Friday, March 29, 2002

Michael Kinsley's analysis of the philosophical problems of 9/11 victim compensation gets one thing right, at least: as a mechanism for caring for the unfortunate, the American system of compensation-by-tort-lawsuit is an absurd travesty. If one were to design a national scheme for mitigating the suffering caused by accidents, injuries and illnesses, one might choose to base it primarily on private insurance, government payments, employer benefits, charitable institutions, or any combination of these or other approaches. But no sane person would ever dream of suggesting that a reasonable way to provide for a helpless victim is to have a lawyer first find some wealthy third party at least vaguely associated with (though hardly culpable for) the victim's helplessness, and then convince twelve other people that said wealthy party should bear the costs of caring for the helpless victim--tacking on another fifty percent for the lawyer. Nearly any other arrangement would be preferable.

In evaluating alternatives, however, Kinsley goes very, very wrong. His mistake begins with the very title of his essay, in which he uses the word "justice" in the context of the suffering that life inevitably metes out to those of us both lucky and unlucky enough to be born. To Kinsley, "justice in specific"--say, charitable donations to help the families of 9/11 victims--is a weak substitute for "justice in general", such as universal health care, or even the aforementioned "deep pockets" lawsuits. "Would you voluntarily exchange your beloved spouse for a $2 million check?", he asks. "If your answer is no," he continues, "then the widow is still undercompensated for her loss (and McDonald's, although blameless, needs the $2 million less than she probably does)." A previous era's pundit might have put it a little more succinctly: "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need."

Now, I do not believe (*pace* the capitalist ideologues) that redistributionism is fundamentally immoral; when we as a society manage to generate enough wealth that we can consider diverting some of it towards assisting the unfortunate, we are generally (and rightly) pleased to do so. But the notion of entitlement--that the institutionalized automatic satiation of certain needs is simple justice--rests on a deeply flawed premise: that human needs are of fixed dimension, and can be identified and "taken care of" in turn by a well-run society. In reality, the needs of humankind are infinite and eternal, and there is no hope of ever meeting any of them in full.

Moreover, each time it has been assumed that we can, the result has been nothing short of disastrous. One need not invoke the totalitarian horrors of (supposedly) equality-enforcing communist regimes to observe the pernicious effects of entitlement-based thinking; the spectacular success of the 1996 welfare reform bill in the U.S. (and the decay that preceded it) should be evidence enough that the ethic of assistance outperforms the ethic of entitlement even in a free, prosperous society. In a world of finite need, the declaration of a particular material appetite as a "right" would "solve the problem" of sating it; but in our world of limitless need, as we have seen, entitlement merely whets appetites further, while reducing incentives to work towards satisfying them.

The events of September 11th triggered a magnificent outpouring of generosity--both personal and collective, i.e., political--among Americans that will ultimately provide assistance to many thousands of survivors of that day's tragedy. Those survivors will certainly not be made whole, nor (as Kinsley points out) will the millions whose suffering happens to have nothing to do with terrorism. But a lot of good will still have been done, and a lot of people will be grateful for it. For people like Kinsley who believe that the only legitimate social goal is the erasure of general wants, this easing of the particular pain of a particular few is an unconscionable unfairness to the rest. But to those of us who know that sorrow eased by charity is a blessing that will always be dwarfed by sorrow unrelieved, Kinsley's pooh-poohing of what he calls "justice in specific" is the very worst kind of ungenerosity.

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