Saturday, June 16, 2012

The Impracticality of Freedom

This excerpt fromRobert Nozick's 1974 critically acclaimed philosophical masterpiece Anarchy, State and Utopia inspired today's column.
Does someone violate another's rights by performing an action without sufficient means or liability insurance to cover its risks? May he be forbidden to do this or punished for doing it? Since an enormous number of actions do increase risk to others, a society which prohibited such uncovered actions would ill fit a picture of a free society as one embodying a presumption in favor of liberty, under which people permissibly could perform actions so long as they didn't harm others in specific ways. Yet how can people be allowed to impose risks on others to whom they are not in a position to compensate should the need arise? Why should some have to bear the costs of others' freedom? Yet to prohibit risky acts (because they are financially uncovered or because they are too risky) limits individuals' freedom to act, even though the actions actually might involve no cost at all to anyone else.

The Impracticality of Freedom

So the man who chooses not to purchase medical insurance exacts a cost upon the others who will pay the (they presume) inevitable hospital bill. The others must therefore mandate that he will take from his own resources to buy insurance. That is, others will require a sacrifice from him that he would not require of himself.Of course this makes sense, for again, others would bear the cost of his lack of coverage. It's only fair. Or is it?

Allow me to rephrase: Others exact a cost onto the man whose (they presume) eventual ill-health would be, were he allowed to go uninsured, the source of their future burden. How then, in the interest of fairness, will the others compensate the man for his very real current sacrifice? After all, there's no guarantee that his demise won't come in the form of a quiet, yet massive, instantly fatal heart attack. In which case he had sacrificed the enjoyment of his own resources (his cost of insurance), while the others he was forced to protect sacrificed nothing. What's fair about that? More importantly, what's free about that?

Remember Q from past conversations with A? He's not buying this one.
Q: I understand your point, but you're way off base. You're being entirely impractical.

A: Why?

Q: Because the odds are great that he'll one-day need medical attention and it would be irresponsible of him to go uncovered, thereby forcing others to pay his bills. That's blatantly unfair.

A: So, per your definition of fairness, people should not be free to be irresponsible?

Q: Not when others have to pay for their irresponsibility.

A: So what if he were to simply say "don't take care of me, don't pay my bills"? Thereby forcing a burden upon no one. That'd be fair, right?

Q: But that's not how our system works. He'd know somebody's going to care for him when he's sick, even when he can't pay the bill.

A: True. And I think you're onto something. I think our system's the problem.

Q: Say what?

A: What if government didn't take care of people who chose not to take care of themselves? I wonder if knowing there's no reward for irresponsibility (that no one would pay his bills), if he wouldn't go ahead and buy the health insurance.

Q: So you're saying we should let people get sick and die?

A: I'm saying it's not government's responsibility to take from responsible taxpayers to pay the bills of irresponsible taxtakers.

Q: If government doesn't take care of these people who will?

A: For one, if government never did, I'm convinced there'd be vastly fewer irresponsible people. And those left would find aid by the grace of caring human beings of means. And by the way, in a world of smaller government, the private sector would have substantially more means with which to care for the [substantially fewer] people in need...

Q: You're dreaming!

A: I know...


  1. You've hit the crux of the healthcare debate. As a matter of social policy, what do we consider to be a healthcare right versus a healthcare privilege? These same debates apply to education, roads, public parks etc... basically anywhere society applies the concepts of collectivism. Since your article applies to shared risk, and my kids are practically raised, I could argue for universal healthcare and abandon public education all together. Afterall, that would be my "free market choice" if I wanted to mitigate my risk. Of course, that isn't my choice since I see the benefit to society by pooling resources to educated kids. And I see how that same benefit may apply to healthcare.

  2. Martin L. MazorraJune 18, 2012 at 12:42 AM

    I suppose there are the we