Who Are We Talking About
In a modern society, are we collectively responsible to make sure no one starves to death, freezes to death, or is denied access to life-saving medical treatment? To be sure every society has great people, good people, average people, not-so-good people and some downright criminal people. Any of these categories of people can be rich or poor, employed or unemployed. But society also has people who are ill, wounded, starving, weak, mentally ill or lacking in capacity, or just unable to fit into normal society. Many of these people cannot take care of themselves, and hidden among them are those that choose not to take care of themselves.
To take care of people other than ourselves, we must make sacrifices. These can be in the form of time and effort, or as donations of money. These sacrifices are a drain on our own economic well-being, and of the entire state’s well-being. How altruistic are we and our governing bodies?
The Ecological Model
In an ecological system the answers are clear and uncomplicated. They are also lethal. If you can’t take care of yourself, you die. An individual in an ecosystem that is ill, wounded, starving, weak, mentally ill or lacking in capacity, or just unable to fit into normal society, can expect a little help from others of its own group, but that help is limited to the extent that the assistance does not endanger the other individual. A mother mammal or bird, and even some insects or other invertebrates will try to help a sick or wounded youngster or colleague. But if they can’t keep up with the group, they are abandoned to fend for themselves. If they cannot make it on their own, they die or are killed by predators.
I have noted that the economic systems of human society are similar to ecological systems. In that the business entities succeed or fail based on the success or failure of individual owners or capitalists to break even or earn a profit. If the a business owner or group of owners don’t earn a profit, and ultimately cannot pay back the debts (equivalent of an injury or illness in nature), then the business goes bankrupt and ceases to exist. In an economic system a business that is injured (in debt) can expect some help from its creditors, but only if the creditor feels there will be some benefit or at least no significant harm in offering to assist — usually by investing or loaning money. So the econosystem and the ecosystem are similar in that if the individual (organism in an ecosystem and business in an econosystem) cannot take care of itself, it dies or ceases to exist.
Human econosystems, just like ecosystems, require energy and materials to make their bodies and products. However, in human systems, unlike biological systems, the products are separate from the bodies. So in a human context, the failure of a business means the death of the business, but unlike an organism that fails to provide for itself, the business owner does not die as a direct result of the business failing.
In many species of animals, not all of the activity is specifically geared to surviving or competing or adapting in an ecosystem. Some of the activity is what might be called extra-curricular. In insects and other invertebrates the extracurricular part, on average, is either tiny or very small. In birds and some mammals it is, on average, a larger proportion of their life’s activities. In mammals such as primates, elephants, dolphins, and even a few special birds like parrots and ravens, the proportion of no dedicated activities is fairly extensive. In humans, a great deal of our activities is not directly related to succeeding in the econosystem. And yet failure in the econosystem is or can be a disaster. The key question for humans is this: Does failure in the econosystem need to result in death? Failure certainly does result in death of an individual in an ecosystem, but does economic failure for whatever reason necessarily lead to the death of a human individual?
If economic failure that continues beyond the ability of the individual to cope by him or herself should not lead to human death, where does the responsibility reside to prevent that death? It specifically does not reside within the econosystem which like an ecosystem has no place for the weak, wounded, or ill-adapted. Both systems implacably weed out and kill the poor competitors and ill-adapted individual organisms or businesses. In these instances, we can imagine the size of the inner circle is larger than the outer circle. At that point the individual is not able to spend enough time or energy just adapting and competing to be able to survive, and so dies.
Looking back at the graph of extra-curricular activities, we can imagine that inner circle for any groups of organisms including humans, gets bigger or smaller depending on how well-adapted or successfully competitive those organisms or humans are. For a poverty-stricken person, on average the living “space” devoted to extra-curricular activities is very small, whereas for a well-adapted, successfully competitive person the space for extra-curricular activities is potentially very large. So if there is any “living space” available for those who have used up all of their own, it must come from those that have excess, or the desperate individuals will die.
In some human societies, a great many individuals die simply because they are ill, wounded, poor, and at the same time have used up all their energy and resources so cannot heal or help themselves. They need not have died, but to prevent that, energy and resources would have to have been taken from others or volunteered by others who have excess. In other human societies, only rarely do indigent people die unnecessarily, and those few only do so because a centralized safety-net system didn’t recognize their problem in time.
Medicine and Mutual Care in Animals
Many animals are known to “self-medicate” by eating leaves with spines to remove parasites in the gut, or to lick mineral sources, or rub insects in their feathers or fur as a disinfectant or insect repellant. Undoubtedly in a few animals, such as elephants and primates, this special knowledge is passed on in part through through learning. There are a few, but very few, examples in nature of social animals caring for the sick and wounded at their own expense. Primate family groups will sometimes do this, although a vanquished leader is not always helped because of fear of reprisals.
