealth is that on an equal footing, one person accumulating more wealth translates quite easily into a "they worked harder/better/smarter". That assumes an even footing, and inheritance for starters imbalances that. With social goods, I'm asking that people don't improve themselves in ways that don't act directly to the detriment of others. SUV for safety is harmful and selfish - being in good shape and better able to recover from an accident is selfish but not harmful, and so that is perfectly okay and legitimate. One can still improve, just within narrower confines of not hurting others in the process.

Ayesha said...

Every human being should have the opportunity to make a better life for themselves. Unfortunately, too many children in the world today grow up without this chance, because they are denied their basic right to even attend primary school. A sustainable end to world poverty as we know it, as well as the path to peace and security, requires that citizens in every country are empowered to make positive choices and provide for themselves and their families.
Lets all join this campaign: