As I write this, the United States and our allies are contemplating military action against Syria. While the Syrian government has been busy killing its people for quite some time, it is now claimed that it has crossed the red line by using chemical weapons. Thus, there is apparently a need for a military response.
The United Kingdom, which has often been the Tonto to America’s Lone Ranger, has expressed reluctance to leap into battle. Even the American congress, which rushed to authorize our attack on Iraq, has expressed opposition to Obama taking executive military action. As others have said, memories of the “slam dunk” that led up to the Iraq war are playing a significant role in these responses. Interestingly, the leadership United Kingdom seems mainly concerned with how quickly the attacks will begin as opposed to being concerned about attacking Syria. In the United States congress’s main worry seems to be that the President will rush ahead on his own and deny them what they see as their right to get us into war.
Despite the fact that the people of the United States and the United Kingdom seem opposed to attacking Syria, it seems likely that there will be an attack soon. One obvious reason is that Obama played the red line game (which, on the face of it, said to Syria that they could keep killing as long as they did not use weapons of mass destruction). If he fails to make good on his red line talk, the United States will lose credibility. From a moral standpoint, it could be claimed that the United States and the West have already lost some moral credibility by their ineffectual condemnation of the slaughter in Syria.
Assuming that we will be attacking Syria, there is the obvious question of what we should be endeavoring to accomplish and what plan we have for what will follow the attack. Iraq and Afghanistan stand as examples of what happens when we go to war without properly considering the matter and setting clear, attainable and worthwhile objectives.
One approach is a limited, punitive strike. That is, to attack Syrian targets in order to punish the government for its alleged use of chemical weapons. In this case, the obvious questions are whether or not the Syria government actually used chemical weapons and whether or not such a punishment strike would achieve its goal(s). The goal might be simple punishment: they use chemical weapons, then we blow some things up to pay them back for their misdeed. Or the goal might be deterrence via punishment: they use chemical weapons, we blow some things up. And we will keep doing it until they stop.
Morally, the Syrian government has certainly earned punishment and it would be a good thing to deter them from engaging in more killing—or to even deter them from killing with chemical weapons. However, there is the question of whether or not our attacks will be just punishment or adequate deterrence. If the goal is deterrence, then there is the question of how long we will engage in deterrence attack and what sort of escalation we should engage in should the initial attack fail to deter.
Another approach is to strike in support of the opposition. That is, to attack Syrian targets with the primary goal of improving the opposition’s relative position. This could, of course, also be a punishment attack as well. In this case, the questions would be whether or not such intervention would be effective and whether or not the results would be desirable for the United States.
One obvious concern about the conflict in Syria is that it is not an oppressive government against plucky, freedom-loving rebels. If that was the case, then the matter would be rather easier. Rather, it is a battle between an oppressive government and a bewildering array of opposition groups (including an Al Qaeda franchise). There are also outside forces involved, such as Iran, Russia and China.
Because of the fragmentary and problematic nature of the opposition, it is important to consider the consequences of attacking in support of the opposition (or, more accurately, the oppositions). While the Syrian government is a morally bad government and an enemy of America, it has imposed order on the state and is, obviously enough, not the worst option. If, for example, the Syrian government were to topple and the area fell into almost complete chaos, that would be worse than the current situation. Even worse for the United States and most other people would be a takeover of the state by radical forces and extremists.
It is also rather important to take into account the possible and likely reactions of the other powers that are involved in the conflict. Iran, China and Russia have a significant stake in the matter and they might actually react to an American attack. Russia, for example, is sending warships to the area. While Russia or Iran most likely would not engage American forces in the region to defend Syria, this is not an impossibility. For example, the conflict could escalate from an accident.
Unfortunately, I do not have a great deal of confidence in any of the leaders involved in this matter. After all, there are rather different skill sets involved in being a politician who wins office and being able to make effective policy and military decisions. That is, playing the political game is rather different than war. That said, I do hope that wise decisions are made. But, no matter what, many more people are going to be killed—it is mainly a question of how many and with what weapons.
As Obamacare marches onward, its opponents are still endeavoring to stop its advance and send it packing. Of course, the opponents need to provide an alternative system. Interestingly, certain Republicans such as Rick Perry and Jim DeMint have claimed that uninsured Americans are better off relying on the emergency room for treatment. While the battle over Obamacare is largely ideological, the viability of using the emergency room would seem to be an objective matter.
On the positive side, anyone can go to the emergency room and hospitals cannot refuse to treat people with legitimate medical needs—even people who lack insurance or cannot pay.
