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Do Poor People Deserve Free Healthcare?

Updated on November 7, 2015

The question of what benefits the government should provide for the poor is a contentious one. The left tends to see the contributions of low pay, unskilled workers to society as valuable, and hence, deserving of basic services such as healthcare and education. The right, on the other hand, tends to view their contributions as negligible and sees the dispensation of such benefits as the unjust redistribution of property from hard-working citizens to undeserving, lazy ones. Despite their ideological manifestations, such arguments are fundamentally economic. They stem from differing assessments of the value of unskilled workers’ labor. As something becomes scarcer, it becomes more valuable as well. Labor is no exception. This is the point on which leftists and rightists fundamentally disagree – on their appraisal of the scarcity of unskilled labor, and hence, its value.

Rightists, for whom individualism is a core part of their ideology, view the issue from an individualist perspective. They view low-skilled labor in terms of workers’ value as individual capitalist commodities, meaning that their actual value is only as great as their wages. Since low-paying jobs require little to no skill, just about anyone can do them. If a burger flipper quits his job, there are hundreds of people who could replace him at a moment’s notice. Therefore, his labor is abundant and his value is low. From this perspective, it makes sense that rightists would be hostile towards the general dispensation of government benefits. Why should hard-working citizens whose contributions to society are so valuable have to pay for those who contribute so little?

Leftists, on the other hand, tend to view the issue from a collective perspective. They value unskilled laborers not as individuals, but as a collective. Viewed collectively, low-skilled labor is is scarce, and hence, valuable. This perspective has a significant basis in reality. Workers maintain the capacity to act collectively in the form of striking. Strikes do happen occasionally, whether at a particular company, or across an industry, or across multiple industries. When they do occur, they are often effective. While companies can easily replace an individual worker, it is far more difficult to replace an entire workforce. Consequently, they are forced to raise their workers’ wages, the costs of which are far less than the costs of the failure of the company, which would result from the continued refusal of employees to work. Implicit in the effectiveness of such strikes is the recognition that the workers’ actual value was greater than that of their wages all along.

Such principles as described in the context of one company or industry could be applied on a societal level as well. Unskilled workers retain the capacity to strike on a mass scale. Theoretically, they could do so while demanding certain government benefits. In such a situation, the government would have little choice but to capitulate, as refusal to do so could result in complete societal collapse. Individually, unskilled workers may not be worth much, but collectively, they are essential for the functioning of society, and as such, highly valuable. The costs of societal collapse would be far less than the costs of providing basic government services, regardless of an individual’s assessment of what those costs would be. While there may be a few cynical readers who disagree, perhaps the actual experience of living in “The Purge” would change their minds. Ultimately, while this economic perspective cannot answer the normative question of whether poor people “deserve” certain government benefits, it can affirm that they are worth it.

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