Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Government Goliath, Local Davids

I sent this local Ottawa story to Mark Steyn, in the hope he might write about it on his site or put it on his sidebar. It's similar to a story he's written about a few times, regarding a bridge near his little New Hampshire town that needed to be replaced.

This story, I think, is even a bit better, because it shows how government health care leads us on and on to more and more government dependence, even as the growing government does less and less for us.

A local man in poor health had to have his leg amputated this past year, and he required a ramp to be built at his house before he could go home. Not being related to a cabinet minister or a hockey player, he joined the line of supplicants for government funds to build the $4,800 ramp, and was turned down at every turn (with the encouraging promise that he could always reapply month after month until he finally succeeded). With no ramp, he couldn't leave the hospital, so he's been languishing in a hospital bed since August, at a cost to the government of over $90,000.

The story came to mercifully happy end, though, and, just as in Steyn's bridge case, it was no thanks to the multi-million dollar government do-gooder ministries. I'll quote the Citizen article, because it has that tell-tale ring of good common sense, practicality and neighbourliness that's becoming all too rare these days:

After I left him the details on a phone message Thursday, (local Conservative MP Jack) MacLaren called Friday morning to tell me what he was working on with Tom Black, president of the Ontario Landowners Association.

In addition to promoting property rights, MacLaren, a former president of the association, says the group helps people in need whenever it can.

As MacLaren sees it, it's almost Christmas, and what a "real nice Christmas event" this would be if Larry is reunited with his wife for the holidays without having to worry about returning to hospital afterward.

"I'm sure this man would be much happier, and much healthier, at home," he said. "Everyone wants to be home, right? He needs a ramp and it needs to be built. We have the people and the resources to do that, and we will do that."

The work could start as early as tomorrow and be completed by midweek. The ramp is going to be built in Black's barn and then assembled at Larry's house. MacLaren said the ramp will be built by volunteers who the association can call on. One building supplier has already offered a price discount on lumber.

Today's paper had a followup:
The people who promised to build Larry Torrington a wheelchair ramp so he could finally be released from Saint-Vincent Hospital obviously don't fool around.

The ramp was designed Saturday, built Sunday and assembled outside Larry's Stittsville house Monday.

With the ramp in place, Larry - who had surgery in March to remove the lower part of his right leg because of complications from diabetes - was expected to leave hospital and arrive home early this afternoon.

So to recap: Local newspaper alerts local MP of situation on Thursday; by Friday MP has contacted local community leaders and they have assessed problem and are figuring out how to solve it. Tuesday: wheelchair ramp is built and installed and Larry returns home.

This contrasts with 4 months of fruitless petitioning to several government sources of funding, resulting in nothing, and coincidentally costing over $93,000 in hospital expenses, covered by government health insurance.

Now, I don't want to be a Grinch; this is a genuine feelgood story, the good guys came to the rescue and everything worked out the way we would hope it should. But there's still something about this story that bugs me. It's not the insane difference between the money saved by one stingy government bureaucracy versus the amount squandered as a result by a different government bureaucracy, or how nobody could seem to line up those two items into one mind and decide, "This is ridiculous! Give the poor guy his ramp, and let's free up that hospital bed!"

No, it's the way things happened in such an unnatural order. Why was the simplest, most direct course of action the LAST resort? Why did Larry have to spend 4 months wasting his time entreating the government to take pity on him when help was just around the corner? Why do we resign ourselves to filling out endless little bits of paper to feed into an anonymous machine in the hope of getting what we need eventually, instead of speaking directly to the people nearest us, who know us best?

It's not just Larry - we all do this. I think Steyn is right when he warns about how government medical care changes the nature of our relationship with the government. We don't think it will, but we find ourselves just sliding into this supplicant position without even thinking about it.

What's even worse, it seems that as the government takes over the provision of more and more of our needs, it inevitably takes over bits of our life that we never willingly agreed to assign to them. Think about it: this whole story concerned the building of a wooden platform outside a man's house. If Larry's wife had wanted a clothesline erected at the back door, he would have just built it himself or hired a handyman to do it in an afternoon. But somehow because government medical care has gotten involved, a little bit of carpentry has suddenly become "government business", and we slump resignedly as we wait our turn for the government to get to us and take care of the business that we no longer even imagine can be done any other way.

