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Were The Wisconsin Doctors Practicing Civil Disobedience?

A minor firestorm has erupted regarding those doctors in Wisconsin this week who were handing out fake “sick excuses” to demonstrating teachers, Fox news producers, Andrew Breitbart, and, apparently, anyone else who had some use for one.

Indeed, there has been more outrage about this episode than DrRich would have thought. Conservative commentators, of course, were predictably apoplectic about the sight of these callow youths, preening in their white coats, abusing and debasing the sacred trust which has been granted to them by virtue of their profession. There’s nothing surprising about that. But even most of the more mainstream commentators expressed at least a slight bit of discomfort about the actions these doctors were taking, even if they were doing it for a very good and noble cause.

Only a very few seemed to endorse their actions completely, explaining that these doctors are engaging in classic civil disobedience, and that, by standing on street corners in their white coats repeatedly committing felonies with the cameras whirring, their behavior is every bit as deserving of our approbation as the actions we admire so much of Thoreau or Gandhi. DrRich is open to this explanation.

Civil disobedience, of course, is to a) openly and non-violently disobey a certain law that you consider unjust, b) to admit to the operative authority, upon apprehension, that you intentionally broke the law specifically because you consider it unjust, and finally c) to passively accept whatever punishment the authority hands out to you. These doctors have executed step “a” flawlessly, and DrRich waits with interest to see whether they will successfully complete steps “b” and “c.”

Unfortunately, it seems far more likely to DrRich that these young doctors were not engaging in classic civil disobedience. Rather, they were simply exercising their conviction that there are causes far more important than any old-fashioned and outdated notions of professional integrity, and furthermore, that honoring those higher causes is indeed an inherent part of the more modern, up to date formulation of the medical profession’s ethical obligations.

DrRich, obviously refers to the fact that since 2002, the medical profession has formally adopted an obligation to work for the cause of social justice, and has given that obligation equal weight (in writing) and more weight (in practice) than its obligation to individual patients, or to certain other classic obligations of the profession, such as always being truthful in the discharge of one’s professional duties.

And that’s just what these doctors were doing. They were weighing the venial sin of writing fake sick excuses (surely a minor infraction by any objective measure), against the much higher cause of social justice.* In this light, the “right thing to do” simply seemed obvious to them. And so they went out, in full medical regalia, to do it. They did not expect criticism, but rather, they expected praise.  And they certainly did not expect to be threatened with punishment.

(*DrRich asks his readers to ignore the question of whether the positive feedback loop that has developed between public service unions and public officials, wherein those unions are largely responsible for electing the officials with whom they then engage in “collective bargaining,” actually constitutes social justice, or a subtle form of tyranny. That it is social justice is a fact which Americans are expected to accept at face value, and for the purpose of this commentary — and only for that purpose — let us accept it.)

So there was no civil disobedience here, at least, not the classic civil disobedience of Thoreau or Gandhi. These young doctors had no thought of risking their personal freedom, or anything else they hold dear, for a higher cause.  They went forth to show their solidarity with The Cause, with every assurance that their actions were entirely consistent with the New Ethics of their profession. That for many Progressives they have become heroes confirms this conviction.

But the moment it occurred to them that not everybody agreed with what they were doing, or understood why they were doing it, or expressed that perhaps there should be repercussions, they had second thoughts. And they did not remain at their stations, bravely flaunting the law, Gandhi-like, until the authorities showed up to drag them away, but rather, once they understood that they might get into trouble, they hightailed it the hell out of there.

So at this point, sadly, DrRich remains doubtful about the civil disobedience angle.

*This blog post was originally published at The Covert Rationing Blog*

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