National Character and Its Importance to Good Health, Freedom

July 4, 2011

In our democracy, the objective of law should be to ensure maximum freedom for the largest number. In one sense, laws and regulations restrict freedom but in a more basic sense, freedom is more damaged more seriously by the abuses which engendered the laws.

A single family living in isolation needs no government. A small community may have no need of any formal organization if everyone behaves well. As the size of the community increases, informal means of influencing the behavior of others become less effective. Formal organization of some sort becomes desirable. In days gone by, this has often taken the form of a monarchy or dictatorship. Property -and the populace - were owned by the monarch; the monarch had the freedom. Some societies have been based on collectivism; the state owns the property and a group of elites have the freedom to dictate behavior and how the property will be used. 

We are blessed to live in a society where property is owned by individuals who have collectively agreed to have the affairs of the society regulated by a group of designated representatives. Members of the public have the freedom to use their property to enhance their well-being as they see fit unless their activities seriously offend the society. Regardless of who is in charge, if individuals or groups lie, cheat, steal, or engage in other behavior that is offensive to those in control (the public in our case,) laws and regulations proliferate in response.

In our democracy, the objective of law should be to ensure maximum freedom for the largest number. In one sense, laws and regulations restrict freedom but in a more basic sense, freedom is more damaged more seriously by the abuses which engendered the laws. Some political factions seem to believe that laws, regulations, and the things they produce, such as taxes, somehow violate the constitution and are unpatriotic. This is the basis for some of the vocal opposition to healthcare reform. In reality it is the individuals and groups whose actions prompted the regulatory response that are unpatriotic; they would gladly restrict the freedom of others for their own gain if they can get away with it.

Some opposition to healthcare reform is based on concerns that “big government” and intrusive regulations are prone to unintended consequences and excessive accumulation of power. Lord Acton famously said: “All power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely [1].” This can set the stage for a vicious cycle: having obtained power, it must be exercised and enlarged or it will be lost. Consider that the most notorious totalitarian regimes of the past century gained their initial power by promoting large-scale, popular social goals [2].

Others object to centralized schemes for providing healthcare on the basis of cost. They see entitlements as having an unpredictable and ever growing expense that will ultimately outpace the available revenue and ask: “Why make commitments that we cannot sustain in the long-run and can only barely afford in the short-run?”

Still others object because they are motivated by self-interest and deny any obligation to act responsibly toward society. Their bottom line is what counts. Any negative impact that results is simply a “cost of doing business.” What is good for business is good for the country. Of course, these excesses and indiscretions are responsible for some of the regulations that already exist. If workers had never been mistreated or underpaid, there might be no unions and no NLRB. If bankers, brokers, and issuers of stock were always honest and transparent there might be fewer financial disasters and perhaps no SEC.

In 1992, the Josephson Institute of Ethics hosted a conference in Aspen that provided a good definition of "character" - trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring, and citizenship. Social nirvana cannot be achieved either by regulation or by dictatorial central control; it ultimately must come from within.

Ill-conceived, overly-simplistic schemes imposed one after another keep us staggering toward the future like a drunk bouncing from light pole to light pole. The social fabric needs time to evolve but it can't be at the expense of generations afflicted with illnesses for which they cannot obtain treatment. An effective safety net must be provided or our collective freedom will be diminished. If this is to be done while keeping regulation of the healthcare system to a minimum, those who oppose regulation must vigorously encourage social responsibility while rooting out greed, graft, corruption, influence peddling, and the like. In other words, character counts. Although it seems to be in short supply lately, good character and a healthy population are both patriotic.


[1] Historical Essays and Studies by John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton (1907).

[2] The Road to Serfdom by Friedrich Hayek (1944).

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