A 'Duty to Die'?

An ugly paradox of modern 'progressivism' is the demand for all citizens to be provided with certain comforts at the expense of others - unless these people are deemed worthless. Why so ghoulish?

One 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 Sowell is a Senior Fellow at The Hoover Institution at Stanford University in California. He has published dozens of books on economics, education, race, and other topics. His most recent book isThe Housing Boom and Bust, from April 2009.

5 comments from readers  

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As a Canadian living with "medicare" I can relate. Rationing of services for the elderly is already happening. My mothers second husband was bed ridden before passing. The hospitals were quick to send him home whenever he appeared to be stabilizing so they could free up a hospital bed, while my mother who was half his size was expected to care for him or hire home care (which is not covered). Recently I also overheard two elderly women talking of an elderly gentleman from their seniors home who needed a hip replacement, and even they speculated he would not receive one because of his age. How would anyone like some bureaucrats deciding their fate; but that's what medicare boils down to.

Most of the Canadians who defend medicare are unaware of the ballooning costs, and have yet to rely on it in a life or death situation for themselves or a loved one, and the ones who have will often tell you a different (and sad) story.
I have to wonder about the values of anyone who considers life so sacred they are willing to legislate, fine and persecute people who abuse or hurt animals, spending billions of dollars on animals' right to life, while simultaneously demanding the elderly stop using up resources and hurry up and die. There is another side to this coin: people who keep the elderly alive by invasive and unnecessary surgeries when their bodies are so contracted and their skin so fragile that a loving touch causing them indescribable pain to keep siphoning off funds from life savings and property, money they would not get if the person died.
You are a good man, Thomas. Whenever I read what you have written, I am always glad that America gave you the freedom for you to accomplish your goals, and grateful that you have chosen to share your knowledge, insight, and wisdom. Thank you from a Canadian.
Jeff O
0 points
I remember a movie called "Logan's Run" in the early seventies I think. Where the people had everything they wanted but they were exterminated on their 30th birthday. Even more strange, the society was actually run by people that were very old. This elite was chosen by other elite members for vicious political reasons.

I believe there will come a time, and soon. Were a socialist will no longer be able to say things like that without receiving venomous distain
I've enjoyed reading your thoughts for the past 3 decades (since I discovered Ayn Rand in 1974). This subject is one I think of very much. I am 57 years old, in relatively good health. I have no health insurance and am not willing to pay the ridiculous cost of acquiring it. I also do not want it to be provided to me by force, or be forced to pay for it via National Health Insurance.

No one else is responsible for my health or the costs to maintain it. As I am not responsible for theirs. If I have the unfortunate fate of becoming injured or seriously ill, that's life (or death). I accept that I may die prematurely for my decisions but I do not choose to die totally impoverished with the doctors / hospitals owning everything I have (and additional bills that I cannot pay) just to prolong my life a few more months or years.

If my poor health creates a situation where I cannot enjoy my life anyway, what's the point in staying alive...keeping the doctor's and hospitals fat and happy? I do not reward enforced servitude, even if it does cost me part of my life.

Your comments are appreciated.
To post comments, please log in first. The Atlasphere is a social networking site for admirers of Ayn Rand's novels, most notably The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. In addition to our online magazine, we offer a member directory and a dating service. If you share our enjoyment of Ayn Rand's novels, please sign up or log in to post comments.