What Matters Most?

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

This is my final post of 2010. Reflecting on the year, I am genuinely surprised by how much of my time here on Dorf on Law (as well as on FindLaw) was spent discussing government budgetary issues. Yes, that is my main area of professional interest; but even I would never have imagined that there could have been so much to say about these issues. Unfortunately, there is no shortage of misunderstanding (and worse) about the government's finances; and during a time of severe economic upheaval, the craziest and silliest ideas can gain a foothold in the public's mind. It seemed necessary to respond ... and respond, and respond.

Even so, in the spirit of end-of-year musing, I have recently wondered what, among the issues that I write about, truly matters the most. If I could be the proverbial "king for a day," what is the one thing that I would change or fix? One way to answer that question is to engage in a simple exercise in revealed preference: What I write about most must be what I care about most. Upon reflection, however, I do not think that is true. Allow me to explain.

The single issue about which I write most often is Social Security. In addition to my DoL/FindLaw writings and my other articles on the subject, I have spent a lot of time in 2010 developing two law review articles: "Social Security is Fair to Future Generations," and "Proposed Changes to Social Security Would Be Unfair to Future Generations." I hope to finish the first article early in 2011, and the second later in the year. I have also toyed with the idea of writing a book about Social Security. (Now that's original!)

Obviously, I would not write so much about Social Security if I did not think it was extremely important. It is the most successful social program in history, a triumph of the much-maligned idea of good government. Opponents of the system consistently misunderstand and/or misrepresent the finances of the program, putting the program at constant risk of being fatally altered. The demise of Social Security -- that is, the demise of a system of shared responsibility for retirement -- would be a huge setback to the ever-declining fortunes of the middle and lower classes in this country.

It is tempting, therefore, to put Social Security at the top of the king's to-do list.

Health care reform is another candidate for regal action. While the finances of the Social Security system are far too often wrongly characterized as being in crisis, health care really is a financial disaster -- for government, for business, and especially for real human beings. Tens of thousands of people die in the U.S. each year because they lack health insurance. Our accidental non-system of financing medical care encourages unnecessary care that actually makes people sicker, while denying care that would both be cheaper and improve the public's health.

Part of the problem in my musings lies in deciding just how much power the king can wield. "Fixing" Social Security is easy, because it is not broken. To do any long-term good, however, one would want to somehow fix people's misconceptions about Social Security, to put it safely out of the reach of both anti-government demagogues and confused reformers. Similarly, while the most obvious fix for the U.S. health care mess would be the adoption of a single-payer system, it is necessary to give the king enough power to keep the system in place for a number of years, and to successfully fend off the inevitable freak-out that would come from such a big change.

If we are really talking about changing fundamental attitudes, however, why not go to my most obvious area of disagreement with the current conventional wisdom: the federal deficit? If it were possible to get people to think more sanely about deficits and debt, a huge number of problems could be avoided. Social Security and health care would both be on much more solid political ground, because people would finally understand that Social Security is not part of any deficit problem, and they would see that fundamental health care reform is a path to improve fiscal outcomes. More broadly, it would be possible to invest in public goods in a way that is currently impossible. Education at all levels, clean energy technologies, modernized infrastructure, and so on, could all be responsibly supported in a world where people no longer viewed deficits as per se signs of the Apocalypse.

Nonetheless, I do not think that I would put improved understanding of government finances at the top of my list, either. Instead, the single most important issue is one about which I write only once each year: animal rights. I believe that the most good could come from changing the public's attitude about killing, torturing, exploiting, and eating animals and their secretions.

Again, this thought exercise is complicated by the question of how much power the king holds. If, after all, the king has the power simply to change human attitudes, these musings would simply devolve into the non-thought that "it would be nice if people stopped being mean." If one could stop people from being willing to harm animals, could one not also get them to stop murdering, raping, stealing, and doing everything else that makes the world fall so far short of Paradise?

Fair enough. Even so, there is significant good that could come from much more imaginable changes in policies regarding animal exploitation. Paul Krugman's column from earlier this week, for example, noted (almost in passing): "As more and more people in formerly poor nations are entering the global middle class, they’re beginning to drive cars and eat meat, placing growing pressure on world oil and food supplies." This is a rather depressing idea, suggesting that the desire to end human poverty is inextricably connected with the increased misery of billions of sentient beings.

This is also a rather simple demonstration of the fact that being a vegan is over-determined. That is, even if one can put the unthinkable cruelty involved in exploiting animals out of one's mind, economic concerns alone would be more than sufficient reason to move to a vegan world. And even if economic concerns are not persuasive, environmental concerns would be. Half of all climate changing emissions, after all, derive from the exploitation of animals for meat and dairy production. But even if the environment is not your "thing," then concerns over human health should be more than enough to push you into the vegan camp.

Which brings us back to health care, the deficit, and so on. Because the damage from exploiting animals is so vast and pervasive in our lives, even small changes (such as ending -- or merely reducing -- subsidies for meat and dairy production) would make an enormous difference to our health, our economy, and our environment.

Although debates regarding retirement, health care, and government finances are obviously hugely important, the inescapable fact is that a world that was even marginally less cruel to animals would see remarkable improvements in nearly all of the things that make life worth living.

Happy New Year.