I invited Craig Westover to join me in a discussion about a shutdown-related story I considered rich with implications about the roles and limits of government: Does Private Wealth Make Compassion Possible?
The original story concerned social services providers who elected to continue services to their clients, despite not being paid during the shutdown. A psychologist provided some context about possible motivations the providers might have, but I thought there was a lot more worth discussing.
Craig responded to the original post in a form that invites breaking the discussion into individual themes. I'll set up separate posts, so we (and readers) can extend the discussion in the comments section without creating one overwhelming read.
Here's his first point:
Indeed, Charlie, there are lessons to be learned from All About Kids.
The first is a lesson about virtue. Roxanne Williams is a virtuous person, but not as you imply because she does what she does for low-income people. She is virtuous because she takes her work personally, and she takes personal responsibility for the results. That low-income parents benefit from her work is also a benefit to the community, but Williams deserve praise for her dedication to the work, not for whom it was done. The same praise is due a contractor who performs unpaid time and provides unpaid materials on a job he underbid on a $1M home. Virtue is about the work, not for whom it is done.
And my response:
Craig, I agree with you somewhat on your point about virtue, although I would use the word integrity because it has less of a moralistic overtone. The integrity displayed by Roxanne and your contractor exists in many work settings, whether the payer is a wealthy client, a low-income parent, a global corporation or the state government.
Let me also observe that your lesson declares a tie and allows everyone to dust off their hands without doing anything. I'm not interested in handing out brownie points for abstract virtue.
I believe the kind of work also matters in this discussion. To separate the work from the client strikes me as overly convenient to your argument; we can all think of cases in which the worker was "virtuous" but the client's purpose or the work's outcome was horrific.
Compassion and caring for others is a very important attribute of this story. Note that it is about about the delivery of social services — not IT services or construction. (State highway contractors suspended their work during the shutdown, and it now appears they may not get paid for the costs they incurred, thanks to language inserted in the budget bill. That example raises a whole other set of issues.)
We hear from small government advocates that the private sector could better fulfill roles presently taken by government — but except for some generalities about "the market," not how this will take place or how effective it will actually be.
Integrity of the sort on display here is a valuable social asset. My interest is in how our governmental, social and economic systems either encourage or repress the beneficial practice of integrity.
So here's a question: What happens to Roxanne and her clients if the government gets out of her business?
Charlie, to qualify the kind of work is the crux of the difference between your philosophy and mine. You would insert a third party, in this case yourself (“I believe”), as arbitrator of some hierarchy of values to be imposed upon others, legally through taxation or morally through peer sanction. I do not believe any third party has that authority – legal or moral.
I agree, compassion and caring is a part of this story, but compassion implies the concept of “compassion to whom for what.” Roxanne Williams extended services to her clients at personal expense – people in whom she had a vested personal interest. They were individuals to her with faces and names and personal relationships. Her personal integrity was at issue; she could have walked away as others did, but to walk away would have been to sacrifice her integrity – a greater sacrifice to her than whatever material loss she might suffer.
I submit that Williams did not sacrifice anything to serve her clients at her own expense during the government shutdown (she chose a higher value over a lesser value) and for that she is to be praised. By your definition -- the “kind of work” matters -- Williams’ primary merit is that her effort was done selflessly for others, not what she accomplished. The latter attitude is fundamental to progressivism – taking the property of the wealthy is ok if doing so provides for others, for example.
The reason you hear only generalities about “the market” and not how the private sector could (would) better fulfill roles presently taken by government is because free-market advocates are not arrogant enough to assume they have all the answers; they know, however, that there are people who do have the answers, and removing the expectation (and moral hazarad) that government will solve all social ills would motivate a diversity of alternatives for, in this case, daycare for low-income families.
Government cannot solve the normal problems of a complex community, but the expectation that government can creates a moral hazard that represses the beneficial practice of integrity. There is no virtue, no integrity, when A & B get together and take from C to benefit D because they feel D is in need and C can afford it, and it is D’s need alone that makes him deserving. That Williams was not newsworthy (or unable to display integrity by your definition) until government shutdown would seem to support my point. It was not the presence of government that displayed Williams’ integrity; it was the absence of government.
Charlie, I cannot nor would I presume to definitively answer your question “What happens to Roxanne and her clients if the government gets out of her business?” any more than I would definitively tell you what product will replace the iPad or what company will be the next Apple. I do know the iPad replacement will be really cool; I also know that without the general expectation and moral hazard of government mucking around in social problems, spontaneous solutions, more efficient and effective (albeit not perfect) solutions, will arise. I speculate about such in my original response, which I leave to discuss in a later thread.
And my reply:
"I do not believe any third party has that authority — legal or moral."
This, of course, is why we should not give 16-year-olds the right to vote, and why we will not make much more headway on this question.
Finally, you twisted my meaning about Roxanne Williams and the “kind of work.” What she accomplished matters very much; what she did and who she did it for had more social value than, say, polishing doorknobs in one of David Koch’s vacation retreats.
I'll keep the comments open here, but let's move on to "lesson two:" The Private Sector Makes Government Possible.