A "Duty to Die"?

By:  Thomas Sowell
05/11/2010
       

Hospital PatientOne of the many fashionable notions that have caught on among some of the intelligentsia is that old people have "a duty to die," rather than become a burden to others.

 This is more than just an idea discussed around a seminar table. Already the government-run medical system in Britain is restricting what medications or treatments it will authorize for the elderly. Moreover, it seems almost certain that similar attempts to contain runaway costs will lead to similar policies when American medical care is taken over by the government.

Make no mistake about it, letting old people die is a lot cheaper than spending the kind of money required to keep them alive and well. If a government-run medical system is going to save any serious amount of money, it is almost certain to do so by sacrificing the elderly.

There was a time — fortunately, now long past — when some desperately poor societies had to abandon old people to their fate, because there was just not enough margin for everyone to survive. Sometimes the elderly themselves would simply go off from their family and community to face their fate alone.

But is that where we are today?

Talk about "a duty to die" made me think back to my early childhood in the South, during the Great Depression of the 1930s. One day, I was told that an older lady — a relative of ours — was going to come and stay with us for a while, and I was told how to be polite and considerate towards her.

She was called "Aunt Nance Ann," but I don't know what her official name was or what her actual biological relationship to us was. Aunt Nance Ann had no home of her own. But she moved around from relative to relative, not spending enough time in any one home to be a real burden.

At that time, we didn't have things like electricity or central heating or hot running water. But we had a roof over our heads and food on the table — and Aunt Nance Ann was welcome to both.

Poor as we were, I never heard anybody say, or even intimate, that Aunt Nance Ann had "a duty to die."

I only began to hear that kind of talk decades later, from highly educated people in an affluent age, when even most families living below the official poverty level owned a car or truck and had air-conditioning.

It is today, in an age when homes have flat-panelled TVs, and most families eat in restaurants regularly or have pizzas and other meals delivered to their homes, that the elites — rather than the masses — have begun talking about "a duty to die."

Back in the days of Aunt Nance Ann, nobody in our family had ever gone to college. Indeed, none had gone beyond elementary school. Apparently you need a lot of expensive education, sometimes including courses on ethics, before you can start talking about "a duty to die."

Many years later, while going through a divorce, I told a friend that I was considering contesting child custody. She immediately urged me not to do it. Why? Because raising a child would interfere with my career.

But my son didn't have a career. He was just a child who needed someone who understood him. I ended up with custody of my son and, although he was not a demanding child, raising him could not help impeding my career a little. But do you just abandon a child when it is inconvenient to raise him?

The lady who gave me this advice had a degree from the Harvard Law School. She had more years of education than my whole family had, back in the days of Aunt Nance Ann.

Much of what is taught in our schools and colleges today seeks to break down traditional values, and replace them with more fancy and fashionable notions, of which "a duty to die" is just one.

These efforts at changing values used to be called "values clarification," though the name has had to be changed repeatedly over the years, as more and more parents caught on to what was going on and objected. The values that supposedly needed "clarification" had been clear enough to last for generations and nobody asked the schools and colleges for this "clarification."     

Nor are we better people because of it.

Thomas SowellThomas Sowell graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University (1958) and went on to receive his master's in economics from Columbia University (1959) and a doctorate in economics from the University of Chicago (1968). He is the author of 28 books including his most recent, Intellectuals and Society. Currently he is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. His Web site is www.tsowell.com.

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