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Insisted Suicide

February 3, 2010

I have always insisted that individual freedom must encompass the freedom to commit suicide, or (more problematically from an emotional perspective) the freedom to fail. However, polities are fairly incapable of tolerating failure, sometimes with disastrous results.

In the face of Alzheimer’s, British author Terry Pratchett has made an impassioned plea to avoid the slow decline and suffering that surely awaits him, and yet his requests will likely fail to convince any policymakers who so pride themselves on “empathetic” treatment of the elderly and enfeebled. However, unlike most emotionally-driven debates, there is a concrete policy proposal to go along with his plea, one that gives new meaning to the recently popularized phrase “death panel.” In Pratchett’s plan, these panels would certify the competence and soundness of the requesting individual’s decision, to ensure that the decision isn’t coerced and is “in the patient’s best interests.” Of course, the problem is that moral calculus tends to become skewed when death is placed on the scales.

Nonetheless, “premature” death may be the best way to solidify and reinforce the quality of the life that preceded the end.  In his first interview since withdrawing from the newspapers and public life 15 years ago, Calvin and Hobbes creator Bill Waterson affirmed this principle:

It’s always better to leave the party early. If I had rolled along with the strip’s popularity and repeated myself for another five, 10 or 20 years, the people now “grieving” for “Calvin and Hobbes” would be wishing me dead and cursing newspapers for running tedious, ancient strips like mine instead of acquiring fresher, livelier talent. And I’d be agreeing with them.

Indeed, it only makes sense to give creators the implicit opposite right of stopping their own works.  The author would most likely have the most keen insight into what will maximize the artistic and creative value of their works, and should be allowed to kill off their characters and works so long as they’re not limiting the ability of others to “fair use” them because at that point it is no longer just that author’s freedom that is implicated.

Sadly, not all suicide is rational, and in those situations the option must be denied to the incompetent patient because of the harm to those who have no control over the decision.  For example, when our material and economic interests are threatened, we turn to authoritarian measures, the equivalent of suicide for any democracy.  Robert Reich argues that we’re trading our democracy for our economy, and getting a raw deal to boot.

Democracy requires at least three things: (1) Important decisions are made in the open. (2) The public and its representatives have an opportunity to debate them, so the decisions can be revised in light of what the public discovers and wants. And (3) those who make the big decisions are accountable to voters.

Reich was part of the most successful economic teams in history because the Clinton Administration saw that markets were kicking ass in the 90s and did what any prudent government should do: sit back, let markets do their thing for the most part, and take the credit. After he left the administration, in the rash of irrational exuberance over the vitality of free markets, the United States eliminated a key protector of investor security: Glass-Steagall. Repealing Glass-Steagall was economic seppuku precisely because it allowed consolidated financial institutions to create greater information asymmetries and reap the profits. At least the crisis has illustrated the proper role of government: actively intervening in the economy and working to eliminate those dangerous market inefficiencies. If only we were actually doing that. Instead, we may be twisting the knife by creating a state-managed insurance policy that doesn’t address the underlying problems of opaque markets:

by institutionalising the concept of “too big to fail”, the scheme would aggravate the underlying problem of moral hazard. It would also transform state funding of the banking system from an exceptional response to a dire emergency into an expectation, even an entitlement.

If the proposed bank levy also allows banks to pass the costs of moral hazard along to the taxpayer and customer, one begins to see how the substance would be fairly similar to a constant state of bailout, with the costs borne by a faultless (and almost always clueless) citizenry. And this is the world’s leading democracy?

By contrast, prudent economic growth is good news for democrats in China and around the world:

The reforms carried out over the last 30 years have mostly been responses to imminent crises. Popular resistance and economic imbalances are now moving China toward another major crisis. Strong and privileged interest groups and commercialized local governments are blocking equal distribution of the benefits of economic growth throughout society, thereby rendering futile the CCP’s strategy of trading economic growth for people’s consent to its absolute rule.
An open and inclusive political process has generally checked the power of interest groups in advanced democracies such as the United States. Indeed, this is precisely the mandate of a disinterested government — to balance the demands of different social groups. A more open Chinese government could still remain disinterested if the right democratic institutions were put in place to keep the most powerful groups at bay. But ultimately, there is no alternative to greater democratization if the CCP wishes to encourage economic growth and maintain social stability.

Indeed, China is growing itself toward a large enough income per capita (hampered by similarly growing income inequality) that its people will begin to demand the ultimate luxury good: political freedom.

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