A reader writes to ask: What about personal responsibility? “I see no movement afoot to require the public to accept or meet norms of behavior that would reduce the need for medical treatment—smoking, excess drinking, use of drugs, over weight, etc. What ever happened to ‘You reap what you sow’?”

Good question. I answered:

Thanks for writing. This is a common concern. It’s often expressed something like, “Why are we paying for all this healthcare for people who won’t take care of themselves?” This seems, at first blush, an obvious question with an obvious answer. After all, as I constantly point out in what you read, vast amounts of healthcare dollars are spent to correct what we might call “self-inflicted lifestyle damage.” Why should the rest of us pay for that? Where is the responsibility?

On inspection, the question is more complex and the answer is not so obvious. Let me try to parse it out. I can think of four related aspects of the question.

1. Their health affects ours. My wife and I had a lovely dinner at a very nice French restaurant on the waterfront here in Sausalito last night. The staff was all French, with those endearing accents. The busboy who set our table, poured the water, took away dirty plates and all that, was Mexican. I talked with him a bit in Spanish about the nice weather. I have no way of knowing his immigration status. Now, if I had my ‘druthers, just as a customer, would I rather that he have good access to healthcare and healthcare advice, be up on his flu vaccinations, be aware of the importance of washing his hands frequently, or would I rather he be a seething mass of communicable disease, compounded by ignorance?

Similarly, why should I wish the best outcomes for the Yakima Valley Farmworkers Collective? Because I drink beer. Ninety percent of the hops in the U.S. come from the Yakima Valley area. Sick and injured farmworkers do not help make hops cheaply and reliably available. In many ways, private health is a public concern. Wanting everyone to be as healthy as possible is not just a nice, charitable feeling. It is a public health concern, as well as an economic concern.

2: Assumptions about will and information. “You reap what you sow” is a very American thought. We like to think that people are completely responsible for their actions, have the ability to change them, and the knowledge that they need to identify what they are doing that is wrong or stupid, and to identify how to correct those actions. And of course in some sense we are, but that sense may not be as universal as we would like to think it is. My wife, Dr. Jennifer Flower, Ph.D., is a psychoanalyst, and we were discussing this just the other night, in the context of an article in the NY Times about Congressman Anthony Weiner. The article asked the question everyone has been asking, “What was he thinking?” They talked to various experts on neurophysiology, compulsive behavior, addictions, and the like, about the changes in the brain and mental patterns that lead to bizarre and obviously stupid behavior like that. That “Jackass” actor presumably knew that getting blind drunk and driving his car at 140 miles an hour was stupid and dangerous and would get him killed. Yet he did it anyway. Repeatedly, to a predictable end. People like that make being on the highway far more dangerous than we would like it to be.

We can now assume that people who smoke have heard that it is bad for them, but many of them don’t really know how they could stop. You and I might think that they should know, but they don’t. Most people who are obese don’t like being obese, don’t know how they got that way, and don’t really see a realistic path to losing all that weight. Again, we might think that we could tell them what to do, but they don’t actually know what to do (and most of the time, we would be wrong about what would actually work).

Assuming that people with behavioral problems could just correct them is not a realistic or fruitful way to frame the thought.

3: Ability to correct behaviors of others. So what do we do to correct those people’s behaviors? History shows us in multiple ways that simply telling them to shape up doesn’t work. Prohibition doesn’t work. Shame doesn’t work. Even good information by itself doesn’t work. The only thing that works is good information, combined with good attention, conveyed in language and modalities that they can hear it, delivered repeatedly by people whom they trust. What it takes is total engagement.

Short of that, changing those folks’ behavior is a pipe dream. The way you and I think they “should” live is completely irrelevant. Our opinions change nothing. “Requiring the public to accept or meet [our] norms of behavior” is a non-starter.

4: Just let them die? What would be the logical result of taking “you reap what you sow” as the driving dictum of the healthcare system? If you have a problem caused by your behavior, you’re on your own. Just suffer and die. This is, in effect, making stupid behavior a criminal offense. Some obviously is, such as drunk driving. But I’m picturing trials before you get treated at all to determine whether your lung cancer came from your smoking or the effluent of the refinery that you lived near; whether your obesity was willful or not.

If we are not going to just tut-tut disapprovingly and cast people who we think caused their own problems out into the cold, then we end up treating them. What’s the cheapest way to treat them? As early as possible. In fact, the absolute cheapest way to treat them is to prevent the behavior from causing a medical problem in the first place, by getting very engaged with them as early as possible, at the primary care level, and in the schools, in the workplace, and in the community. That’s how they essentially ended risky sexual behaviors among gays in San Francisco and across the nation in the late 80s and 90s. There are scores of other examples in the “Healthy Communities” movement.

So the answer to: “Why do we have to pay so much to take care of people who won’t take care of themselves?” turns out to be: Because we have been in denial about the problem. If we truly want to spend as little as possible taking care of bad-behaving people, we need to build better systems for engaging with them earlier, stronger, in their language.

A “nanny state?” What would the Founders do?

By the way, does this sound like a “nanny state”? No, because engaging with the system is still voluntary at every step. It’s a numbers game. There will always be those who can’t or won’t take up the challenge to change their behavior. But it can be clearly shown that you can change the landscape of bad behavior within a population by offering the right kind of help at the right kind of level.

You ask, “Did our founders ever envision a nation that would use the government in the way it has been re: provision of healthcare?” We actually know what the Founders thought. Healthcare of course was a much more primitive matter then, and far less expensive compared to people’s income. But it was a much greater problem for one part of the population that was poor but economically important. So the very first Congress established a single-payer, individual mandate system for them: sailors got a few dollars taken out of their pay every payday; when injured or sick they could go to the sailor’s hospital in any of the young country’s major ports. They took care of the problem.

What would Jesus do?

We also, by the way, have some sense of how Jesus would deal with people who behave badly. When he encountered the accused prostitute, he told her to change her ways: “Go and sin no more.” But first he invited those in the crowd who had never behaved badly to cast the first stone. Then he knelt and began writing in the dust the sins of the crowd, and they melted away. When we are quick to condemn those who behave badly, and try to withdraw our help from them on that basis, this is a lesson worth contemplating. Few of us are as free of bad behaviors throughout our lives as we would like to imagine. Most of us struggle to live a good life. Some of us have had a lot more of a leg up in doing that than others.

So economics, good systems analysis, and a sense of forgiveness at the core all drive us to the same conclusion: The way to drive down costs for people’s unhealthy behavior is not to withdraw services from them, but to get to them earlier with smarter, stronger engagement.