LTC Bullet: The Hazards of Morality

Friday, November 3, 2017


LTC Comment: Is conventional morality a trap? Could we have it all backwards? Ruminations after the ***news.***

*** LTC CLIPPING: 11/3/2017, “Living Well, Even With Alzheimer’s,” by Gayatri Devi, Wall Street Journal

Quote:  “Many people have the idea that Alzheimer’s is a one-way street to inexorable decline. They believe that treatment is ineffective, which often discourages them from seeking a diagnosis when facing memory loss. But the reality of the disease is very different. Having worked as a neurologist for over 20 years, I see Alzheimer’s not as a single disease but as a spectrum disorder—with a wide range of symptoms, responses to treatment and prognoses. Early diagnosis and treatment has kept many of my patients stable.”

LTC Comment: I bring this article in today’s WSJ to your attention because I think something different and potentially big is going on with Alzheimer’s diagnosis and treatment. I’ll have more to say in a future LTC Bullet. For now, read this article if you have access to the Journal. Then look for a new best-seller titled “The End of Alzheimer's: The First Program to Prevent and Reverse Cognitive Decline.” Jaded and dubious as I am about the constant hyperventilating reports concerning Alzheimer’s drugs and treatments, this approach may have merit and bears watching. ***

*** SUBSCRIBE TO LTC CLIPPINGS: We scan the news searching for data, articles and reports you need to know about. Then we send you a brief email (like the ones above) with title, author, source link, a representative quote, and our brief analysis. LTC Clippings help you stay at the forefront of professional knowledge. To subscribe, contact Damon at 206-283-7036 or ***



LTC Comment: Moral hazard is the “the chance that the insured will be more careless and take greater risks because he or she is protected.” Insurers understand moral hazard and guard against it with careful underwriting, copays, and deductibles.

But I’m thinking of something different, the hazards of morality. What could possibly be dangerous about being moral?

The dominant American morality is altruism, “disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others.” In other words, you should put others’ interests first. A corollary of altruism is collectivism. The welfare of the group trumps the rights of the individual.

Altruism is problematic. Carried to its logical extreme, putting others first leaves no one with anything to give others. If you don’t put your own selfish interest first, at least part of the time, how can you accumulate anything to share?

That logical contradiction leads to a dangerous trade-off. Human nature being what it is, most people do pursue their own interests primarily, but delegate their sense of altruistic responsibility to government.

Taxpayers salve their guilt for accumulating personal wealth by assigning its redistribution to politicians. The pols claim to have the best interests of others foremost in mind. But they use the redistributed wealth they control to buy votes from interest groups.

Altruistic intent or lip service aside, the end result redounds to no one’s best interest. Consider some examples.

In 1935, the Social Security Act passed with the altruistically noble intent that everyone would pay in during their earning years so that everyone could withdraw income in retirement. Over the years, politicians expanded Social Security to enhance its benefits, ostensibly with the goal to help people even more. But today, Social Security is on its last legs, plagued by unfunded liabilities in the many trillions of dollars, with a trust fund the federal government has already spent on other priorities, and destined to reduce benefits below current levels which are already a poor return on investment and too little to support people in retirement. This is what delegating altruism about retirement to the politicians got us.

Ditto altruism about health care. The story is the same for Medicare, Medicaid and ObamaCare. Instead of taking personal responsibility (self-interest) for their own health and long-term care, consumers transferred the responsibility to government. Now we’re all burdened by trillions in debt, perverse incentives to rely on these bankrupt government programs, and disincentives to take selfish, personal responsibility for our own well-being. This is what delegating altruism about health and long-term care to politics got us.

Do you see what happened? Altruism as a basis for morality is self-contradictory. People have to pursue their own interests before they can be altruistic. So if left voluntary, altruism does not change people’s natural self-interested behavior.

But when the responsibility to pursue altruism is entrusted to politicians and enforced by government compulsion, it is invariably perverted. The self-interest of the politicians prevails to the detriment of the public’s interests.

Here’s the dilemma: putting others’ interests ahead of one’s own sounds good as a moral guidepost, but it doesn’t work. Human nature abhors self-sacrifice. But doubling down on altruism by assigning it to government and enforcing it with coercion leads to tragic consequences.

Basing morality on altruism makes moral hazard universal. Why work hard, save, invest and insure for the future if your ethical duty is to give to others now and society’s duty is to take care of you when you confront the inevitable consequences of your irresponsibility later. You’re likely to be “more careless and take greater risks” because you think you’re protected.

Next week, we’ll explore a different moral guidepost: “The Morality of Hazards.” What if people were left to their own devices? What if we celebrated personal responsibility, entrepreneurship, and success, in a word, selfishness, first and foremost? Would the needy be worse off or would everyone prosper more? Stay tuned.