We live in a rich and powerful country. What obligation does that wealth place on us, collectively, to our less fortunate citizens? Is it acceptable for Americans to starve? To live in the streets? To go without medical treatment? Do people who lack these things have an inherent claim on these things, or is their right contingent on certain things? If society has a duty to help the less fortunate, does that duty fall on each individual privately, is it the province of religious or secular charities, or is it properly a function of government?
I have my own set of answers to these questions. I respect that other people will have different answers, but the other ideas I hope to develop are grounded in my own answers. I'd like to present my answers here, and discuss them, in the hope that my loyal readers will be willing to accept them -- strictly for the sake of the argument -- as the basis for future posts in this series, rather than having further discussions bog down into fundamental disagreement over these basic points. Maybe that's not reasonable; if so, I'd rather talk about it than not talk. But I'd like to take a stab at these issues now.
As a starting point, I do think that our society has a fundamental obligation to put a floor under our people that nobody has to live below. I can't reconcile the kind of wealth the top of our society has with people being genuinely hungry, or not having any shelter, or suffering from simple, inexpensively treated medical conditions. Exactly where the floor is, what that minimal level of support is in monetary terms, is a matter of discussion, but it does have to be there. I think a good benchmark to use is the physical conditions we house prisoners in. How can we leave people who aren't being punished for a crime less than the minimum our standard of cruel and unusual punishment requires we grant to convicted murderers?
Given that I think there is a minimum level of support that we are ethically required to guarantee to everyone, what structures should we have to make sure that everyone gets that support? I think it is an appropriate function of government. It should not be left to private charities or to individual citizens, because it becomes likely that the private charities or individual citizens will prefer to help people they feel a connection with or condition their help on accepting some agenda. It is hard to for me to say that a church group can't require the people they help to listen to their religious message, or that a rich individual must help someone from an ethnic background he disapproves of. I don't think it's right that those groups should discriminate, but it is hard for me to tell them that they must not, and I also think it's unrealistic to expect that all of them really will serve all comers equally, even if we make a law that says they should. That's why I see it as a government function: if society fails without it, it is the job of government to make sure it's there.
Finally, we have the question of obligations on the part of the people who are helped. Does the person who is supported by the social floor have an obligation to society to give something back to the society? Ultimately, yes, but what if he won't perform? Even the person who refuses, for whatever reason, to do anything to help himself is still a person; he may be wrong, but we are still wrong to let him starve or rot in the street. That's the reason that the minimal level of support should not come with any conditions. It should be there automatically when anyone needs it, without bureaucratic barriers.