On the nature of society

The Facebook discussion of my previous blog about the difference between a health care plan and insurance raised the following questions:

  1. What should a compassionate society do?
  2. Should a compassionate society feed the hungry and house the homeless?
  3. Should we provide health care as a human right?
  4. Can we do something about ever increasing costs while maintaining or bettering actual care?

I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t have all the answers.  I do have some ideas, though, about what we should do, and why.  But first I need to lay some background.

A society is nothing more than a group of people who voluntarily pool their efforts in support of shared goals and values.  The members of society acknowledge that when they act as a group, each individual is stronger and more secure than if they acted individually.  Typically, they agree to a common code of conduct and commit to contributing some resources (effort, or the product of their effort) to the group.  Note that they don’t commit all of their resources.  Each member voluntarily contributes to the group, and does so as long as he recognizes the value of doing so.  What he considers value can be ego (the pride of knowing that he contributed), the gratitude of others, recognition of the strength to be had in numbers, love, or in order to benefit from the contributions of others, etc.

That’s an admittedly brief and incomplete definition of society, but it will serve.  The primary point is that it’s a voluntary contract among individuals.

As long as the voluntarily contributed pool of resources meets or exceeds the combined consumption, the society works and compassion is a non-issue.  Every member of society is cared for.  Only when consumption exceeds contributions (i.e. there is a deficit) does the question of compassion come in.  At that point, the society must ask for more from those who can contribute.  But when the society demands more, and uses force to obtain it, the society has become corrupt.

You see, societies cannot be compassionate.  Only people can be compassionate.  In order for a society to be “compassionate,” it must have the power to take, under threat of force, from its members.  Forcefully taking somebody else’s life or property is an immoral act, regardless of how that property is then distributed or how “noble” the cause.  Any society that condones or initiates such an act is corrupt.  The end does not justify the means.

I want to expand a bit on my use of “life,” above.  One can debate the morality of war, self defense, and capital punishment, but other than that the taking of a human life is generally regarded as an immoral act.  But depriving me of the product of my life is also an immoral act.  If you steal from me a tool that I spent a day fashioning from a stick, you have stolen a day of my life.  Theft of property is theft of life.  When society demands the product of my effort, it is demanding that I give up part of my life for the good of society.

Government is a construct created by society to protect that society from internal and external threats.  Society limits the government’s powers, cedes to it the exclusive right to initiate force, and tightly controls the exercise of those powers.  Recent history has shown time and again that Locke was right:  governments derive their power from the consent of the governed.  When government begins dictating to society, then the society has ceased to function and the people are at the whim of an entity that has ultimate power and no moral restraint.

Now, to the questions I mentioned at the beginning of this post.  The first two can be combined:  “Should we as a society provide food, shelter, and health care to those who are unable to provide for themselves?”  The simple answer is yes, with limitations.  The real question is how we should go about it, and that is the subject of the next post.  That post might also cover the final question of controlling costs and improving care.

The author of the third question, “Should we provide health care as a human right?” might have meant the question I just asked above, but his use of the term “human right” raises other issues that I want to cover in a separate post on the nature of human rights.