Blackadder’s Lair

The home of many a cunning plan

The Real Individualists

In contemporary political debates, those of us who tend to be opposed to an increased role for government in solving social problems are often accused of being radical individualists who favor an atomized society, whereas those who favor such interventions are often described as supporting communal obligations. But as DarwinCatholic argues, it ain’t necessarily so:

When we had been married a few years, things came to a crisis point with the care of my paternal grandmother. My grandfather had died several years before, and grandma was in increasingly poor health, not able to get around by herself well. My dad was her only surviving child, and he was in the middle of chemo therapy. Her niece, who had been living with her for several years to provide in-house care, had to move back to Colorado to help one of her own children. So two options lay before us: We could put grandma into a nursing home, an idea which she absolutely hated but which medicare would pay for, or MrsDarwin and I could move in with her to provide full time care — despite having a one-year-old and MrsDarwin being pregnant.

We did the latter. It was a difficult period, though in the end it was much shorter than we expected, because grandma died (in her own house, as she had always wished) not much more than a month after we moved in.

This is, I think, exactly the sort of community and mutual obligation that we all agree our culture needs more of: The older generation helping to rear the young, the young in turn taking care of the old. All too often, people are “too busy” and older relatives are left along, whether in their own homes or in “group homes”.

How does this relate to progressive versus conservative approaches to social services? Well, by offering to pay for nursing home care, medicare essentially sends the message “You can save yourself a lot of trouble” (and believe me, caring for a very elderly relative is not only hard work, but puts serious stresses both on the caretakers directly and on the wider network of family) “by putting your elderly relatives in nursing homes, and we’ll foot the bill.” (Actually, I forget at this moment whether it was medicare or medicaid which was involved. We dealt with the cleaning and lifting and bedpan changing, not the paperwork. But I think the point remains the same.) By removing the cost from what would, in our case, have been the selfish choice (put her in a home and not have to bother, even though there was someone in the family able to provide care in the home), government social programs essentially encourage an individualistic, selfish approach to these matters. Clearly, such funding is needed by some people. There are families in which no one is available to provide the needed care for an elderly relative, and the money is not available to pay for a nursing home out of pocket. Nevertheless, we must admit that in the process of provided the much needed help to those who have no other option, the program also radically reduces the incentive to personally care for the elder generation.

Occasionally, if you work at it, I’ve found that you can get people to acknowledge Darwin’s point here. Yes, Social Security did weaken the bonds of extended family. Yes, welfare has crowded out private charity and mutual aid. But, it will be said, the damage has already been done. Government action may have served to weaken social bonds and feelings of communal responsibility, but now that those bonds have been weakened continued government action is necessary to pick up the slack. I’m not sure that’s actually true, but let’s assume for a moment that it is. Wouldn’t that be an excellent reason to be wary of new government interventions? After all, if a particular government program fails to achieve its intended goal, it may not be possible to return to the status quo ante, as the government action itself may have degraded social norms and habits necessary to the prior system. Given this risk, shouldn’t proposals for new government interventions (whether in healthcare, or energy, or elections) be viewed with an extra jaundiced eye?

It’s just a suggestion.

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July 12, 2008 - Posted by | Charity, Government

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