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When society owns your body

Observer Viewpoint | Tuesday, December 6, 2005

It is often typical of the Left to extol the virtues of a great society: a great society takes care of the elderly and the poor; it educates its children and pays for medical treatment.

These sentiments are well and good until one attempts to ascertain from a left-winger how exactly society accomplishes such eleemosynary goals; because (as I am often quick to point out), left-wingers hardly mean “society” when they speak the word.

When the Left speaks of society “taking care” of the people, it does not imply society itself; it refers instead to the welfare state and its many tendrils: Social Security, public schooling, universal healthcare – social programs that are funded via compulsory taxation by the government.

Government is not society. In fact, Thomas Paine agreed with me when he said: “Society in every state is a blessing, but government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil.” Society is the voluntary cooperation and coexistence of individuals; government is the involuntary subjugation of some individuals to the will of others. Now, I am not necessarily claiming that every government is inherently oppressive, but merely that any government without a gun is just another interest group.

This distinction is important because every social end enumerated by the Left must be accomplished by governmental coercion. Indeed, both the Left and Right embrace a certain paternalism when it comes to the actions of “society”: whether it be gratis medical treatment, smoking bans, the War on Drugs or the persecution of “obscene” materials, the nanny-state is a necessary component.

Let us therefore address the former: government-subsidized health care. I will not even attempt to delve deeply into the details of this complicated issue, but will instead focus my energies on the elementary paternalism that is inherent in it.

In the United States, we have (as of yet) avoided the catastrophe that is “socialized health care.” What we have instead are Medicare and Medicaid – complex bureaucratic institutions that, in effect, reimburse elderly, disabled and poor people for many medical services (including treatments for, among other dubious things, erectile dysfunction).

According to the director of health policy studies at the Cato Institute, Michael F. Cannon, “Medicare spending is increasing at twice the rate of the gross domestic product” and the new Medicare prescription drug plan is slated to “cost more than $700 billion over the next 10 years.” As mismanaged as any government program can be, Medicare faces a budget shortfall of as much as $62 trillion – that is, the government promises $62 trillion more than it can deliver to beneficiaries. Today, the government collects slightly more than $2 trillion in total taxes.

That is quite the shortfall.

But suppose people are abusing alcohol and tobacco, or eating so unhealthily that America continues her reign as one of the most obese nations in the world. Americans suffer from heart disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes and myriad other ailments that stem from our obsession with eating poorly.

At this point, the government still has some options: it can cut Medicare benefits (and sacrifice the political future of Republicrat politician X who would support such actions), or it can raise taxes by about, say, 1,500 percent.

But the real, philosophically central question is: if the government is already paying too much for the care of Americans, does it have the right to force its citizens to be healthier in order to reduce its medical expenditures? Beginning in 2006, Medicare will cover preventive health screenings, lending credence to the notion that a few hundred billion dollars of prevention is worth $62 trillion of cure.

So to avoid the impending Medicare crisis that is at hand, should acting unhealthily be made illegal?

I have heard it argued before, believe it or not. Originally I believed it to be a joke, but upon further reflection, it seems perfectly reasonable. I have a vested interest in keeping you healthy, since I am forced by my government-at some point or another – to pay for your medical bills.

Such is the paternalism implicit in the government business of health care. Socializing health effectively destroys the lines that delineate what is your personal choice and what affects me. Subsidies give society a controlling stake in what you do with your own body, where your health is no longer merely your concern.

In 1971, the U.S. Supreme Court matter-of-factly stated that subsidized programs “have almost always been accompanied by varying measures of control and surveillance.” It is not beyond reasonable doubt, therefore, that government control and surveillance of health in America will soon become even more omnipresent – even more so than it is today.

No, I do not believe McDonald’s should be illegal. However, when “society” owns your body, there are few – if any – realistic options left.

Like I said: $62 trillion is quite the shortfall.

Scott Wagner is president of the College Libertarians and writes politically incorrect satire for the Web site The Enduring Vision. You would probably be too offended by it, so never mind. He can be contacted at swagner1@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.