Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Utopian Thoughts

We can easily imagine a physician who is good at curing an illness that he also happens to know how to prevent.

Now, suppose the cure involves an elaborate and costly procedure and he can therefore make a good living curing (sufficiently wealthy) people. But suppose also that prevention requires only the distribution of a few simple guidelines for living well, i.e., that there is no money to be made in preventing the disease. Everyone could follow these guidelines, and anyone (regardless of income) could therefore avoid the disease, i.e., could permanently avoid the need for the cure.

One must, in my opinion, judge a society (or any social organization) based on its ability to encourage the discovery and dissemination of the preventative strategy in this case and discourage the physician from keeping that knowledge to himself.

We must imagine that his motives and morals are entirely normal, if not quite noble. That is, he may have a family to think of, and an uncertain future to save up for. If sharing the secret means choosing a life of poverty, most of us would grant that he is, at least, in a difficult situation. Sure, safe in our ignorance of such simple panaceas ourselves, we can demand that in this fictional example the doctor must share what he knows and suffer the consequences. The alternative, after all, is simply to shift that burden onto the poor man who cannot afford the cure, or even the rich one who must suffer its inconvenience.

But the doctor's children should suffer also? It's complicated, is all I'm saying.

This is why a just and good society would take this kind of situation as an obvious one, and would establish conditions under which neither his curative power nor his preventative wisdom become the basis of his wealth, status and security. This sounds a lot like socialism, I'll grant. That is, I'm imagining that we could let everyone live in the same comfort or discomfort, and let greater comfort come only to those who can devise ways of raising the general standard.

But lest anyone think I am talking about "redistribution", consider the simple fact that our laws today privilege those who accumulate wealth, i.e., encourage hoarding (both intellectual and material). All we need is to stop protecting the right to hold obscene amounts of property (and patents). Entrepreneurs, then, would simply not be protected artificially against the erosion of their advantage, normally acquired by some momentary combination of an inconspicuous draw on the collective genius of the species, a little cunning, and great deal of luck. (No, if you've accumulated 250 million dollars, sir, you didn't build that! No amount of hard work can reasonably account for your advantage.)

A natural ecosystem of innovation would emerge.

To be sure, the sorts of innovations that would be come of this would be quite different than we see today. We would, for example, innovate new social forms rather than new medicines for difficult personalities. We would calmly prevent social ills rather than scrambling to cure them.

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