The founding fathers of our country believed that the role of government should be strictly limited to providing for the common defense and to protect individuals in their personal pursuit of happiness. On the other side of the intellectual divide are modern secular progressives who believe it is now the proper role of government to optimize happiness for the greatest number of people.
Is it enough for government to attempt to provide for equality of opportunity to all citizens, or should it mandate an equality of outcomes? One can make the argument that even if all schoolchildren have access to equally good schools, the “cultural enrichment” provided by affluent parents (who read to their children daily and offer music lessons and other advantages compared to the children of the working class) provides their children with greater chances of social and economic success. And if that is the case, is there a policy imperative here?
It seems impossible to achieve perfectly equal opportunity, or to ensure equality of economic outcomes for citizens within an atmosphere of individual freedom. But what are the acceptable outcomes for equal opportunity? As of 2009, the top 1% of earners in our economy has a 17% share of all income,but they also pay a 38% of income taxes. This income share has roughly doubled in the past 30 years. Is this result a priori wrong in an egalitarian society? Is it remotely possible they deserve this wealth?
Few Americans today oppose the existence of social safety nets such as Medicaid, welfare programs, unemployment insurance and food stamps. But how much is enough? And when do the self destructive actions of individuals exercising their right to personal liberty and transient happiness cause us to withdraw some of that support? Most would say that drug addicts should be treated and rehabilitated rather than coddled with additional benefits. “Sin taxes” on tobacco and alcohol are readily accepted as a socially good way to discourage their use. Should we also have taxes on sugar containing soft drinks or junky fast food to discourage their consumption?
How about increased health insurance rates for smokers? Wal-Mart, the nation’s largest employer, recently announced surcharges of as much as $2000/year for it’s workers who smoke, arguing that such employees consume as much as 25% more in healthcare costs. Under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Obama-care) guaranteed issue and partial community rating will require insurers to offer the same premium to all applicants of the same age and geographical location without regard to most pre-existing conditions (excluding tobacco use). Ultimately, where do we draw the line? Do Americans want more such mandates, and if so, are they willing to pay for them?