Neither medicine nor a social safety net maintained by family groups and close-knit communities is unique to humans, but it is certainly best developed in human societies, some far more than others. Sometimes a safety net is developed by a leaderless common consensus but more usually a safety net is organized by a governing authority of some kind. A safety net in the sense I am using it here is a method of assisting people who otherwise cannot or do not help themselves sufficiently financially, physically, mentally, socially, or for their own or their children’s health and well-being.
One Philosophical Model
In the United States, Benjamin Franklin is famous for having stated that he was in favour of helping the poor, not by simply giving the wherewithal to live, but instead by helping to lead them out of poverty. He did not elaborate on how to do that except to imply they needed to work harder. The context for this remark was to object to a tax that singled out farmers. The tax assumed farm workers were poor because the farmers didn’t pay them enough, whereas Benjamin Franklin felt that the farmers could not afford to pay them enough — and that was because the government of the day did not allow international trade in corn. Benjamin Franklin’s idea was to spread the tax beyond the farmers to the whole of society, while at the same time exhorting the poor to work harder. Benjamin Franklin also remarked that wealthy individuals should act as benefactors as well.
In a nutshell, this little anecdote summarizes the basic question. The whole of society is responsible, but the amount of assistance that is appropriate depends on the whether the poor (and presumably the sick and wounded) are working to help themselves. In addition, the very wealthy can add to the support if they feel so inclined. Finally the fundamental feelings of empathy and altruism of the culture will in large measure determine how the definition of “appropriate” is derived. It also depends on the nature of the governing body. Is it a dictator ruling by force of power and intimidation largely for personal gain, or by contrast is it a highly socialistic government with broad egalitarian attitudes?
Just to remind ourselves, the people under discussion are not family business owners, nor their family employees. Usually family businesses are framed around delivering a product and earning a living wage. It is not the capitalists who hold investments in corporations designed to control distribution and production to maximize profit to share amongst themselves. In part it is their employees, because the intent of capitalist corporations is to maximize profits, and that can be helped by reducing costs of labour. But mostly it is about everybody else, people who are not inside the economy, or not sufficiently reimbursed by the economy.
In much of the world today, although certainly not all, the dominant economic approach is capitalism underpinned by individually owned businesses. Even in centrally controlled economies, a degree of capitalism is creeping in. The historical roots of capitalism are not always pretty, because until people understood its immense power and ability to dominate, many people were “employed” as slaves, indentured labour, prisoners, sharecroppers, sweatshops, and many other exploitative means of lowering the cost of labour. At the same time the power of a capitalist strategy can cause huge growth in the economy of a country, as well as to the primary capitalists. There have been two primary responses. The first was the governing bodies imposing rules about how people could be employed, and eventually to imposing restrictions on things like age, minimum wages, and so on. The second was the idea of a group of workers forming to control corporate access to labour — the unions. Their strategy is to attempt to limit the work force to the current employees or new ones under threat of all employees shutting down the operation of the business, and also denying the company access to other unemployed workers. Over time, as the power of unions increased, sometimes out of bounds of reality, corporations ratcheted up the countermeasures, including influencing the governing bodies to limit the ability of unions to set wages and benefits. Today unions are almost entirely located in government and capitalist corporations. Family-owned non-capitalist businesses rarely are large enough to be included in the union movement.
It is a push-pull relationship. The poor, sick, and wounded rarely have much of a voice. Democracy in this situation has been described as two wolves and a sheep deciding by vote on what to have for lunch. So the indigent need advocates. The number, capacity, and energy that advocates can devote depends again on the extra reserves they have beyond their own needs. As we go through this discussion, we keep circling back to the ecological model with a human twist. In an ecological model, the indigent die. In an ecological model with a human twist, the indigent can die, but the number that die depends on the humanness of the population, the overall extra resources, and the distribution of the extra resources. If all the excess resource and space for “extra-curricular” activity is concentrated in a few people, they are not likely to share a huge proportion of what they have.
So who is responsible for the unemployed, the weak, the poor, and the desperate? Only themselves, BUT it would be pretty nasty just to let them all die if we can prevent it without endangering ourselves. To save the most and weed out the cheaters requires a constrained spread of wealth from wealthiest to least wealthy so that no one has too little to live on. The method to achieve this comes in many forms, but unfettered free market capitalism produces the opposite result – it concentrates wealth only among the successful capitalists who have out-competed everyone else.