However, there are numerous problems with the uninsured (or even the insured) relying on the emergency room. The first is the matter of cost. The emergency room is generally more expensive than the non-emergency options. It is certainly more expensive that routine preventative care that can keep a person out of the emergency room. The high costs are problematic because of the burden on the uninsured (medical bills is a leading cause of bankruptcy in America) and also because when the uninsured cannot pay, the cost is passed on to the rest of us (most often in the form of higher health insurance premiums). Thus, relying on the emergency room to treat the uninsured places a heavy burden on everyone and is actually a form of highly inefficient socialism in which those with insurance pay for needlessly expensive treatment for the uninsured. From a purely economic standpoint, if we are going to have medical socialism, we should at least go with the more economically efficient version.
The second is the matter of preventative medicine and ongoing treatments, such as routine checkups and dialysis. The emergency room hardly seems to be set for these medical matters, although people who are unable to avail themselves of them stand a significant chance of ending up in the emergency room, thus taking us back to the first problem. As such, the emergency room option does not seem to be a viable alternative to Obamacare. This is not to say that Obamacare is the only option or even a good option—just that it is better than the emergency-room-for-the-uninsured option.
The third is the matter of compassion. While hospitals cannot deny people necessary medical care, such care is certainly not charity: either the patient must pay or the cost is passed on to the rest of us. As such, relying on the emergency room as a matter of social policy is essentially saying to people that they can get treatment, provided that it is an emergency and that either the patient can pay or the cost can be passed on to everyone else. It is generally agreed that we should collectively protect each other from terrorism, foreign enemies, and our own criminals. This same concern should also extend to protecting each other from disease and injury. After all, whether Sally is dead because of cancer, a criminal’s bullet or a terrorist’s bomb, she is still dead. So, if we can have a huge collective defense against these other threats, we surely can have a developed collective defense against medical threats—one that is better than the emergency room.
Growing up in the Cold War and watching movies about WWII I absorbed the lesson that authoritarian police states spied on their citizens and had no regard for the freedom of the press. In the West, or so I was raised to believe, the government did not spy on the people and respected our freedoms. That sort of behavior was for the bad guys—the Nazis and the Reds. Those of us in the white hats, well, we were a better sort.
As I grew up, I learned that our white hats were not quite so white. But, I still believed that domestic spying was fairly limited and that the press was mostly free. As technology changed, I was sure that domestic spying increased—after all, when people have the means, they are very good at finding reasons to use those means. After 9/11 I was quite sure that domestic spying had significantly increased and I heard about various programs involving big data. Still, the revelations of Prism were mildly surprising in terms of the scale of the data gathering and the blatant disregard of privacy rights and, of course, ethics.
In Prism and other such programs, the United States has a spying program that the Nazis and Reds only dreamed of—what amounts to a technological panopticon that scoops up massive data on everyone. While the claim is that the data is only used in accord with the law and is used for national security against terrorists, the fact remains that it is an incredibly powerful tool that could easily be used against citizens. Interestingly, the gun-rights folks were terrified of something as bush league as a Federal list of firearms. Prism and other programs should horrify them—and us as well.
I do not entertain any paranoid fantasies about black helicopters or vast conspiracies involving the Illuminati. I do not need to—this sort of vast system of spying is quite real as its potential for misuse. After all, by the iron law of technology, any technology that can be misused will be misused.
The folks in power almost certainly will want to expand on the use of these sort of police state systems. As proof, the main use of many of the legal tools generated for the war on terror has been in the realm of police work—typically involving drugs. It certainly makes sense that the police and others will see this data as too useful to not use. There is also the tendency of those in power to want to gather information and more power—these systems fit right into the usual pattern. This will not, of course, result in the sort of overnight take-over so popular in fiction, but the usual gradual erosion of privacy and rights.
One recent and dramatic example of the expanding police state was the British detention of journalist David Miranda. The justification was, as should be expected these days, laws relating to terror. These laws seem to be amazingly broad and apparently allow the state to do almost as it wishes, provided the words “national security” and “terrorism” are properly invoked. In addition to detaining and interrogating Miranda, the police also seized his property on the grounds that he might be carrying secrets. Miranda has no known connections to any actual terrorists—he is merely a journalist who has been working on the story about Snowden and the NSA.
The British government also leaned on the Guardian to pressure them into handing over the information the paper received from Snowden. Based on the information from Snowden, the Guardian claimed that the GCHQ used NSA data from Prism to illegally spy on British citizens. This has been denied by the government, but the claim certainly does have considerable plausibility.
On the one hand, a case can be made that the governments of the United States and Britain have been acting correctly: they are trying to keep their citizens safe and need to act against whistleblowers and journalists in order to preserve the secrets needed for national security.
