SOC: Social Contract Education (Was: More Green Party)

Date: Sun Jul 02 2000 - 09:07:36 MDT

In the never-ending discussion of "socialized medicine doesn't create a
slothful underclass" vs. "people can and should take care of themselves"
views that comes up here from time to time, I'm once again struck by a factor
that seems to lie at the crux of the dispute, i.e. the extent to which people
seem to need government-mediated social services because, by the time they
NEED them, they in fact haven't made provision for private supply of those
services. Advocates of a government-mediated "social safety net" look at
society as it is, and see that there are lots of people who are in need of
things like medical care or inter-job income support or job-skills training
or disability income, but who have made no private provision for these key
services. They feel that if the government doesn't provide for them through
some tax-funded set of social services, no one will, and such people will
become an even greater burden to society. Opponents of government providing
such services at taxpayer expense point out that it is possible to imagine a
system in which such services are provided on a near-universal basis by
private insurance or other market mechanisms of some kind and ask why they
should be asked to pay for the lack of foresight of the people who have
failed to take advantage of such services.

I see the people having this on-going discussion talking past each other.
One side looks at things as they are and feels they are simply being
pragmatic, if not empathetic. The other side looks at things as they should
be and feels they are arguing against the creation of disincentives to
individual responsibility.

One piece that seems to be missing from both sides is a realization of the
importance of education. For purposes of discussion, consider the US as the
exemplar of laissez-faire. More than any other country, the US sets an
expectation that people should provide for themselves. (Yes, there are MANY
exceptions - Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid - but compared to most of
the rest of the developed world, the US social contract places responsibility
on the individual.) But how good a job do we do in the US of INFORMING
people of the terms of the social contract when it matters - when they are
young, string and healthy, with the ability to enroll in private support
mechanisms for social services on an actuarially sound basis? The answer:

Put simply, if you expect people to take care of themselves, you have to tell
them this fact, early and often. And you have to explain to them "how things
work", "what the deal is". Sure, the brightest people figure this out on
their own, in time for them to do something about it. And people who are
lucky enough to have good parents get the education they need about how the
world they will live in as adults works before they will be expected to make
decisions based on that social contract. Likewise, people who show
economically valuable talents early enough in life will have the means of
private support thrust on them by potential employers or business partners,
i.e. private health and disability insurance, savings support and the like;
all as "benefits" of their employment. But even for the folks in the great
middle of the bell curve of abilities, getting enrolled in a good system of
private social support mechanisms early enough to live life with reasonable
security is a real problem in the US. For people at the bad end of the bell
curve, enrollment is out of the question: They don't get clued in about the
simple facts of how the system works in time to provide for themselves.

The average 18-year old in the US doesn't have a clue about needing to get
private health and disability insurance and that they should begin
accumulating capital as a cushion against the vagaries of life. If they're
lucky, average kids begin to get some inkling of what's expected of them in
their 20s or 30s in a piecemeal fashion and take some halting, inconsistent
steps to do something about it some time in their life. Kids who fall below
average in intelligence or opportunity NEVER get clued in to the basic terms
of the social contract.

This failure of education takes place at many levels. The biggest culprits
are the schools. For all practical purposes, there is no teaching of the
basic terms of the social contract. If you grew up the US public school
system and graduated from high school with any formal exposure to education
in basic life skills like managing finances or the need for health and
disability insurance, you are the extremely rare exception. But this problem
exists at every level. Our politicians almost NEVER talk about the terms of
the basic social contract. Perhaps because they have by definition been
successful in life, they just don't realize how truly ignorant of how the
world works most people are in their crucial younger years. Unions and
"public interest groups" tend to target isolated issues, and usually only
after the particular segment of society with which they are concerned has
either fallen through the cracks of the social contract or needs some support
in one particular area of their lives. Advertising by insurance companies
and other financial institutions is perhaps the most effective mechanism we
have for this kind of education, but unfortunately this source of information
is presented in a fragmented fashion and is targeted primarily at the most
economically successful segment of the population, i.e. at the people who
need the EDUCATION the least.

I don't propose any solution for this problem here. I just think this is a
crucial factor in the debate that isn't addressed adequately by either side.

       Greg Burch <>----<>
      Attorney ::: Vice President, Extropy Institute ::: Wilderness Guide -or-
                                           ICQ # 61112550
        "We never stop investigating. We are never satisfied that we know
        enough to get by. Every question we answer leads on to another
       question. This has become the greatest survival trick of our species."
                                          -- Desmond Morris

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