On Saturday afternoon, Vice President Mike Pence tweeted out the following: “Before summer’s out, we’ll repeal/replace Obamacare w/ system based on personal responsibility, free-market competition & state-based reform”.
Before summer’s out, we’ll repeal/replace Obamacare w/ system based on personal responsibility, free-market competition & state-based reform pic.twitter.com/JzCyxX9kJb
— Mike Pence (@mike_pence) June 24, 2017
The invocation of “personal responsibility” led many people to respond with examples of people whose health conditions cannot, under any reasonable set of circumstances, be considered their “personal responsibility.” How, they asked, is taking away Medicaid from children born with underdeveloped organs or costly but ultimately surmountable complications an example of promoting “personal responsibility?”
My son was in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit for a week after his birth, so this is not a hypothetical question for me. My wife and I would not have been able to afford that week of excellent care on our own, and while my son may have been stable enough to have survived if we had to bring him home earlier, I don’t see how putting him at a heightened risk of dying would have taught anyone involved “personal responsibility,” at least as most people understand the phrase. There must be something else going on beneath this rhetoric. What would Mike Pence have said to me if the worst had happened?
Mike Pence was the Congressman from my hometown district, so I know something of the culture that formed him. In fact, my parents campaigned actively for him during his first runs for Congress, in 1988 and 1990, and I remember walking around with him and his wife at a county fair or something else involving cows and funnel cakes. (In Indiana that could be almost any event.) My parents supported him, as I believe many others did at that time, much more because of his strong Christian faith than because of anything else, perhaps because there wasn’t much else. Pence has over the years broadened his politics, becoming better versed in other areas of Republican ideology and making strong connections in the business community, but he remains, as he is famous for saying, “a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican, in that order.”
Returning to my hypothetical, Pence would no doubt have turned to the formulas of theodicy—the effort to justify the ways of G-d to man. For many Christians—and for many Jews like me—this amounts to explaining “why bad things happen to good people,” why G-d lets the righteous suffer. Typically, people reach for an explanation that has some element of a “trial” to it, or a “cross to bear”—the idea is that this misfortune or this tragedy is G-d’s way of testing our moral fiber and our trust in “His plan.” If we are truly a “good person,” that plan involves a final accounting that will rectify and compensate all our earthly suffering.
When Bad Things Happen to Good People is the title of a 1981 bestseller by the Rabbi Harold Kushner, written in response to the death of his son. But neither Kushner nor any other religious figure has written a book titled “When Good Things Happen to Bad People,” although presumably that is equally a problem for theodicy, for trying to figure out why, if G-d is all-powerful, He allows injustices to occur. A good thing happening to a bad person would seem to be as much a logical problem as its obverse. Even if it can equally be silenced with a “everything will be sorted out after we die,” the itch to understand why some people get better than they deserve is undeniably there.
This uneven development—a robust theodicy for explaining why bad things happen to good people, a lack of any real effort at theological explanation going the other direction—intersects with politics, at least for some people. And rather than using my fancy learning, I’ll be anecdotal here. Growing up, many of the people—especially many of the people of faith whom I knew—were deeply concerned that some people got better than they deserved. And probably because I am a white guy, there has often been an assumption among people who take this perspective that I will share these feelings about welfare or affirmative action or immigration, so I have had many conversations—in Indiana but also elsewhere—where I have been confronted and unnerved by the violence of these people’s anger about people receiving benefits they haven’t “earned.” If they accept the idea of welfare, they’d like to see a welfare system that spends more of its money catching welfare “cheaters” than on actually keeping people from going without food.
Bad things happening to good people, in other words, they can tolerate. They have an answer for it—in their eyes a sound theological answer. It’s part of G-d’s plan and he is testing those good people. But their answer for why good things happen to bad people isn’t that G-d was testing those bad people, giving them something good to see if they’d measure up. G-d really has no place in their explanation. The fault is instead always laid at the doors of some human institution, generally the “government.” It is a kind of Christianized Austrian economics: we cannot possibly know enough about G-d’s plan to copy His desired distribution of good things, so when we try, it is we who introduce imperfections. Good things happen to bad people not because it’s part of G-d’s plan but because we (or rather the state) tries to administer that plan on His behalf.
What is a good person to do, then? Well, as a good person, you are entitled to try to get as much as you deserve—and that means, in this particular instance, that you are entitled to health care. And if something happens and the health care that you have isn’t enough, then you should accept it faithfully as a trial.
But you shouldn’t be so passive about bad people getting good things through state intervention. This you should stop. You should not support any program that might give good things to bad people, because that is a human error, and not a part of G-d’s plan. And that includes quality health care, which for some people would be better than they deserve.
I tend to distrust binaries—all those semesters of reading poststructuralism, I suppose—but it does seem to me fairly clear that there are some people who fixate on this problem of “cheaters”—that is, people getting “better” than they deserve—much more than others. This problem to them is where good people must intervene. It’s up to G-d to raise good people up to the level that they deserve, but it is in the hands of the good people to make sure no one gets more than they merit and, if they somehow do rise above that level, to knock them back down again.
Even the devil, it is said, can cite scripture for his purpose, but perhaps we can consider Luke 7:41-42. “A certain creditor had two debtors; the one owed ten times as much as the other. When they were unable to pay him back, he canceled both their debts. Now which of them will love him more?” Mike Pence, that silver sepulchre, ought to read his Bible less selectively.
 Sensing a good marketing opportunity, a cartooning pair did cash in on Kushner’s success with a 1983 book of caricatures titled When Good Things Happen to Bad People. But as far as I know, there isn’t a theological book with the title.
 Sometimes there was a tangled line of thinking that led back to a trial, but it was always the good people being tested: G-d was allowing bad people to succeed in order to test the faith of the good people: would we still believe in His plan when we saw the bad people doing well?
 How this all works with a strong theory of divine omnipotence is pretty murky: if G-d’s plan encompasses everything, then it already accounts for our maldistributions, our bumbling interventions. So by necessity, even if we’re the proximate cause of bad people getting good things, it’s still being allowed by G-d. But as I said, there’s not a lot of rigorous thought that goes into this side of the theodicy problem.