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Defining The Edges of Fair

Before I start, let me say, I don’t have an answer. I have questions. As with most things philosophical, answers are relative. Change one factor, and the answer starts to slip away. It’s a bit like nailing jello to the wall. Or chasing roaches once the lights come on. Hard.

Back in ancient times, when I was a junior at MSU, I was offered admission to the Honors College. There being no down-side to this, I readily joined up. My new requirements were to meet the number of hours in my major, period. No more minor, no language requirement. And bonus, I was eligible, after graduate students as first in line for graduate and senior courses.

I took a philosophy class, and bumped into a question that has never left me entirely, low these decades later. I have no recall if we were to write a defense or criticism of this, but the question was quite simple:

Would you willing support a person whose only obligation was to read?

No strings attached. No requirement to write, or teach, or anything beyond read. And for that bed and board provided. Forever.

One’s response to that probably defines in a way, your take on what the state owes the individual. Is it only an opportunity? Or is it support of basic needs to survive?

I’m a proponent of the latter. I’m willing to bet a life of food and bed, in the hopes that the probabilities are pretty high, that someone who gets to read for life will want to share his/her knowledge in some way, and I believe that benefits us all ultimately.

What price is too dear?

Well, the other night we say a segment of 60 Minutes about Qatar. A small but exceedingly wealthy Arab state, Qatar is ruled by a monarchy. It has a small population of around 300,000, and apparently one cannot become a citizen, that is reserved for those who are of the “family” which obviously is quite large and extended.

Basically the rulers of Qatar provide for their citizens generously. One receives a full education as far as one wishes to go, where one wishes to go, as well as health care and presumably housing and so forth. Government employees were recently given a raise of some 60%. Citizens are well off, and everything is pretty much free.

Much of the labor force is imported from other places, and life for them is not so good. No freebies for them, and they are not allowed to frequent most establishments. There are a lot of charges of slave labor. Labor lives in its own “community”.

Now, it is all well and good for Qataris, and one could make an argument that if education and health care were extended to all who wished it, the system would become over-burdened and would fail everyone.

But how far is too far?

We are having this argument right here in the US today. The Right, is fearful (and frankly always has been) that there won’t be enough if we continue down the road to a “nanny” state which they believe we are headed. Does entitlement to a basic life (housing, food, education, health care) lead to an indolent population that refuses to work or whose work is slipshod, ala Atlas Shrugged?

Or does a population, freed from the burden of survival, feel alive to pursuing creative endeavors that enhance the entire state? Are a people free to discover their passion, a people who will pursue it once found? Does a basic safety net thus ultimately lead to the most creative environment?

Does cut-throat competition, unfettered by regulation, favor the already wealthy and lead to sweat-shops, company towns, child labor, and slums in every city? Is it the Gilded Age all over again?

Is there a line not  to be crossed, and if so where is it?

One can claim quite rightly it would seem to me that Qatar does right by its citizens but is inhuman in its treatment of imported labor, treating them essentially as a permanent underclass. But is this a permanent condition or only the temporary situation until the population “evolves” to see the value in treating its foreign population with more generosity?

An argument can be made that Qatar is evolving. It is pursuing, though not alone, some of the more liberating of actions as regards women’s rights, and certainly in the arena of a free press (they created Al Jazeera). There are not a few folks that would argue that it has been Al Jazeera’s open coverage of the Arab Spring that has led to the expansion of that breath of freedom across the Middle East.

These are tough questions. While Qatar’s practices regarding its immigrants (who frankly are not always free to leave the country either), are admittedly awful, how much better can they be made without turning the country into a mecca for poor throughout the world? Is that a legitimate concern?

Food for thought, if you find yourself sitting in the dentist’s office today.

Oh, and by the by. I would love to have been the one granted the right to read for a living. Oh yes I would.



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