When Sarah Palin first warned about death panels and ObamaCare, the president and his allies were quick to laugh. Sending grandma off to an icy, watery grave was the stuff of Inuit legends, never the intention of liberals fighting to pass a law that could and would have serious implications for America’s senior citizens, despite the AARP’s inexplicable endorsement. Reading Charles Blow’s column in the New York Times yesterday, however, one can appreciate the origins of Palin’s concerns. Considering progressives’ descriptions of children as burdens, not blessings, it’s understandable that they would feel similarly about another “useless” subsection of our society: the elderly.
Blow’s column focuses on the burdens that an aging population places on society. These elderly are burdens, apparently, because they are beyond “what we currently conceive as working-age,” and because disease “ravages the mind and body.” This betrays a fundamental difference between how liberals and conservatives view a person’s role in society. Conservatives see them for what they are: individuals. Liberals see these individuals as part of a larger group, judging their value on how usefully they serve the collective. To a conservative, does it matter that an elderly member of society cannot work or be totally self-sufficient? Of course not. These individuals are important no matter what their perceived financial contributions (or burdens) may be. We love grandma not because she may give good presents and writes nice birthday checks, but because she is a valued member of the family and of the community. She’s important not because of what she can and does give us materially, but because of who she is and what she means to us.
Blow expresses concern for the future of the entitlement system, given the likelihood that the current structure is due to collapse under the top-heavy weight of an aging population. This is a serious worry for many financial planners on the city, state, and federal level and has been discussed by commentators and politicians on both the left and right. When pension contracts are written and entitlement benefits drafted, one never knows how long recipients will live. Would the more logical solution be to deny life-extending medical treatment to individuals? Or would it perhaps make more sense to re-adjust our entitlements system to compensate for a lengthening lifespan? To Blow, it seems that the more appealing solution would be to end scientific investigation and research, content that we have traveled far enough in our quest for a longer and more fulfilling life. The cessation of the advancement of science and discovery is somehow more appealing to Blow than reevaluating the generous life-long financial commitments made to millions with public money.
The Orwellian ramifications of Blow’s worries over an aging population are vast. If individuals are only worthy of membership in society if they are able bodied, where does the line get drawn? If life-extending treatments become verboten, lest society be burdened with what Blow seems to believe are useless individuals, would the physically and mentally infirm also be denied life-saving treatments? While eugenics is often seen as part of the past, one cannot forget the legacy that those who championed its use carry in our modern world. The mother of what is now Planned Parenthood, Margaret Sanger, was outspoken in her support of eugenicist policies. In her 1920 book Sanger argued that “birth control is nothing more or less than the facilitation of the process of weeding out the unfit [and] of preventing the birth of defectives.” Those questioning how effective Sanger’s campaign to weed out the unfit has been can look at the latest data on abortion rates for fetuses who test positive for Down Syndrome (studies place the number at over 90 percent).
The fact that Blow’s column has received little attention and even less denouncement should concern anyone interested in keeping our society morally intact. While Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is seen as a work of fiction, we may one day, if Charles Blow’s vision of society is realized, see it as prophetic instead.