How to upgrade human values

If Obama gives us universal healthcare, will we become better people?


Andrew Leonard
July 21, 2009 1:30AM (UTC)

"As Karl Marx would have said," writes Yale economist John Roemer in the newest edition of the Economist's Voice, "under feudal rules we get serfs who desire only to subsist; under capitalism, we get capitalists who desire to maximize their wealth. Each mode of production (set of rules) determines to a large extent the values and the social ethos of the people who live within it."

But most economists, says Roemer, don't see people's values as contingent on modes of production; so when they think about ways to tinker with the "system" so that global economic meltdowns are less likely to clobber us, their premise is "that we must accept people as they are and design new rules that will prevent bad results from occurring."

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Roemer believes that in a capitalist society individuals will always figure out ways to break or twist the rules. So he proposes what he calls "a less ambitious aim": Changing people. "If we follow a path leading to a society whose individuals are more solidaristic, then I believe it is much easier to design rules that will guarantee good outcomes."

So how does one go about this? Basically, Roemer suggests that if you build a more egalitarian system, people will change to reflect more egalitarian beliefs. He uses the oh-so-topical issue of healthcare as an example.

There is of course no social engineer who can command either that people change their preferences, or who can impose a new set of rules. Because we value democracy, rules must ultimately be approved by the voters. Nevertheless, history may produce a path that would engender the desired change in preferences and rules. Suppose, for example, that America succeeds in implementing universal health insurance; that is, that voters in their majority demand it. A more pleasant society will then evolve: people will be under less from the fear of losing their health insurance when unemployed, or because they contract a major disease; emergency rooms will be less clogged with poor, uninsured persons; insurers will have incentives to urge people to undertake more healthy life styles (to keep costs down), and so on. There is a good chance that citizens generally will like these changes -- not only because of their own increased financial security, but because civility will increase, and poverty will be, at least along one dimension, less glaring. Citizens may come to value equality of condition more than they previously did. This change in preferences may well render politically feasible other insurance innovations and increased financing of public goods -- more support for the unemployed with job training, perhaps more direct income support for the unemployed, and more support for intensive education for the disadvantaged.

Well, one can dream, can't one?

Roemer has a long and illustrious history as an economist who originally made his name as a Marxian analyst with a solid mathematical background. I was taken by this tidbit that closed a short biography of him:

Social scientists do not have to agree with Professor John Roemer in every respect. Indeed John Roemer's work has been as much controversial as it was innovative. Nevertheless, John Roemer has always welcomed different opinion, and different modeling that may at times overturn his results.

Words to live by.


Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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