One of the chief marks of a civilized society is that its members are reluctant to use force or coercion to solve the problems of human interaction and prefer voluntary means such as reasoning, persuasion, entreaty and agreement. If we see that someone possesses something we would like to have, we might possibly take it by force, if we have the force, but the civilized way is to make a voluntary exchange, to buy it. Every adult human being has the power of free will, the ability to make his own decisions about his own actions, the other person as much as I. To use force on him is to place my will above his, to override his freedom and subject it to my freedom. But this is the essence of injustice. Justice consists above all in respecting other people’s freedom of will. For they have as much right to their freedom of will as I do to mine. This is why it is universally felt that force can legitimately be used to remedy injustice, because injustice is always coercive, and it takes coercion to prevent or overcome coercion.
Primitive and savage societies do not respect the inherent freedom of will of individuals, but impose their desires on them by force. We now have the privilege of witnessing this daily in graphic detail on our television screens as suicide bombers around the globe inflict their destruction on others who do not conform to their will. It is no accident that these societies are economically underdeveloped. The chief reason why the third world (as it used to be called) is third is that the rule of unnecessary force prevails there, through the common use of violence and corruption in place of the peaceful means of the market.
But every action of government in our own country is an act of force or the threat of force. To ask the government to take action in any case is always to summon the use of force. This is why we have police and courts of law and prisons. Government has no other way of acting. In a civilized society the role of government is therefore very severely restricted. There are occasions when it must necessarily be used, as in the prevention or punishment of crime. But beyond narrow limits, the more government, the more brutal the society and the less civilization.
Those who have the passion for redistribution do not care about civilization. Rousseau, their ideological father, considered civilization was precisely the cause of humanity’s problems, for nature, he claimed, was the realm of equality, but civilization introduced inequality. Those who favor redistribution will often not even speak of “civilization,” for it is their opponent. Some believe the world would be better off without human beings at all. But if we respect human dignity and wish the human race to prosper, we will cherish civilization and its freedoms.
Now Mr. Obama wishes to redistribute health care. This is not to be done by voluntary and civilized means, through the peaceful agreement of the market, but by coercion. Whatever the details of the final plan, it will be imposed by force. This is an offense against human dignity. Each of us is a center of free will and initiative of equal human worth to Mr. Obama. We have the ability to take measures for our own well-being just as he does, and to take the chance of succeeding or failing just as he does. The real redistribution will not be so much from those with health insurance to those without, but a redistribution of power from America’s citizens to the government and its clumsy bureaucracy. He should withdraw his plan and turn his attention to the realm where the physical force of government has its legitimate employment, such as the defense of our nation against its armed enemies.
But perhaps someone will object that redistribution can contribute to civilization: a society that takes care of its poor is more humane than one that callously leaves them to fend for themselves. Certainly, if to make everyone poorer is humane, this will be true. But true humanity is a quality of the heart, and so of individuals in their dealings with other individuals, it is not a quality possessed by the large, impersonal bureaucracies of the state.
If society is not to be impoverished, the essential thing is that the price mechanism of the unfettered market must be allowed to function, otherwise no one knows what the true value is of anything. That means that government must keep its thumb entirely off the scale. If the health care market, including the health insurance market, is left free to organize itself, probably most Americans will not protest if a small, perhaps means-tested program of assistance is provided. But there is more to having a healthy society than having medical care. A truly healthy society is only one where people rely on themselves and their peaceful agreements with one another, rather than on the coercive actions of government, to take care of their ordinary needs.