On the other hand, it seems reasonable to believe that the governments are acting wrongly. The United States has set up a massive privacy violating spying program in response to the incredibly minor threat of terrorism. The United States and Britain have evoked the boogey man of terror and the magic words “national security” in what appears to be an attempt to conceal misdeeds and illegalities. The British have also engaged in what seems to be coercive tactics against journalists and the Guardian. That is to say, that the West is acting rather like the bad guys of my youth.
In a somewhat unusual turn of events, Private Bradley Manning claims that he identifies himself (or herself) as a woman named Chelsea Manning. He has also expressed the desire to undergo gender re-assignment, beginning with hormone therapy. Given that I hold to a rather broad conception of liberty, I believe that Manning has the right to change his gender and that this is morally acceptable. In fact, if physically being a man is problematic for him, then he certainly should take steps to make his physicality match his conception of his identity. His body, his choice.
One rather obvious obstacle that Manning faces is a lengthy prison term for his role in leaking secrets to WikiLeaks. Being in prison, he most likely will lack the funds needed to pay for hormone therapy. Even if he had the funds, there is also the matter of whether or not the Army would provide such services. As it stands, the Army apparently does not provide such services.
Manning’s attorney, David Coombs, has asserted that if the state fails to provide Manning with the therapy, then he will try to force it to do so. Interestingly, Manning’s case is not unique. In Virginia, a prison refused to allow a prisoner to undergo gender reassignment surgery. In Massachusetts, a federal judge ordered the state to pay for a convicted murder’s sex change operation. These matters obviously raise some philosophical concerns.
As noted above, I believe that an individual should be free to change his or her sex. I base this on the principle that what concerns only the person is a matter in which the individual should have complete authority. So, if Manning wishes to change his sex to match his claimed gender, he should be allowed to do so. This is something I see as a negative liberty—that is, no one has the right to prevent Manning from exercising his liberty in this matter. However, I do not see this a positive liberty—that is, no one else has an obligation to provide Manning with the means of exercising this freedom. As such, if Manning has the funds to pay for the process, then the Army should allow him to do so. The same would also apply to civilian prisoners.
One obvious concern is that prisons are sex-segregated. As such a person who has a sex change would complicate matters. Obviously, a person with a sex change should not be kept locked up with those of his or her previous sex. However, there might be legitimate concerns about locking up the person with members of his/her new sex in terms of safety. However, it seems likely that such matters could be addressed with minimal problems. As such, as long as the prisoner can pay for her own operation, then this should be allowed.
The next point of concern is the matter of whether or not the state should pay for hormone therapy and sex-change operations. On the face of it, the answer would seem to be an obvious “no.” However, it does seem worth considering the matter a bit further.
In general, prisoners tend to lack financial resources to pay for their own medical treatment. After all, a typical prisoner will not have a significant source of legal income nor adequate savings to cover major medical expenses. Since letting a prisoner suffer or die simply because she lacks the means to pay for treatment would be wrong (the state has responsibility for those it incarcerates), it certainly seems acceptable for the state to pay for legitimate medical care for prisoners. As such, if a prisoner needs an appendix removed, it seems right for the state to take care of this rather than let the prisoner die. However, if a prisoner is displayed with her breast size and wants implants, then this is hardly a legitimate medical need and hence the state would not be obligated to pay for such surgery—even if the person’s self-image involved large breasts and the person was very upset about not having said breasts. Thus, the general principle would be that the state should provide legitimate and necessary medical care but is not obligated to provide all medical services that prisoners might want.
Assuming that the above is acceptable, the remaining question is whether or not hormone therapy and sex-change surgery are medically necessary procedures (on par with removing an infected appendix) or if they are not (on par with breast implants).
On the face of it, a person who believes that his gender does not match his physical sex is not in a dangerous medical situation. Being a man or a woman is not, it would certainly seem, a life or health threatening situation. Using the example of Private Manning, he will not become ill or die if he remains a man. As such, the state would seem to have no obligation to foot the bill for sex-change operations any more than it is obligated to pay for breast implants or tummy tucks. After all, one’s body not matching one’s self-image is not a serious medical condition.
However, it can be argued that such a situation is a legitimate and serious medical condition. That is, the person’s mental health depends on a sex-change as much as a person’s physical health might depend on having an infected appendix removed. As such, the state should pay for such procedures.
The obvious counter is that if the state is obligated to ensure that prisoners are not suffering from factors that would negatively impact their mental health, then it would seem to follow that the prisoners should not be in prison. After all, prison is intended to be a place of punishment and that is supposed to cause mental duress.
