Should healthcare, foodstuffs, and shelter be treated as commodities subject to the buyer’s ability to pay, or designated as rights because a person’s survival depends on them? In short, is the innate human drive of self-preservation worthy of being recognized societally as justifying a right to sustenance? In the E.U., this point of view tends to hold sway, whereas in the U.S., food, medical care (and medicine), and housing units tend to be treated as commodities subject to a buyer’s ability to pay. This difference in political socio-economic ideology is as telling as it is significant, yet in the U.S. at least the question is rarely debated directly rather than through ancillary issues.
Here is one American politician’s rather direct articulation on the campaign trail of the “commodity,” or “non-right” position:
“We’re looking at Obamacare right now. Once we start with those benefits in January, how are we going to get people off of those? It’s exponentially harder to remove people once they’ve already been on those programs…we rely on government for absolutely everything. And in the years since I was a small girl up until now into my adulthood with children of my own, we have lost a reliance on not only our own families, but so much of what our churches and private organizations used to do. They used to have wonderful food pantries. They used to provide clothing for those that really needed it. But we have gotten away from that. Now we’re at a point where the government will just give away anything.”
The dependence argument and the related perspective that a government gives things away in its entitlement programs both assume that the beneficiaries do not have a right to sustenance materials, or that the stuff provided goes beyond necessities. Furthermore, the “charities” preference over government also assumes that sustenance is not a right, for charities unlike government are not geared to providing items to cover each day.
Just as a market cannot be relied on for a daily provision because procurement depends on having enough money at the time of purchase, so too charities cannot be relied on to provide clothing and food for people such they will not go without for even a day. The possible discontinuity is accepted, according to this view, because sustenance is not something that people should treat as a given; rather, a person’s continued day-to-day survival naturally depends the person’s ability to work. The assumption here is that a lack of work is likely due to some problem in the person, rather than a macro problem in the political economy. Individuals are not victims of a feature of societal organization, such as an economic system, so no right to unconditional compensation is recognized. Besides, charities can pick up the slack—daily sustenance not being a legitimate demand.
Put another way, the moral or religious obligation of the well-off to donate part of their surplus to charities is assumed to cover the occasional short-fall in food and clothing from being laid off in a recession. The moral obligation extends to helping even those people who have lost work due to their own fault, but the expectation is that if they want to survive beyond a temporary period of job-looking, they should rely on their own means of earning enough money to provide for themselves.
My point here is that in not being thwarted by the incendiary “getting free stuff” remark, readers of Joni Ernst’s remarks can know the assumptions behind her ideology and evaluate them. If enough people do so, then perhaps those assumptions can be debated in societal discourse. A societal consensus on the assumptions would ideally lead to the associated public policy being enacted. In other words, the assumptions that most people in a geographical region hold can be made transparent to them such that critical reflection can occur both individually and societally. From such recognition and thought, greater confidence can be had that people really do believe as they do regarding the assumptions, which involve subjective value-judgments rather than being solely based on fact.
1. Jonathan Chait, “Republican Joni Ernst Admits Why Republicans Really Hate Obamacare,” New York Magazine, October 16, 2014.