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What Should Society Do for the Poor?

We respect others’ rights on an interpersonal level, but on “public” issues like health care, education and poverty, that respect for individuals’ rights vanishes. Why?

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Most of us respect others’ rights on an interpersonal level. Unless we’re criminals, we keep our hands to ourselves — and expect others to do the same. But when it comes to “public” issues like poverty, health care or education, that respect for others’ rights vanishes, and we clamor for subsidized health care, free education, minimum wage laws, and a raft of welfare programs, blithely voting to commandeer the lives and resources of others, as if they were ours to dispose of. Why?

In her essay “Collectivized Ethics,” Ayn Rand analyzes the moral and psychological roots of this phenomenon.

If a man speculates on what “society” should do for the poor, he accepts thereby the collectivist premise that men’s lives belong to society and that he, as a member of society, has the right to dispose of them, to set their goals or to plan the “distribution” of their efforts. . . . Hence the appalling recklessness with which men propose, discuss and accept “humanitarian” projects which are to be imposed by political means, that is, by force, on an unlimited number of human beings.

In the essay, Rand argues that we need to abandon the widespread collectivist idea that topics such as health care, education and poverty are political issues, i.e., ones for the government or for “society as a whole” to decide. Instead, she shows how to think about these issues from an individualist perspective that respects and protects the rights of every individual.

So, if you’ve ever heard or entertained a question like “What should society do about the poor (or the handicapped or the uneducated)?,” I think you’ll find Rand’s answer to such questions in “Collectivized Ethics” both provocative and illuminating. The essay can be read in her book The Virtue of Selfishness: A New Concept of Egoism, whose main themes are synopsized here.

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Aaron Smith

Aaron Smith, PhD in philosophy, is a fellow at the Ayn Rand Institute where he lectures and develops educational content for the Institute’s intellectual training and outreach programs.

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