Saturday, January 3, 2009

What this country needs

Now there's a broad topic not amenable to brief enumeration. Nor am I going to attempt to fully enumerate it. What I have here is a proposal for one specific thing that's needed by this country (or some country, or some state, or somewhere). What we need is a card, or badge, or some sort of certification guaranteeing the holder's acceptance of personal responsibility. Of course, I would hate to see any private business forced to change their behavior when presented with this card, but I would like to see government change its behavior with respect to it, and I'd certainly like for businesses to do so as well, preferably without the use of force. The card might not necessarily be free, but instead require that some funds be held in escrow to back up one's responsibilities. Let me see if I can enumerate some of the courtesies I'd like to see extended to cardholders:
  • Seat belts and motorcycle helmets come directly to mind. Some fraction of the escrow funds would be set aside so that, in the event of an accident in which a cardholder was not wearing his seatbelt, any damages his body caused to anyone else's property after it was flung from his vehicle would be compensated. The remainder of the escrow funds would be available to any hospital which wished to treat the cardholder. I'm not entirely sure what should happen when the escrow runs out. If the hospital wants to stop treating the cardholder and let him die, that's certainly always acceptable. If the hospital continues to help the cardholder, I'm not sure if it should be understood that they're doing it on their own dime, or if they should be able to, if successful, bill the cardholder with the understanding that he may be unable to pay, or if there should be a notation on the card as to the cardholder's wishes in that situation. Note, of course, that being a cardholder does not in any way preclude one from wearing a seatbelt or helmet. Were I a cardholder, I would probably wear both (though probably not at the same time). It merely means that I have a choice, and will accept the consequences of that choice.
  • A chardholder should have the freedom to order a rare hamburger. Not all restaurants have to comply. I certainly wouldn't expect the local fast food joint to go out of their way to accommodate a cardholder, but if a restaurant offers a choice of how a burger is cooked, and a cardholder orders it rare, that's how he should get it. If the response to a rare order is "I'm sorry, we can't serve it that way because overcooking reduces the risks of salmonella (it does), mad cow disease (it doesn't) and evil spirits (who knows? It might)," then the cardholder should be able to respond with "Here's my card. I accept those risks. Bring me a rare burger or a better excuse." I would also add to this the decision to have tomatoes on said hamburger during a country-wide salmonella outbreak that may involve tomatoes. At some point long ago, the phrase "one in a million" was used to denote an occurence of extreme unlikeliness and miniscule probability. Apparently, since that time, a one in three hundred million chance of death (or one in 1/4 million chance of illness) is such a phenomenally high risk that I cannot be permitted to run the risk of enjoying said fruit on my salad.
  • A cardholder would be permitted to make investments that might be financially risky. To some extent, this is already done. The SEC and other such bodies have a concept known as a "qualified investor". Such a person is so wealthy that it is assumed (probably rightfully so) that he or she has an understanding of the trade-offs of risk and reward inherent in investments. It is my understanding that some of the current financial unpleasantness stems from people who were not qualified investors investing in institutions that were qualified, who then turned around and put that money into investments that were significantly risky. When those investments failed, so did the qualified institutions that had invested in them, and the unqualified investors in those institutions found themselves faced with the unfortunate results of a risk they were unaware that they had been taking. If we replace the financial qualification with a personal responsibility qualification, then there is no longer a need for the institutional middle-man, and anyone who is willing to personally accept the consequences of a failed risk is permitted to do so.
  • Cardholders should have the authority (commensurate with responsibility) over how to treat the ills of their body. They should also have the authority to define what they consider to be ills. This is fairly straightforward at the core, but gets to be more controversial at the edges. Treating a headache with an analgesic is simple. Deciding not to treat a serious illness is more complex. Treating a terminal illness with an untested therapy is more complex. Considering sobriety as an illness for which there is a readily available cure is more complex. Knowing that smoking will kill you and doing it anyway is more complex. The response to these is so often "but he'll get sick, or get sicker, or die". While true, this is irrelevant. It's easy and simple to chose the option that is both popular and right. Having the freedom to make the wrong choice requires the authority to do so, and having that authority should only require the responsibility to face the consequences.
The card should absolutely not give its holder complete freedom to do anything he or she wishes. Specifically, it should only give the freedom to take actions whose consequences will be borne by the cardholder alone. Cardholders should not have the freedom to harm someone else. They shouldn't even have the freedom to indiscriminately destroy other's property, even if they will bear the responsibility of replacing it. They shouldn't have the freedom to put other's lives or property at significant risk. The scenario that comes to mind is when a person is either impaired or merely reckless while operating a potentially dangerous device, such as a motor vehicle, a firearm, or Congress. While in general I feel that negligence should merely enhance the severity of a crime once provable damage has actually been done, there comes a point where a sufficiently increased risk becomes its own form of damage. It's unfortunate that the exact location of that point is difficult to quantify.

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