Belmont Club


Whenever a proposal is advanced to expand government oversight over activities such as child rearing, education and health care — and this includes subjects like euthanasia or family abuse — those who want to leave major choices to individuals or families, despite the fact they may sometimes or often do the wrong thing are described as uncaring, and ‘regressive’. In contrast, those who wish to shift the power of decision to government are characterized as “compassionate”, “enlightened” or “progressive”. And since there are often cases when government does better than individuals the substance of the decision can be argued back and forth.

One of the arguments for centralizing power in government is that it reduces variance. People get ‘standard’ care, which is ‘equitable’ and predictable. This is contrasted with the wider distribution of outcomes when the same decisions are left to individuals. In the health care debate for example, there are people who obviously get great health care and others who get relatively bad insurance. Wouldn’t it be better if the variance were reduced by a government program?

Left out of this argument is the idea of systemic risk. Leaving decisions to individuals makes it unlikely that they will all get it right but it equally implies they almost never get it all wrong. Society based on individual choices has a diversified portfolio of outcomes. In contrast if a government gets it wrong, it goes spectacularly wrong. Let’s forget about Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac for a moment; turn our eyes away from Barney Frank and look across the Atlantic to the UK’s ironically named Office of the Public Guardian.

A secret court is seizing the assets of thousands of elderly and mentally impaired people and turning control of their lives over to the State – against the wishes of their relatives.

The draconian measures are being imposed by the little-known Court of Protection, set up two years ago to act in the interests of people suffering from Alzheimer’s or other mental incapacity.

The court hears about 23,000 cases a year – always in private – involving people deemed unable to take their own decisions. Using far-reaching powers, the court has so far taken control of more than £3.2billion of assets.

The cases involve civil servants from the Office of the Public Guardian (OPG), which last year took £23million in fees directly from the bank accounts of those struck down by mental illness, involved in accidents or suffering from dementia. …

The organisation has 300 staff, costs £26.5million a year to run and is headed by £80,000-a-year career civil servant Martin John, a former head of asylum and immigration policy in Whitehall. It prepares reports for the Court of Protection, based in a tower block in Archway, North London.

This anonymous bureaucracy was set up to protect the elderly from their relatives. There are almost certainly a considerable number of no-good, low-down and grasping relatives who are raiding their impaired parent’s estate. But there were also a great many relatives who acted honorably and even self-sacrificially to care for their aging relatives as well as possible. As the article notes that “opposition politicians said the system, set up by Justice Secretary Jack Straw, needed to be overhauled to take account of the fact that most people were ‘honourable and decent’ and had their loved ones’ best interests at heart.” By creating a bureaucracy to handle what was formerly a family affair the UK did away with variance and replaced it with standardized, soulless and allegedly shabby treatment. The progressives spread the good news that we’re all going to eat the same dinners. The bad news is that it may uniformly be gruel.

The problem of process haunts every “progressive” proposal, especially life and death matters because ultimately “death panel” and euthanasia orders have to be written out by bureaucrats just like the guys you have down at the DMV or the Post Office. And while you probably might prefer to trust the clerk at the DMV over some of your relatives, if you are parent of loving children you will be S.O.L. if the decisions over your welfare are taken from your son and daughter and handed over to the bureaucrat, who might decide your fate on a Monday while eating coffee and donuts, hung over from the weekend. Once upon a time people feared giving the government power over their lives. They insisted for example on extensive due process before you could condemn a Charles Manson to death — and he wasn’t. But today compassion can give the government power over granny that we would never give it over a suspected terrorist in Guantanamo Bay.

One can make the argument that government should act only in cases of compelling public interest and not when someone makes the argument from putative reasons of ‘compassion’ or good feeling. Too little law is often a bad thing. That’s why Wyatt Earp was hired back in the Wild west. With respect to reducing the scope of choice to one bureaucratically mandated process, too much law may be a bad thing too. When we put all our eggs in one basket be ready to make a big, big omelet.

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