11 February 2018

Some ideas about Compassion as an essential value in the formulation of public policy

Posted to a friend who has some complicated and rather pessimistic views but votes Republican, as part of an ongoing debate about public policy and political philosophy. 

One of the things that has come to inform my worldview over the past several decades is my fairly intensive study of Indo-Tibetan Buddhism. Of course, as someone who believes in the American ideal of freedom of religion, I don't think that either policy or politics should be directly governed by, or even strongly influenced by, religious doctrine. However, much of the ethical basis of Western democracies deriving from the political philosophies beginning with Hobbes and running through the American political thinkers around the time of the Revolution certainly derives from what's usually referred to as Judeo-Christian ethics. I happen to think that the ethics that comes out of the Indo-Tibetan Buddhist tradition is a superior model from which to derive public policy goals. When I say this, I am not including in it doctrines that I have come to reject which include an overly literal interpretation of karma, or rebirth (which I have come to regard as mere wishful thinking), or an excessive preoccupation with the doctrine of emptiness, which relates more to personal enlightenment then to what I think of as the Enlightened Society. It is Enlightened Society which should be the ideal and goal of all public policy. In other words, if public policy is to mean anything it should be guided by overarching principles derived from philosophy which seek to maximize certain values that are deemed to be universal and in general of benefit to all. Whether considered Buddhist or not, the general ideas are, I believe, suitable for adoption as universal values.


In the West the overarching principles that are usually defined have more to do with individual behavior, an individual gain, then they do with communitarian values. I believe that as part of the evolution of global models of governance, we need to recognize that ethical principles derived from other cultural traditions may, and in fact do, yield a superior model for public policy.


Although I recognize the importance of individual liberty, which is important because in any realistic philosophy, it is only at the individual level that any sort of action as possible, so it is necessary to allow each individual to take those actions which he perceives to be in his own self-interest. This is congruent with Western thinking. And in general of course utilitarian thinkers such as Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill recognized that there is a necessity for the "greatest good for the greatest number" to be a principle for any sort of government to effectively function in the interests of all of its people. I would argue, however, that some core values of what is ultimately important to human beings need to be recognized, and those values need to be derived from agreed principles. Buddhism stresses the importance of compassion, and I think that Western thinking fails to recognize just how central this is in any political philosophy which seeks to achieve Mill's utilitarian ideal.


Compassion is based on the recognition of equity. All people have an equal right to seek self-realization, happiness, well-being, whatever you wish to call it. And to that end, the fundamental sameness of humanity, regardless of measurable qualities such as intelligence, wealth, physical strength, and other qualities needs to be recognized and valued. And for that to be meaningful, the essential value of every human life needs to be accepted, and internalized. We need to place a value on every person having a meaningful life, and the means to achieve it. This is what compassion really is when considered on a public level. On a personal level, it is the ability to actually put oneself in another's shoes. To imagine what it's like to be that person. And this is a very useful exercise in achieving the kind of understanding that's necessary to fully integrate the importance of compassion. As a practical matter, what it means is that societies must organize themselves in such a way that the well-being of all people is taken into consideration, is given due value, and the society is so structured that the well-being of all citizens is ensured, to a reasonable degree of practicability. This does not mean that everyone has the same income, or lives in the same kind of housing, etc. But what it does mean is that there is value placed on and public resources expended on, the well-being of everyone.


So, if I were to propose an additional amendment to the Constitution to take its place alongside the Bill of Rights it would read something like this: "Government at all levels shall recognize, and through its policies seek to ensure, the well-being of all its citizens. Among the factors of such well-being are the reasonable maximization of individual freedom of action, while at the same time ensuring that all people are entitled to receive, at public expense where necessary, adequate food and shelter, adequate health care, adequate childcare services, high quality education at all levels contingent on the abilities of the individual and not on their ability to pay, and elder care." To my mind, these essential public goods are just as important as, for example, protecting civil order and providing for the common defense. When I say just as important, I mean that both are vital.


