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The debate over health care reform in the USA (and Susan’s musings in particular) have gotten me thinking about the proper role of the state, both in theoretical and practical terms.

The question largely involves a question of social justice: who is responsible for the welfare of our fellow individuals?  There is no doubt that all Christians (and probably most humanist ethicists) must agree that we as individuals have the duty (and, ideally, the desire) to help those in need, whenever it is in one’s power to do so.  This ought to be done in good faith, out of a desire to be generous with what we have, and out of genuine love.  If everyone practiced this, social injustice should be largely extinct.

Of course, in practical terms, everyone does not do this, and so social injustice remains.  This state of affairs then leads many to argue for the role of the state to fill in the gaps; the state has the resources to help redress the injustices that are left by my individual avarice.  The axiom that the state must care for its citizens is neigh universal in Europe.  All well and good, in theory, but—as Susan has pointed out in a number of her Facebook-accessible musings—this solution tends to forget responsibility and tends towards rights, creating a situation where gratitude disappears and personal altruism does as well.  If the state is responsible for social justice, then the individual is absolved of personal responsibility for the needy; indeed, the individual can then seek one’s own from the state institutions.  From a moral-theological perspective, this is problematic (Again, highlighted well by Susan’s comments).

So where does this leave us?  Should we abandon state intervention in favor of private, moral initiative, considering those who fall by the wayside as the unfortunate result of a fallen world?  Or should we abrogate our personal responsibilities in favor of a state-allocated right?  I wonder if placing the problem in these terms is more stark than in reality it need be.

It seems to me that beyond the personal, individual aspects of generosity, in a complex economy there are systematic issues that cause or exacerbate many of the social evils prevalent in contemporary society.  Even if the majority of people gave exuberantly, I wonder if there would not still be problems beyond the ken of the individual to solve.  In these cases, a larger, structural solution would be necessary.  However, the dialectical inverse to this is that social injustice involves the needs of individuals rather than of some homogenous mass of ‘the poor,’ ‘the proletariat,’ or ‘disadvantaged.’  What the individual usually needs is an individual solution, which is something institutional bureaucracies are notoriously unable to provide; a systemic solution can all to easily become simply another part of the (broken) system.  Where does that leave us?

The thought I have, then, is that the debate could potentially more profitably center on how best to encourage individuals to offer individual solutions while using the position of the state to help mitigate merely the systemic issues involved in any social issue.  If the involvement of the state were limited to addressing that which the individual can not, then—in theory—both the concern of ‘conservatives’ over the size and intrusion of government and the concern of ‘liberals’ over the needs of the downtrodden could both be addressed, without eliminating the fostering of the morality of love and gratitude.  The trick, of course, is first to be able to adequately identify and separate out the systemic aspects of any given issue and then to find practical systemic solutions to it.  I’m sure neither of these are particularly easy.  However, perhaps if the debate were refocused on such a pole, then much of the rancor, name-calling, and fear-mongering could be minimized, and a ‘bi-partisan’ solution found.  Perhaps.

 Jason M. Silverman
16 September 2009