There have been a number of debates going on in the blogosphere about US health-care reform which I have been participating in over the last few weeks and quite a few of these have branched off into discussions about business, economics and social beliefs and values. In conjunction with yesterday's post on the subject of compassion and The Golden Rule, I've had a some thoughts on the subjects of "The Golden Rule, Capitalism and Health Care" which I'm going to attempt to write about in a series of posts.
In many ways, I'm still a "foreigner" here in the US and one of the things that has struck me is how much capitalism appears to be for many people in the US a belief system as well as a way of running an economy. After twenty years working in the equity markets, my own opinion is that capitalism is, historically, the least worst way of running an economy that human history has devised.
It's also my opinion however, that as a belief system, capitalism stinks. And I believe that capitalism is the number one belief system held by US society. Christians may say that they believe in the Lordship of Christ, but in actual fact we believe in the Lordship of Profits. We prove this every day by the way we live our lives.
I think that there are historic reasons for many of our economic beliefs. The rule of King George III in raising taxes in America for his own selfish empire building had much to do with establishing the idea that taxation is stealing. The right to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" which is enshrined in the Declaration of Independence was almost "life, liberty and the pursuit of profit"; so this value has a 200+ year history in US society.
And, of course, the Cold War which was actually a clash of super-powers was characterized in the US as "The good and moral values of capitalism versus the bad and immoral values of socialism/communism". In US culture, "democracy" and "capitalism" are seen as synonymous by many even though they are not. In US culture, "totalitarianism" and "socialism" are seen as synonymous even though they are not. And the worst conflation of all is the idea that Christianity and the pursuit of profits (capitalism's value system as opposed to its operating system) are synonymous.
Let's be really simplistic here. Jesus said that the greatest of all commandments is "love God and love your neighbor as yourself" (basically, The Golden Rule). Capitalism says that all businesses must be run for the highest risk/reward ratio - for the highest profit. Therefore Capitalism's value system cannot be the focus of Christian behavior or of Christian ethical reasoning.
Rather than testing every social venture by the test of "Will this venture make the highest profit for the capital that has been invested?", Jesus' teachings require Christians to use the test of "Will this venture benefit the citizens of this country/State/city/county in aggregate?" I appreciate that determining aggregate social benefit is another complex ethical problem but I don't think that we can abdicate the responsibility of making that moral determination by simply defaulting to the standard of profit. "Oh, it's too difficult to decide what it means for society to 'benefit' from health-care, so let's just run our health-care system on the basis that all providers should make as much as they can from their investment."
We do already recognize that some services to society are too important to leave to individuals to either perform or to raise money for. And, historically, many of these things were once left to individuals: policing, fire-fighting and education. It's a mystery to me how we can argue that education is of benefit to society and should be paid for by taxes but that health-care is not a benefit to society and that those who cannot pay for it do not deserve it. One blogger actually compared health-care to purchasing an iPhone or a car: a luxury consumer good that one shouldn't have if one can't pay for it. That makes sense using the "lens" of capitalistic values to make my ethical judgments. If I use the "lens" of doing unto others as I would have them do to me, I come up with a whole different opinion about the value of health-care to society.