Maybe I got something out of law school after all.
When I read opinion columnist Charles Lane’s lament that food stamp regulations didn’t limit the kinds of nourishment that could be bought by them to things Mrs. Obama would approve of, my mind flew back many decades to a memorable Contracts class in my first year of law school. The late Professor Richard Alan Gordon was thundering in his most stentorian tones—and boy, did he have stentorian tones!— about the class reaction to a case we had just discussed involving a Washington, D.C. family on welfare that had gotten itself in legal trouble by purchasing a stereo system on credit. One poor student was the target of the verbal barrage, having just opined that the family should have spent its government assistance on necessities like food, and not entertainment.
“And who are you, Mr. Anderson, to make the determination of what is a “necessity” for a fellow citizen? Shall the family in question not be permitted to feed its soul, as well as its gut? Is it the attitude role of the government to assume that accepting its assistance in dire circumstances involves one’s surrender of the basic human rights of choice, preference, taste and self-determination?”
I miss Dick Gordon, who became a cherished friend (and a terrific Learned Judge in “Trial by Jury”), and I miss the scathing letter he would have written to Charles Lane. In his column, Lane writes:
“The point is to increase the amount of real nutrition per taxpayer dollar. The counterargument is that it’s not fair to restrict poor people’s grocery choices. You hear this a lot from the food and beverage industry, for which SNAP has grown into a significant subsidy. Sorry, I don’t get it — morally or pragmatically. Of course the federal government should be able to leverage its purchasing power for socially beneficial purposes. If you take Uncle Sam’s help, you play by his rules. I repeat: This is a nutrition program, or so the taxpayers who fund it are told. It should nourish.”
“If you take Uncle Sam’s help, you play by his rules.” This is the crux of Lane’s argument, Mr. Anderson’s, and all the Nanny State advocates who cheer on Mayor Bloomberg’s assault on personal freedom. Ethically, there are strong arguments in all directions:
Argument 1: A citizen who accepts taxpayer assistance for a given purpose must agree to give up self-determination and liberty in the realms where that assistance in relevant, to the extent necessary to minimize future needs in the realm. Food stamps can only be used for that which has the First Lady’s Seal of Virtue. Health care benefits come with mandatory weight requirements, fines for failure to exercise, and death panels. “If you take Uncle Sam’s help, you play by his rules.” Fairness, responsibility, prudence.
Argument 2: The government’s role is to assist citizens in exercising their rights and liberties. Financial hardships constrain choices in every realm. To the extent it is financially feasible, the society should try to supplement the resources of indigent citizens to enable them to have a full range of choices, and to have the opportunity to exercise them wisely. The government should not use its assistance as a means of dictating conduct or limiting choice. Autonomy, benevolence, charity, compassion, respect, restraint.
Argument 3: The government should do as little as possible to force some citizens to pay for the hardships of others. The aide that is given should be the minimal level necessary to preserve life, and it should be contingent upon the recipient’s responsible conduct aimed at minimizing both the duration and the extent of the assistance, which should also expire after a reasonable time. Each citizen is accountable for his or her own choices and own fate. Accountability, responsibility, self-reliance, justice.
And every possible hybrid and permutation of the above. I, like Professor Gordon, prefer the second alternative, though it is far from perfect. The third charts a course to a heartless society lacking community and cooperation; the first, where Bloomberg reigns, is built on a slippery slope to tyranny. I know that a lot of citizens, indeed probably a majority, are quite prepared to make a series of trades with government authorities to give up their choices, their rights to take risks, their ability to make foolish, eccentric or unpopular choices, in exchange for security and insulation from calamity, personal or otherwise. I know that given a change, many human beings will sell their liberty cheap, which, in a democratic republic, means that they will sell my liberty as well, and there will be little that I can do about it.
When you agree with Charles Lane, you move to that slippery slope, and place your own liberty on the market, to be sold in trade by the likes of Mayor Bloomberg, Senator Feinstein, and President Obama’s slowly tightening regulatory network. All of them embrace the argument that since you accept police protection, national defense, roads and social services from the government, they can dictate to you what to eat, where to live, what cars to drive, what toilets to flush, what light bulbs to purchase, what you “need” to protect your home, how to raise your children and what you and your children should do for a living, among other choices. We are not all the way down the slope, it’s true, but there is plenty of support for going there, and it’s growing.
“If you take Uncle Sam’s help, you play by his rules.” Professor Richard Alan Gordon, I realize now, was trying to sound the warning to a group of likely future regulators and legislation drafters the danger of a society that accepts Charles Lane’s nostrum.
I wonder if I’m too late, indeed, if all of us are.
Source: Charles Lane (Wash. Post)
Graphic: The Federalist
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