Another obvious counter is that a person who believes their gender does not match her physical sex might be suffering some duress, but it seems odd to claim that this suffering creates a medically necessary situation. That is, that the person must have her sex changed in order to be in good enough health to serve her punishment sentence in prison.
I will freely admit that I do not know the extent of the suffering a person who believes that her sex does not match her gender might experience. If it is the case that this is a medically serious situation that creates a medical necessity on par with other conditions that the state treats, then the state should treat that condition. However, this does not seem to be the case. Thus, while a person has every right to change his sex, there seems to be no legitimate reason why the state should pay the bill for a prisoner to get a sex-change.
Some folks labor for minimum wage (or less) while a very few receive millions per year in compensation for their work. Many people are somewhere in between. However much a person makes, there is still the question of whether she is earning what she deserves or not.
This question falls, obviously enough, within the realm of moral philosophy and, more specifically, the subset of moral philosophy that is economics. After all, this is a matter of value and a matter of what a person should be paid.
On the face of it, the easiest and seemingly most sensible approach would be to answer the question by determining what value the person contributes and set that as the compensation the person deserves. To use a simple example, to determine the value added by a Big Burger employee to a Big Burger would involve subtracting out all the other contributions to the value of the burger, ranging from advertising costs to raw material costs. Naturally, the cost of managing the person would also be subtracted out. Since Big Burger employees are paid hourly wages and work with more than just burgers, the deserved wage would involve some estimations and calculations involving the average productivity of the worker. Other situations (such as those of salaried workers or self-employed people) would require appropriate modifications, but the basic idea would remain the same in that a person would presumably deserve to earn compensation based on the value she adds.
This would certainly seem to be a fair approach. If a person is paid more than the value of his work, then he would seem to be engaged in theft. If a person is paid less than the value of his work, then he would seem to be the victim of theft. Naturally, there can be obvious exceptions. For example, a person might help out a friend or charity by doing work at a rate far lower than she actually deserves without it being theft. As another example, a person might decide to help someone out by paying him more than his work is actually worth. This would be charity rather than theft.
On the idea that a person should earn what she deserves, then the idea of minimum wage would seem to not apply in a meaningful way. After all, the minimum wage and the maximum wage would be the same in this case, namely the value of the person’s contribution. Thus, perhaps the law should be that people must be paid what their work is worth. In some cases, a fair wage would be less than the current minimum wage. But, in most cases it would certainly be higher.
An obvious problem with this is the difficulty of determining the value of a person’s work. One aspect of the problem is practical, namely sorting out all the costs involved and determining what the person in fact contributes in regards to value. This is mainly an accounting problem, presumably solvable with a spread sheet. The second aspect of the problem is were value theory really enters the picture, namely sorting out the matter of assessing worth. That is, determining what should go into those cells on the spreadsheet. For example, what value does a CEO or university president actually contribute via their leadership? As another example, what is the real value an artist adds to the paint and canvas she is selling for $45,000? This area is, to say the least, a bit fuzzy. There is also the fact that people would tend to overvalue the value of their own work and generally undervalue the work being done for them.
The minimum wage could, then, be seen as a rather weak guard against work being grotesquely undervalued. By setting a minimum, this means that people will (in general) at least get some of the value of their work. However, it certainly leaves considerable room for greatly underpaying workers relative to what their work is actually worth.
The stock counter is that such matters get sorted out by “market forces.” That is, people whose work is more valuable can command better wages while people whose work is less valuable will command lower wages.
The obvious reply to this counter is that the alleged market forces tend to result in most people being underpaid and some people being compensated far beyond their actual contributions, even accepting the fuzziness of value. In fact, the underpaying of most is what is needed for the few to have such generous compensation. After all, if people were paid based on the value of their work, then there would be no fair way to profit off this work. For example, if Bob contributes $50 of value per hour to my widgets, I would need to steal from Bob to make a profit off his labor. As another example, if a CEO contributes $100,000 in value to the company, but is compensated with $10 million, then he is stealing the value generated by others.
It might be said that this is all fair because people agree to this system of value. However, this does not seem to be the case: people seem to agree to it in the same way that people agree to a dictatorship: they just go along because the people on the top and those who support them have the power to hurt them.
Imagine Sam has pulled up to the drive through window at Big Burger and rather than pay the full price for his order, he tosses a handful of change into the window, grabs the bag from the distracted Burger minion and zips away on his moped. This would, of course, be regarded as theft and the police would arrest Sam for his hamburgerlary. The prevention and punishment of theft is generally regarded as a legitimate function of the state and few people regard this as a form of oppression or an overreach by Big Brother. If Sam protested that as an agent of the invisible hand he had paid what he regarded as the fair market value of the burger, then it would seem likely that this would have no effect. After all, he is supposed to pay the full value of the burger.