Of course, merely putting those words on paper and calling them the law of the land would not actually result in a viable system of actually putting them into effect. There would have to be a transformation of the guiding philosophy of governance, to one more like those practiced in the Nordic countries today, for example, where these values are considered to be the rightful place of government. In this sense, it is not government, per se, which intrudes into people's lives, it's dumb government. It's government that does not actually attempt to foster ethical values, but instead has its own internal interests, or the interests of elites that control the government, not for the common good, but for their own private and special good. When that happens to excessive extent, people come to view the government not as ensuring their well-being, but as actually actively interfering with it. In such circumstances, government, bit by bit, begins to lose legitimacy. Because ultimately the legitimacy of government is in fact derived from the consent of the governed, and the consent of the governed is contingent on a near universal belief that the government is actually acting in the people's interests, and not the interests of those who would seek to obtain advantage at the expense of others.


For society to accept the responsibility to ensure the basic well-being of all of its citizens does not mean that people would be disincentivized to work hard and gain more for themselves. Quite the contrary, in societies where something fairly close to this ideal has already come about, it is almost universally the case that having the basics of life ensured actually frees people to maximize their own well-being. For example, Americans are frequently trapped in a job because they depend on employer-provided health insurance (possibly the single worst system ever devised for providing a population with reasonable health insurance). Or they can't easily move and seek some other opportunity elsewhere, because they must stay in a situation where they can successfully arrange for care for a child or an elder parent. Allowing government, in expressing the collective will of the people, to ensure the fundamental well-being of all citizens, has been shown to actually free citizens to have greater latitude in determining the course of their own lives. As a result, time after time, surveys have shown people living in societies that have already adopted something close to these ideals are, on average, happier, healthier, longer-lived, and less stressed out, than Americans.


Moreover, experience is shown that the highly inefficient system of providing benefits primarily privately in the United States costs far more than practicable public systems. In Sweden and Finland, for example the average tax burden is in the range of 25 to 30% of income (and that is all taxes; Americans below the 95th percentile often pay much more than that in combined state and local as well as Federal taxes, including property taxes, which tend to be rather low in most other countries). Marginal tax rates, on the very wealthy are much higher than in the United States, as they were in the United States prior to about 1975, but most middle-class people actually pay less in total taxes as a percentage of their income than is the case here. Most Americans do not know that, and see something like the citation to a 70% top marginal tax rate in Sweden (it is actually now lower than that) and believe that the tax burden necessary to provide things like universal healthcare, maternity leave and childcare, employment and retirement security, and elder care, would be crushing, when, in fact, all of these things end up being paid for by society in one way or another regardless of its "system." Organizing them as necessary public goods is more efficient, and actually reduces the overall burden. Of course the Nordic countries have far lower tax burdens associated with military spending, and what you might call "porkbarrel", but if we are talking about reforming society, some rethinking of those kinds of costs to society would also come into play. As an aside, in that it is a whole subject unto itself, I think that a recognition of compassion in public policy on a global scale would call for some understanding that American foreign policy based on the projection of power and encirclement of the entire world outside the Western Hemisphere by an "empire of bases" has been an abysmal failure. It has cost the United States huge sums in treasure and lives, and achieved very little. I would cite the hignly insightful writings of Chalmers Johnson and Andrew Bacevich for some sense of what I mean by that.


It is certainly true that very wealthy individuals in most European countries pay higher overall taxes than Americans. But income inequality has been steadily growing in the United States since the mid-1970s, and I think there is an emerging consensus that it is time to start taxing the top 1-4% or so of the richest Americans substantially more, as part of a rational and actually values-based reform of taxation. (Something that has never happened systematically in our country heretofore). It is not true, however, that employers are taxed excessively, in, for example, Germany. You have only to look at Germany's positive trade balance to see that its corporations are not succumbing under the load of an excessive tax burden. (Germany has most of the essentials of the system I describe, while retaining more regulated private organizations to provide much of the services). The point is that rational tax systems and values-based public service systems are eminently affordable, and actually result in higher disposable incomes, after the costs for services whether or not paid for by taxes are deducted, for the majority of people. This is not merely an opinion, but a demonstrable, albeit somewhat complicated, fact. 


Enough for now, I thought to simply inject some ideas into a possible further conversation.



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