As part of capturing The Big Picture of our society, I have been examining the benefits and costs of scaling up of our communities.
In Part 3, I looked at the establishment of governance structures as a necessity to administer our societies which have scaled up to become states. The people who enable the governance structures are, in the core meaning of the term, ‘agents of the state’. (The lead-up posts can be found here: Part 1 and Part 2.)
The moral dilemma which agents of the state face is simple in its mechanics, but complex in its resolution. Perhaps it cannot really be satisfactorily resolved – only ‘put up with’, or managed, in one way or another. And, in a way, this dilemma is also the ‘last check’ on the power of the state…
There is an inherent dichotomy between being an individual – with individual moral views and opinions – and being an agent of the state whose very purpose is to carry out the will of the state. This cannot be easy, as it is unlikely that every agent of the state will agree with every single policy of the state – yet, it is their job to implement them all.
An ‘agent of the state’ is anyone who is directly hired by the state (civil servant) or who is officially licensed (contracted) by the state to deliver a service on behalf of the state. (In this series of posts, I use the word ‘state’ in its core meaning: it could mean provincial, municipal, federal, state, or whatever other political unit has sovereignity of a specific geographic area within a specific sphere of influence.)
This is not the ‘licensing’ – as in certification, where the state accredits someone to practice in a specific field on their own – like, say, plumbers or electricians. Plumbers and electricians (etc.) may be ‘licensed’ by the state, but their clients contract them privately, not to deliver a government-mandated service. (There are exceptions, where the state may hire private contractors also licensed to practice by the state, but that is ‘special case’.)
It is a different kind of ‘licensing’. This kind of licence contracts the licencee to perform services on behalf of the state: it is this ‘on behalf of the state’ which makes such a licensee an agent of the state.
When delivering services to its citizens, the government is bound by a different set of rules than a private citizen, or a private business, is (or, at least, it ought to be). A private contractor may bid on a job – but is not obligated to enter into a contract to pave someone’s laneway in pink interlock brick, if pink annoys him.
The government already has a pre-existing contract with each citizen to deliver certain services in return for the taxes already levied upon its citizens. Once a citizen chooses to exercise their part of the contract, the government is obligated to deliver such services. And, the person who has accepted to be the government contractor is obligated to deliver this.
To put it into different terms: if I run my own soup shop, I may need a business licence – but it is my shop and I pick what is on the menu. If, on the other hand, the government got elected on a promise to provide 5 specific kinds of soup in soup kitchens, free to every citizen once a day, and if I get contracted by the government to run a soup kitchen, I cannot then turn around and say I will not make pea soup (that being one of the 5), because it is against my convictions or conscience or whatever! Either, I open my own shop, and run it pea-soup-free – and get paid by my clients. Or I accept to be paid by the government, in which case I will indeed be serving pea soup.
This, of course, translates into areas much more controversial than pea soup….which, by the way, I rather like.
Socialized healthcare, for instance, is one such area: each and every physician who does not hand a bill directly to the patient (or their insurance company), but is paid by the state – each one of these physicians is an agent of the state. And, each and every one of them is obligated to serve pea soup – or prescribe ‘the morning after’ pill, or perform abortions, or whatever other medical procedure the government has agreed to provide to its citizens, as long as the physician is profesionally qualified to perform such services.
Yes, I know – many of my conservative readers may not like this. It seems repugnant to many of us that a physician who is opposed to abortion on demand may be forced to prescribe ’the abortion pill’….
I agree – it is WRONG.
But it is not wrong because the government is forcing the physician to ‘act against their conscience’. The government is doing no such thing: the physician had agreed to abdicate his or her personal convictions or beliefs when he or she accepted to act as an agent of the state!
So, the fault does not lie with the demand that agent of the state actually deliver the services they are contracted to.
The fault lies in forcing physicians be the agents of the state in the first place!
If a physician has a private practice, there is no way a government should be able to compel him or her to perform a procedure the physician does not want to – whether through moral convictions or because the doctor is having a bad hair day. Independant professionals ought not be compelled to perform services against their will.
But, it is a completely different situation if the physician is an ’agent of the state’ …
If the agents of the state refuse to carry out the very tasks the state has mandated - ones necessary for the state to fulfill its contract to its citizenry, that state will cease to function. If not remedied, the state will cease to exist.
This is the ‘last check’ on the state which I mentioned earlier: by refusing to carry out the will of the state, should the action be too abhorrent, its agents can indeed bring about the end of such a state!