31 July 2009

Zero-Sum Politics

Did you ever notice that when anyone suggests that the concentration of wealth in relatively fewer hands may have something to do with the impoverishment of others, Republicans and libertarians pounce on any hint of a "zero-sum" argument? How naive of you, they say, to act as if wealth were a finite resource, so that gain by one group means loss for another. Leave aside the merits of the argument, and you'd be left with the impression that these people, as a rule, reject zero-sum reasoning. Yet when the subject turns to health care, and people propose providing adequate health care for all citizens as a matter of right, many of the people who, in another context, might scoff at zero-sum arguments adopt the very principle they otherwise dismiss. They argue that we can't provide more or better health care for the poor without diminishing both the quantity and quality of care for the middle class and the rich. This is the reasoning behind the attacks on "rationing" and the lunatic corollary that envisions a slippery slope toward government-mandated euthanasia. Challenged on the inconsistency, some might say that medicine and medical personnel are finite resources. But doesn't all wealth have some material point of reference, and wouldn't that make wealth itself, in purely empirical terms, a finite resource? So why would one form of accumulation drain the pool for everyone else, while another doesn't? The answer might have something to do with the direction of accumulation. The rich, someone might argue, can't impoverish the poor, but the poor, through the dread instrument of government, can impoverish their betters. So some see it. It actually makes sense, in a way. The rich can't exactly steal what the poor don't have, while the rich have plenty for the poor to take. But the real issue involves what we claim as our due as citizens of a civilized country, and it pits those who understand that civilization itself is an entitlement claim and those, content with their "natural rights," who say that we can never have more rights than we'd have in the wilderness. The latter group are always alert for encroachments by civilization upon their natural rights, and the spectre of universal health care has the hairs upright on the backs of their necks. They think that the jostle of civilized entitlement and natural rights is indeed a zero-sum game. The character of a nation is determined by how many people agree.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Might I correct a small mistake? To say that the "rich can't steal what the poor don't have." is wrong. The rich got rich by stealing from the poor. The fact that the poor have nothing left to steal but the hours of their existence only proves the point. If distribution of wealth had been more equitable in the beginning, one might argue that there would be neither the super-rich nor abject poverty at this point. Also, the mistake made by conservatives is simply this: Wealth is finite. If it were infinite, everyone would be wealthy. One could argue, in fact, that wealth isn't merely a determination of how much someone has, but rather how much more than others someone has. Without a class of "poor" to define themselves against, how would the rich know when they're wealthy?