Steve Sheldon told about a woman giving birth alone on a beach. Something went wrong. A breech birth. The woman was in agony. ‘Help me please! The baby will not come,’ she cried out. The Pirahãs sat passively, some looking tense and some talking normally. ‘I’m dying! This hurts. The baby will not come!’ She screamed. No-one answered. It was late afternoon. Steve started toward her. ‘No! She doesn’t want you. She wants her parents,’ he was told, the implication being clearly that he was not to go to her. But her parents were not around, and no-one else was going to her aid. The evening came and her cries came regularly, but ever more weakly. Finally, they stopped. In the morning Steve learned that she and her baby had died on the beach, unassisted.
Daniel L. Everett uses this passage from Don’t Sleep, There are Snakes to illustrate the ideas of an Amazonian people about personal responsibility and their attitudes towards the suffering of others. In context, this story is a little more subtle than it may appear on this page, because Everett tell us that Pirahã will devote great effort to helping one another under the right circumstances. The point is that under this circumstance, Pirahã did not consider it appropriate to aid the woman in question, even though her need was obvious. It was the sort of trouble that Pirahã felt an individual must face alone, or with the aid of family. Since no family was there to help her, the woman in this story had to face this struggle alone.
I read a lot of stories like this, and some still have the power to shock and anger me. I can think my way to an understanding of the behavior in question, but in some cases (like this one) I lose my interest at least momentarily in learning about the cultural context behind it, and I want desperately to confront those responsible. The image of a woman and her child dying alone on a beach because people would not help her is just too much to bear. How could anyone, ANYONE, countenance such a thing?
It doesn’t help that Everett follows this with another story about an orphan girl he had been nursing back to health from a near coma, that is until her father killed her with the aid of his fellow villagers. To them this was a mercy killing, as Everett tells us. The villagers had become convinced the little girl was too sick to survive. His efforts to nurse her back to health had in their eyes accomplished nothing except to prolong her suffering. So, they killed her. I read that story, and I understand the point, and still stories like this fill me with rage. I want desperately to do something about a death I didn’t witness, to confront people I’ve never met, to stop them, to beat them, to punish them. No explanation will suffice for such things, I sometimes feel, and I cannot imagine living in a world in which I must abide such behavior.
But of course I do live in such a world; we have it right here in America.
Oddly enough these passages have helped me to understand something I have been struggling to grasp since the last election, the old yarn about death panels. Don’t get me wrong. I certainly understand the fear and horror that comes from the notion that some committee may have the power to make life and death decisions for other people. What I could never grasp was just how anyone could be so alarmed at the prospect that such a panel could operate under the auspices of government authority while remaining unconcerned about the reality of such entities in the private sector today. Insurance companies make such decisions every day which effectively sentence people to death or suffering, and this is at best a matter for reform; it is something we have to work on, because maybe there is room for improvement. Yet the mere hint of such a committee operate under the auspices of government authority is enough to render the man responsible for it into something of a vampire.
The case for the existence of Death Panels in Obamacare was never much more than a highly malicious rumor, at least as outlined by Republicans in 2008. Yet people die in America every day because they cannot get coverage for important procedures, or they suffer needlessly from lack of care. Think of dental care alone. For years I struggled to find a safe tooth to use for chewing before I finally got a decent dental package, and now I see friends and family doing the same thing. None of this is necessary. They aren’t screaming down at the river, and perhaps they won’t die, but their suffering is absolutely unnecessary. So much the more so for those who cannot get treatment for serious ailments.
So, how is it that folks could be so accepting of deaths resulting from lack of medical care in the present economy while falling over themselves at dark rumors about Obama’s heath care package? I’ve come to understand this sort of thing as one of the powers of the Free Market.
“The power of the market!” I often wonder if the people uttering this little mantra recognize its religious overtones. You would swap “Jesus” in there for the market if you like, or perhaps “the mind” if you prefer to think of yourself as “spiritual but not religious.” Either way, it is an expression of wonder at the power of an entity to work miracles. Those uttering this phrase usually mean it to suggest something to the effect that free markets will bring about good things if only they are left to themselves.
My own suggestion is sarcastic, of course, but I do think it is the rhetoric of free markets that works this miracle, perverse as it may be. It is what separates the horrors of some deaths from the natural occurrences of others.
Time and again, one hears folks (and by ‘folks’ I mean ‘Libertarians’) assuring us that government actions aimed at correcting some remedial evil will only create more difficulties in the long run. If wages are too low, raising a minimum wage will only lead to a reduction in jobs, and if banks are charging ridiculous overdraft fees, rules against this can only lead to other fees. To correct such horrors is to fight the tide itself. The course of the market is thus a perfectly natural, inexorable force, and government action to correct it can only lead to greater harms on down the road.
And of course there is a certain degree of evidence to back this up. By a certain degree of evidence, I of course mean scads of economic analysis regarding details such as those above. We can see the adjustments that market values make in the wake of government changes quite regularly, and it isn’t hard to see just how often those adjustments prove the undoing of many well-intentioned policies.
And yet the rhetoric of Free Market Fundamentalism seems to stretch a little beyond this evidence, turning tendencies into laws and social behavior into the tell-tale signs of a god passing in the night. It is not merely that supply and demand react to one another, but that they do so under the command of an entity of sorts, one with great powers. Somewhere along the line, reasonable arguments about the particulars give rise to a mythic narrative, one which simplifies the choices in front of us.
All of this begs the question of just how simple it is to keep government actions out of business. Money, like government office, is a vehicle of power, and there is no inherent reason why we should moralize the one and naturalize the other. But of course that is precisely the point of so much talk about the power of the market; that market will do what it does, and individuals seeking profit will do what they do. Neither morals, nor governments, nor all the devils in Hell will alter the course of self interest. What is left for us to do but acknowledge in stoic terms the limitations of humanity and civic service? …and hence to let things run their course? A virtuous government is thus one that does not interfere. Likewise with virtuous politicians!
And damn those who would trespass against the will of the market.
Thus a man who dies because an insurance company will not pay for an expensive operation has in effect passed away of natural causes, but one who has died because a government panel denied him the operation? Well, his death is the result of arcane forces. Worse still, a life prolonged by such a committee must also be an unnatural event, a form of undeath, sustaining itself by draining the life from others. And if folks stop short of blaming those whose health is the result of government programs, well we can certainly point a finger at the necromancers who created those programs.
This is the attraction of a narrative that separates the world of power into forms about which we can make decisions of right or wrong and those about which we can only hope to adapt. Government is thus saturated with moral significance; there are good politicians and bad politicians, even evil ones. But market forces? These are as natural as the tide itself. One might as well urge reform on the laws of gravity as hope to change the nature of business.
It is for this same reason that welfare queens elicit so much more effective anger than corrupt bankers. We can understand someone fudging the numbers to make a profit, but a woman who lives off the coercive power of government authority? That is an abomination. Likewise with all manner of horrors resulting from poverty; they are natural. We might shed a tear for those that die of such things, but we expect them to handle it themselves, or to turn to family.
“She doesn’t want you; she wants her parents.”
If you want to help your neighbor, so one hears, then do so with your own money! Give to charity, or pay your brother’s bills, but don’t force others to do the same. But of course the market in its infinite wisdom sets the price for the necessities of life too high for such personal action, at least if one hopes to get ahead in life. And so neither government nor private individuals can really do much about this man’s teeth or that woman’s liver. The result is natural, so the narrative goes, and there is nothing for us to do but go about our lives as people all about us suffer.
We can only hope they will do it in silence, behind a door somewhere, not screaming down at the river.
This is, after all, a nation of civilized people.