Why do we do this? It isn't because we're getting better service from the government; look at Larry - he never got anything at all, at least, not what he wanted. There was plenty of what he didn't want - moping in a hospital, but nothing at all of what he, his doctors and everyone who knew him knew he needed. Maybe we have all decided that it's too hard to make personal appeals to people we know - it's shameful to reveal that we have needs we can't take care of ourself. And we worry too much about being a burden and a bother to people around us. But a government doesn't have a personality we have to worry about interacting with. We never really think "If I get this, then someone else can't have what they need" because it's never presented that way to us individually. We know that one department loses funding while another one gains it, but it's never personalized. Whereas, with real human beings, we might think "My son's family had to give up their vacation this year to help me to pay for my new furnace" and the resulting discomfort makes us unhappy.

Of course, by eliminating the possibility of getting personal help from someone, we also eliminate the other person's ability to be generous and experience the happiness of helping. Instead, we get our "stuff" - not very good, and maybe extremely late - and there are no messy human interactions to worry about. Even without intending to, letting government help us all the time ends up creating a distant, alienated society of people who don't know each other and don't know how to deal with each other.

Emergencies can still override this numbing effect, but in everyday life we seem to be slumping into a poorer, lonelier existence.


Blogger Tina said...

This is so good. This part especially corresponds with some things I've been noticing over the past couple of years: "Of course, by eliminating the possibility of getting personal help from someone, we also eliminate the other person's ability to be generous and experience the happiness of helping."

Not only are we becoming dependent on government, but also on "organized volunteerism": waiting for permission, thinking we have to have training, orientation and insurance.

Thanks for bringing up this great example of why helping our neighbors is essential to liberty.

(and Merry Christmas!)

7:25 am  
Blogger Martial Artist said...

Dr. Mabuse,

There is another term for the increasing degeneration of civilization you describe, coined (or at least used) as a title for a 1996 book by a US Court of Appeals judge, of whom you may have heard, Robert H. Bork. Although I haven't read the book, your closing sentence's "slumping into a poorer, lonelier existence" brought it to mind.

The phrase is Slouching Towards Gomorrah, and it is, in my mind and Bork's, a consequence of modern "liberalism," which I would label "progressivism," as the radical egalitarianism of the political left is, at least in the U.S., more a child of T. Roosevelt, W. Wilson, FDR and their successors—prominent leaders less interested in liberty than were the classical liberals, the successors to the Old Whigs.

Pax et bonum,
Keith Töpfer

12:17 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm still wondering why it would cost $4,800.00 to build a ramp.

3:00 pm  
Blogger Dr. Mabuse said...

I have "Slouching Toward Gomorrah" but I don't think I ever read it - I'm going to have to dig it out.

I didn't question the price of the ramp because frankly I just don't know what's involved in building one. At first I thought it concerned a concrete ramp, and assumed it could be a complicated job, but a wooden ramp is so easy. As we saw from the story, a few men were able to hammer it together in a couple of days! Now the only thing we have to worry about is some officious government safety official turning up and declaring it's not up to code, and that such things MUST be handled by licensed government employees- no do-it-yourself allowed!

3:11 pm  
Blogger Tina said...

Doc, I've linked to your post here. I'm no Mark Stein but maybe it will sent a couple of people over here to read.

Merry Christmas to you and yours!

7:01 pm  
Blogger Dr. Mabuse said...

Thanks! And as you said above, personally doing good to our neighbours has effects beyond simply relieving want. All the major religions have requirements for performing acts of charity. I don't know which one specifically I was reading about on one occasion, but I recall a description of some particular holy day when the poor would line up at the entrance to the church or mosque or whatever, so that the worshippers could have the benefit of giving alms on their way inside (it sounds like a Russian Orthodox thing to me, somehow). It definitely couched in those terms - that this was a priviledge and a pleasure, for the rich to have this chance of personally helping someone else. By consigning all such help to impersonal bureaus we concentrate only on the end effect, and forget all about the moral and even emotional benefit that comes from personal help.

9:26 pm  
Blogger Blazing Cat Fur said...

Off topic but Merry Christmas!

10:43 am  
Blogger The Bovina Bloviator said...

One word for you, Doctor: subsidiarity..

Merry Christmas!

10:51 am  
Blogger Dr. Mabuse said...

Absolutely, BB, but the lesson from Canada seems to be that subsidiarity is one of those things that everyone thinks is a sort of do-it-yourself amateur performance, to be abandoned as soon as the professionals (i.e., government) shows up. It's like pitting your grandma's home remedies against the Mayo Clinic. Nobody ever volunteers to go BACK to it, because they're convinced that it's primitive and clumsy.

4:13 pm  

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