Wednesday, September 23, 2009

What About Universal Health Care?

In my post on September 14, I made reference to the problem of universal health care, which is so much in the news nowadays. In response, I received the following comments (among others).

One Thinking Friend (TF) wrote (in an e-mail): "I do not think bringing politics into the equation is beneficial. It is too corrupting of both Spiritual and Religion."

MPH said in his posted comments, "It's clear that our society needs health care reform, but not just any health care reform will do. Who could question that caring for the poor is of paramount import, recognized intuitively by even the most callous in our society; and, explicitly stated in the words of Jesus as preserved by the Evangelists. But how to do it so that it is broadly effective and just is a matter demanding great contemplation."

Another TF sent me an e-mail in which he wrote, in part: "A very bright Libertarian friend of mine distinguishes between voluntary philanthropy (as, for example, when I am moved for the need of the hungry, and give to Bread for the World) and coerced philanthropy (as in government programs to care for the needy). In the latter case, we generously give away a little of our money. We also coerce others to pay taxes to support the philanthropic need. He concludes that the two types of philanthropy are not the same, even though they both involve needy people and the transfer of money from the haves to the have-nots. His other conclusion: 'Feel free to give away your own money to the needy. Don't feel free to give away my money to help the needy (or, for that matter, most other government programs).'"

In response to the above, let me just make some brief comments: (1) I am a firm believer in the separation of church and state--but not in the separation of faith and politics (as Jim Wallis often says). I believe our Christian faith should be reflected in the public policies we support (or do not support) and the politicians we vote for--and that our support of public policy or politicians should always be based upon our faith.

(2) It seems to me that there are many who do not think in terms of helping the poor in our society. ("The poor need to get to work and take care of themselves.") That is the impression I get from listening to "talk radio" (on a very limited basis; I can't take much of it at a time), and that is the impression I got from watching some of the "March on Washington" sponsored by the Tea Party Movement. (Look at their website and see if you can find any concern for the poor and uninsured people in our society.) I agree that not just any plan is OK--but this is an issue that has been pending for more than forty years now, and something needs to be done sooner rather than later.

(3) Many Libertarian groups seem to be supporters of the Tea Party movement, and my TF's "very bright" friend possibly is a supporter of that movement. I am a big supporter of liberty, especially when it comes to freedom of religion or freedom of conscience. But I am not convinced that not paying taxes for the public good is a matter of liberty as much as it is a matter of selfishness. Private philanthropy--or the work of churches and other religious institutions--will never be sufficient to take care of all the needs in society. Shouldn't a government "of the people, by the people, and for the people" do all it can to provide health care for those who do not have it and cannot afford it?


  1. I simply don't know what to say. I cannot seem to find a principle that I think applies to the complexity of the current health care situation. On the one hand, I want to enter the conversation guided by my compassion for those who cannot afford health care; at the same time, I feel it would be dishonest to abdicate my sense of duty to justice. And, if justice is the highest compassion we can reach, I have doubt that universal health care can succeed. Ultimately, it's not fair.

    We've just finished John Stuart Mill's "On Liberty" in the first-year "Responsible Self" class, the common course in Jewell's core curriculum. Mill urges that all able-minded adults are entitled to liberty that is free from any interference from either community or government (either opinion or law) as long as that individual's actions do not cause harm to anyone else. However, as Mill begins to reflect upon the nature of harm, he observes that every able-minded member of society, who benefits from the protection of society, is obligated by society to contribute to its good. In fact, society can demand that one fulfill his or her obligations. Hence, harm can be caused by action, inflicting actual harm on a person, or by inaction, failing in some clear and assignable obligation owed to a person.

    So, a person who spends his money lavishly on various things so that he hasn't got enough to educate his children is causing harm. It's not the behavior for which he is morally accountable, though, it's the harm he causes. The community and the government have a right to intervene in such cases. But, education is an interesting case. Mill believes that a family is ultimately responsible for the education of the young, not the government. The government may assist by providing the testing to determine the achievement, but should not design the actual education. Mill frowns on this, because, governments are interested in making people conform to a single principle rather than allowing diversity. And, Mill believes that liberty and diversity actually contribute to the larger good of society.

    Well, I'm rambling, but I'm searching for some principles on which to formulate an opinion about univeral health care. First, I value liberty and don't like the idea of government interference with mine (this applies to many areas, too; religion is one, morality another); Two, I think that it is irresponsible for us to think that citizens of a state do not have obligations to the state's well-being, as well as to its citizens. Some of that obligation has to be taking responsibility for one's own health and happiness. In other words, you can't squander your own health and then expect your neighbors to come bail you out, can you? Nor should I be expected to bail out someone who has squandered his health. That's not just, is it? Three, the state cannot hold responsible in the same way those persons who are not able-minded (e.g., either because of age or health). There has to be direct intervention and provision for such persons, either through families caring properly for their young ones, or community sponsored (government sponsored) agencies that provide care for the disabled; Fourth, individual persons who are able to take resonsibility for their health and welfare are in a covenant relationship with their communities and governments for their own health care in the way that they are for education.Education is the responsibility of the family, but the government has an interest in that education. This must be conceived as a cooperative effort, with both sharing the obligation, somehow. In this way, unversal health care is not just on the shoulders of government, but is shared by the citizens as well as their government.

  2. I was delighted to receive the following e-mail from my good friend Glen Davis, who is a Canadian. Glen and his wife Joyce were Presbyterian missionaries in Japan and lived a number of years in Fukuoka, the same city June and I lived in for so long.

    Here's Glen's e-mail (with only the first paragraph omitted).


    "I was interested to read the comments on health care. As a Canadian I find it difficult to understand the depth of emotional, negative (dare I say knee-jerk) reaction by many of our US neighbours to the idea of universal, single payer health care. I suspect it has less to do with racism in disguise, directed at a black president, than with a deep-seated fear that your country might be heading down the dreaded road of socialism (which can only lead to communism).

    "The Canadian healthcare system is excellent, not perfect, but excellent and we are far from communism!. EVERY Canadian has access to all necessary medical procedures and we get no bills when the procedure or treatments is completed. My wife and I have had several surgeries and many medical treatments over many years and our provincial health care plan pays it all. Yes, there is a cost. Some provinces charge an annual premium and others simply take the costs from tax revenue. But the important thing for Christians to note is that this is a SHARED cost. It is just and fair and no one is required to go into debt in order to keep a family member alive. No private health insurance companies are siphoning funds for profit. It sounds a lot like the kind of just treatment that Jesus would support!

    "I pray that your great country will soon have a system which will provide care for everyone, especially the 40 million who have no health insurance, and the many people who find their private health insurance premiums an intolerable burden.

    "Grace and peace,