Regulating the Poor
28 March 2012
Last January in Ica to Lima I quoted a famous line from Anatole France:
“The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”
And last September on Twitter I wrote:
We shouldn’t say that anything is “banned,” only that it has been “denied to the poor.” The rich can always satisfy their wants and needs.
I don’t think that there has been a sufficient appreciation of the intimate relationship between law and poverty.
Our legislators like to pretend that they are making laws that are universally applicable to everyone within a given nation-state, and the mass media is complicit in this illusion by reporting on an egalitarian society that simply does not exist. Of course, our legislators have plenty of practice in this art, because every two or four years they must go out on the campaign stump and pretend as though they are “just plain folks” when they are not.
There is an old saying that, money can’t but you happiness, but it does allow you to choose your own kind of misery. So it is that the wealthy have choices denied to the rest of us, and among these choices are opportunities to avoid any law felt to be onerous or an inconvenience. The rich live in a libertarian anarchy in which all things are possible.
This I take to be F. Scott Fitzgerald’s point at the end of The Great Gatsby when the narrator says:
“Tom and Daisy — they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made…”
The same essential idea was expressed with less poetry and more viciousness when Leona Helmsley, the “Queen of Mean,” was quoted as saying, “We don’t pay taxes. Only the little people pay taxes.”
Despite the persistent idea of equality before the law in democratic societies, we all have known, even if we don’t much talk about, the fact that the rich are not subject to the same laws as everyone else. Back before abortion was legal in the US, if a girl from a privileged family got in “trouble,” she went to Sweden for a safe and legal abortion, or she was sent to have her child in Europe where such things carried less social stigma. Today, abortion is legal in the US, but the political climate in large swathes of the US means that an abortion is almost impossible to obtain in some states, but for those for whom travel out of state presents no difficulties it is not a problem, though it is a problem for the poor.
The middle classes don’t have the scope of free action that the wealthy possess, but they do posses some scope of action that the poor do not. For example, the middle classes have just enough money that, if they prioritize some particular interest or activity, they can choose one or two or maybe three areas where they will exercise their freedom — whether these areas might include private schools, exotic vacations, or boutique health care.
And to mention medical care brings us back to the topic of yesterday’s Three Alternatives to PPACA. It is important to understand that the debate over health care is really a debate over what health care the poor will have, and then this debate is really a debate over how the poor will be regulated (in ways that do not regulate other segments of society).
Regardless of what measures are imposed on the US population as a consequence of PPACA, the wealthy will continue to enjoy the best medical care that money can buy. They can afford to pay into whatever system they need to pay into, and then still buy themselves whatever they want outside the system (or above and beyond minimum requirements). It is those without options who will be stuck with the system and whose lives will be most profoundly affected by it. And, as I noted yesterday, most of those who have no health care or no health insurance at present do not have it because they cannot afford it. They will be the ones forced to face either unaffordable premiums or fines.
Neither the wealthy nor the middle class will have to make painful decisions about cutting back on food or cutting back on electricity or cutting back on heating in order to meet health insurance premiums (and thereby ensure that the insurance industry continues livin’ large), but these are issues as real to the poor as the monthly worry of making rent and having enough to eat.
Thus we can say in precise analogy with the earlier quote from Anatole France:
“The health care law, in its majestic equality, obligates the rich as well as the poor to purchase health insurance, to choose between paying bills and paying premiums, and to face fines if they cannot afford the premiums.”
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