Now, imagine that Big Burger makes part of its profits by paying its workers rather less than the value they contribute to the raw materials. Big Burger would seem to be stealing from its employees in roughly the same manner as Sam. That is, Big Burger is paying them less than the full value of their labor.
The Burger Boss would naturally reply that the situation is different: Sam is robbing Big Burger because there is no agreement between him and Big Burger for Sam to pay less than the value of the burger. However, the employees of Big Burger agree to accept less than the value of their work and thus it is not theft.
The Burger Boss might then bemoan the fact that there is a limit to how low he can pay his Burger minions, namely the minimum wage. Surely, he might say between tears, he is being cruelly oppressed by the state by this imposition on his free choice.
Someone with socialist leanings might respond by saying that the minimum wage would seem to be aimed at preventing employers from stealing (too much) from employees. The idea is that they are forced to pay at least a minimum for work done. This, it might be claimed, is similar to what the law does for Big Burger: just as Sam cannot pay less than the price of the burger without being a thief, Big Burger cannot pay less than a minimum wage without being a thief (or a bigger thief).
Burger Boss could weep that this is unfair, that his workers should be paid less because they produce less value than the minimum wage. This, it must be admitted, is potentially a fair point. After all, if it is accepted that a person should be paid based on the value he contributes (which is so often claimed when defending the top salaries of the “top talent”), then a person who actually did produce less value in his work than the minimum wage would be effectively robbing his employer.
However, if the principle of paying a person what he is worth holds true for paying a person less, then the same principle would need to hold when it entails that a person should be paid more. Interestingly, the “top talent” and their ardent supporters seem to fully embrace this principle when it comes to generous compensation for the top people, such as CEOs. However, their grasp of this principle seems to fail when they examine the pay at the opposite end of the hierarchy. But, to be fair, it can be rather hard to see things that are so far away from a person’s own location. In any case, it seems to be capitalism when the people at the top are paid what they are (allegedly) worth, but socialism when the people at the bottom ask to be paid closer to what they are worth.
Getting back to the minimum wage, it seems that people who are paid the minimum wage generally contribute more value than they are paid. To use a specific example, McDonald’s enjoyed billions in profits last year. This would seem to indicate that even if the CEO is truly magic with money, the workers are creating considerably more value than they are being paid. If this was not the case, then the corporation would not have this sort of profit. Unless, of course, it can be shown that the bulk of the profit was created by other means—which seems unlikely. As such, it would seem that in many cases the minimum wage is actually considerably lower than the value generated by the workers.
As noted above, theft from businesses is illegal and the state uses its coercive power to prevent or punish such thefts. This is seen as a legitimate function of the state. What a minimum wage does is a similar thing—workers can only be legally robbed so much. That is, they have to be paid at least a minimum wage, even if that wage is significantly lower than the value of what the worker contributes.
This seems problematic. After all, it would be like allowing people to only steal so much. Imagine of people were allowed to steal from businesses, but could only steal so much. This would be a “maximum theft” rule, which would be somewhat analogous to a minimum wage. That is, both rules would set something of a limit on how much could be taken without compensation.
While the state does not allow a maximum theft rule, just as the state needs to protect employers from what is regarded as theft, so the state has to protect workers from what would also be theft.
Burger Boss might argue that employment exists in a special realm, distinct from that of all other human relations. So, while stealing from someone (especially a corporation) would be wrong, it is fine in the case of stealing value from an employ.
The usual argument is that employers do not owe the workers a job and they can thus pay as they wish within the working of the free market. On the one hand, this could be seen as true: Big Burger does not owe Sally a job and it could be said that Big Burger does not owe Sally a fair wage that is proportional to the value she contributes.
However, this would seem to suggest that Sally does not owe Big Burger and presumably does not owe Big Burger a fair price—so if Big Burger can work a way to pay Sally less than her work is worth, Sally would seem to have the same right to get a Big Burger for less than its value. While Burger Boss would regard Sally as a thief, Sally would certainly think the same of Big Burger.
This could be seen as the free market: every party is trying to get one over on everyone else. However, when this takes place in a more general setting, it is seen as approaching the state of war rather than being what is expected of civil society. As such, it would seem that if it would be wrong for Sally to steal from Big Burger it is wrong for Big Burger to steal from Sally.
The stock counter is that Sally chooses to work for Big Burger and thus consents to hand over her value for less than it is worth. Now, if this were a free and un-coerced choice, then that would be fine. However, this is clearly not the case: Big Burger tends to have the coercive edge over those who work for it.