Why utilitarians are modestly hostile

Why are people so hostile toward “liberals”? Someone has kindly explained it at last, and that explanation is relatively reasonable.

It points out some common ground between his point of view (libertarian, apparently) and a “liberal” point of view on corporate welfare. Then it goes through a neat history lesson on FDR’s philosophy.

The difference between his philosophy and others is this:

How does your political bent threaten my and my sons’ personal liberty, you ask? In your irrational attempt to classify things such as clothing, shelter, health care, employment, and income as basic human rights, you are placing a demand upon my time, my treasure, and my talents.

I suppose that’s true. But what I don’t understand is this: Does any modern philosophy state that such things are not basic human rights, and that we human beings are not responsible for using our “time, treasure and talents” to help others attain those rights?

Not Christianity. As we do to the least of our brothers and sisters, so we do to Jesus. In fact, I think we can rule out pretty much any religion – I don’t know of one that allows people to live without caring for others. Maybe Scientology. (Hey, I can say it – this is an anonymous blog.)

Not the philosophy of Socrates, who let himself die because he felt his escape would violate the social order. He was wrong, of course, but we have to conclude that he was willing to let his state’s needs override his own.

Not utilitarianism, of course. And these days, maybe not even libertarians.

Wait, wait …” you’re probably yelling at me on behalf of our hostile blogger. “He says it’s fine for charities to do all that. He just doesn’t want the government to do it, and he’s mad because it violates his liberty to be forced to do it.”

Fair enough. Not all utilitarians think the government is the solution to all our problems. The problem is that charity in the United States isn’t cutting it. For one thing, it’s economically inefficient to treat uninsured people in emergency rooms on an ad hoc basis, but we’ll let economists (if any honest economists remain) explain that.

The reality of the past few decades in the United States is this: The rich are getting way, way richer. The idea, of course, is that such wealth “trickles down” to the rest of the country. But it’s not. You may have seen this startling video making the rounds, and the basic points are backed up in most of the hundreds of sources cited in Wikipedia’s current consensus on the topic. (That topic is income inequality; unfortunately, “wealth inequality” has a less exhaustive entry.) 

Some people quibble over the meaning of those numbers, specifically whether the “poor” are really so poor after all. Sometimes, they’re right. Oddly enough, a little-known program of the Bush administration has helped reduce homelessness – at least until the sequester kicks in. (I wonder if our hostile blogger was also hostile was Bush was launching this program.) It’s tough to tell how poor people really are – ride Amtrak through Baltimore, and you will see horrifying and peculiar neighborhoods in which half of one row of rowhouses is literally falling down, while at the other end of the row, a satellite dish is peacefully installed on the roof.

But we know these facts beyond dispute: Hundreds of thousands of families are homeless. Tens of millions of people don’t have health insurance. The government is spending a lot of money on food assistance.

And any chart of wealth, income and taxation will show you that you could easily shift enough money to lift people out of dire straits without a major burden to the “time, talent and treasure” of the upper classes. 

Perhaps the government should be the last resort. And in modern Democratic Party thought, it is. That’s why Obamacare grew out of right-wing thinktanks looking for ways to insure more people through private means and personal responsibility.

But whether the help comes from the government, charity or creative private programs, every worthwhile philosophy compels that help to come, even at the cost of one’s “time, talent and treasure.” The government can (and, even in the time of Obama, does) give you more freedom to preserve your stuff than it gives others freedom from need, but no matter what your philosophy or religion, you’re never free to ignore the needs of others.

And sadly, the rest of the hostile blog isn’t as thoughtful. It equates taxation with slavery, a concept that is eloquently refuted at Bleeding Heart Libertarians.

So what I think we’ve shown here is that being hostile toward “liberals” – however one defines it in a day of much lower taxes for the upper classes – is merely shooting the messenger. “Liberals” are actually demanding less of your “time, talent and treasure” than Jesus or any reasonable secular philosopher would demand. And if you say “liberal” policy gives wealthy Americans less treasure to share, well, let’s take a look at those charts again.

Now let’s see what has liberals, utilitarians, former Republicans and everyone else so agitated toward the Tea Party.

1. Rhetoric. Disagree with the Tea Party? You’re socialist (something that greatly amuses people who live in far more “socialist” countries in Europe). You’re trying to take over the country. (By raising taxes to a fraction of what they were in “the good ol’ days”?) 

2. Zeal. The extremists in the Republican Party cost us tens of billions of dollars with a government shutdown that the elder statesmen and cooler heads in the party didn’t want. It’s rather frightening to see people who would rather wreak economic havoc to get their way than to accede to the wishes of an overwhelming majority of people in the country, as measured by votes in elections, the concerns of political donors and any poll you can dredge up.

3. Climate change denialism.

4. Evolution denialism.

5. Contraception denialism. (That one’s rather new – we’ve seen people who want to restrict access to contraception. Seriously.)

6. Misinformation. Watch any episode of The Daily Show and ask yourself if people at Fox have any conscience whatsover. Or check with people who have described themselves as conservatives or Republicans who now see a party of nihilists and liars.

Now scan back through this list. Are we the non-Tea Party people upset because others suggest non-governmental solutions to common problems? No. Is it a question of values? Not really, unless you really want to make the philosophically improbable case that the suggestion of helping the poor inhibits your freedom.

What we see are a lot of people using bastardized concepts of freedom as an excuse to belittle those who think we have responsibilities to our fellow human beings. The only reason we’re not as hostile as our hostile blogger is that we’re generally nice people. Well, we try.

Why utilitarians are modestly hostile


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