In comments to my post on different notions of liberty and the health care debate, a person called “Person” disputes that there’s more than one meaningful type of liberty. She or he is arguing from the tradition that recognizes the importance of “freedom from” but not “freedom to.” That is, Person emphasizes negative liberty to the exclusion of positive liberty:
The truth is that statists – Liberals and Conservatives – do not believe in liberty at all. If they were honest about it, that would be fine, but they’re not. The Liberty to which I subscribe is this: That is is unethical for Person A (or a group) to aggress against the person or property of Person B, so long as Person B has not previously aggressed against others. More government in Health Care sounds like such a great plan and it is well-intentioned. But it won’t work, and even if it could would be unethical and against liberty.
Why? Because people living under a system of liberty are free to do what they want with their own property; coercion of any kind is wrong. To fund heath care the government must first tax, which is directly and undeniably antithetical to liberty. If I earn money by voluntarily working for another person (or firm), it is mine. It would be obviously wrong for a person on the street to pull out a gun and take the money from my pocket. While Liberals and Conservatives agree with that statement, they disagree that it is wrong for the government to do the exact same thing. Taxes are not voluntary; if you do not pay you will go to jail at the point of a gun, just ask Wesley Snipes. Of course, I have no problem with people who want to set up a VOLUNTARY system, to which you or anyone else could contribute as much money as you want. But to COERCE people to forfeit their rightful property is theft, plain and simple. I don’t think theft is an element of liberty.
Person’s argument, unless I misunderstood, is that *any* form of taxation is an infringement on liberty. Period. I agree that both liberals (in the present-day sense) and conservatives see an important role for government (though they practice different forms of redistribution) and therefore stand in opposition to Person’s position, which – if I’ve understood it correctly – is radical libertarianism. If I trace out the implications of Person’s position, federal and state funding for education would be equally illegitimate. That would hold true for K-12 as well as higher ed. And in fact, many, many Americans do object to paying higher taxes to finance the education system – as schoolkids in several central Ohio districts and, more locally, the Federal Hocking schools can attest. These districts are seeing school closures, cutbacks in basic classes, and the complete eliminations of “specials” such as music and art.
Myself, I see education, along with police and fire services, public libraries, and yes, health care, as crucial to positive liberty. If we are illiterate, in poor health ill, and/or terrified of crime, we can scarcely exercise the duties of citizenship, much less reap its benefits. We’ll be unable to perform work that contributes to our individual betterment, as well as the advancement of society. Elevating people above the level of ignorance, fear, and ill health contributes to the liberties of each individual, and to my mind this easily justifies the infringement on liberty that taxation necessarily represents. The same argument applies to the payroll taxes that finance Social Security and Medicare.
Seen from this angle, taxation isn’t aggression. It’s a trade-off of one liberty (freedom from seizure of property) for another (the freedom to be able to live one’s life without avoidable impairment of health). The latter is crucial if one is to work and earn money; taxation is irrelevant when disability results in long-term unemployment. In addition, lots of individual initiative is stifled because health insurance is prohibitively expensive or unavailable on the individual market.
Personally, I could afford to teach as an adjunct from 2002 up ’til fall of 2008 only because my husband’s insurance covered me. Had that not been the case, I would have been forced to seek out other work. Locally, that probably would have meant a secretarial job at the university. (I’m assuming Wal-Mart wouldn’t have me, and there aren’t many other games in town.) This would have seriously restricted my liberty to work in the field for which I’m trained. And while I was a darn good secretary back in the day, it would have prevented me from contributing to society in the area where I believe I have the most to give. It would also be a waste of many years’ training, much of which was subsidized by generous, privately-endowed grants.
My story repeats itself throughout our economy millions of times over. The present system creates perverse economic incentives for people to stay in jobs just for the insurance, and to avoid striking out and taking risks. This, too, stifles liberty. Entrepreneurship becomes well-nigh impossible when you literally risk your life by entering the individual insurance market.
Finally, the current system already does impose a de facto invisible tax on everyone who pays health insurance premiums. Emergency room doctors are ethically obligated to treat all comers, regardless of their ability to pay. Those who are insured subsidize ER patients without insurance. I’d much rather taxation be open and aboveboard, instead of smuggled in through the back door.
Update, wee hours of 9/23/09: Ballgame left this in comments, and oh my goodness you have to watch it if you won’t get in trouble for LOLing at work! Go Somalia! Go go go malaria!!