A Reasonable Debate

Today I got embroiled in one of those pointless, demeaning, infuriating political discussions on Facebook. I can usually hold my own, but I started to feel ganged up on. There were three of them and only one of me, so I had to pull back, take a deep breath, and collect my thoughts. In any case, the one-sentence comeback style that predominates on Facebook is not conducive to reasoned discussion.

In an attempt (perhaps forlorn) to elevate the debate, I feel I should lay out the political and social situation as I understand it. Then, the next time one of these discussions is in the offing, I can simply say, “Please go read my blog. I’ve addressed that question there, in detail.”

To begin with, I think we all, both conservatives and liberals, have pretty much the same core desires. We all want to live in safe, pleasant communities. We all want our children (if we have children) to be healthy and well educated. We all want to have a few nice things, and to be able to pass on a decent standard of living to our children (if we have children). We all enjoy having the freedom to make important life choices for ourselves, free of government interference (though of course I’m tiptoeing along the edge of an abyss with that statement, because “freedom to choose” is a hot-button issue). We all want to be able to achieve our goals, whatever they may be, and to have a sense of accomplishment. We all want to be appreciated for the hard and sometimes unpleasant work we have sweated over on the way to achieving those goals.

Where we differ from one another, sometimes drastically and sometimes painfully, is in our understanding of how those desires can best or most practicably be met.

Second, I think we need to begin by acknowledging that the society we live in is very, very complex. Any action any of us takes may impinge on others, possibly in unintended ways. We are interdependent.

But already, at this point, we face a philosophical divide. There is a strain of conservative thought that denies this interdependence. Or at least, that’s my understanding of conservatism. Quite possibly I’m wrong. If I’m wrong about this, I would hope that a conservative reader or two would correct me. That’s what dialog is all about — learning from one another. I don’t want to mis-characterize conservatism. I don’t want to set up a straw man and then knock it down. I would much prefer to engage with the actual ideas that hold sway in conservative circles, rather than with those that I imagine hold sway.

It seems to me that there’s a conservative ideal that could be expressed as, “Nobody owes anything to anybody else.” This ideal was certainly articulated by Ayn Rand. The difficulty is, it’s entirely wrong. We all owe a great deal to one another. And not always in obvious ways. The fact that I didn’t accidentally run down your wife, son, or grandmother in a crosswalk today is owing to the people who paid the taxes to buy the paint to paint the crosswalk, and to pay the salaries of the city employees who painted it. We all owe a great deal to one another, and not always in obvious ways.

Third, I hope to maintain a clear distinction between two types of conservatives. There are secular conservatives, and also religious conservatives. Confusing these two rather different strains of thought can hardly lead to a sensible discussion.

As I understand it (and I could be wrong about this — if so, please correct me), secular conservatives are principally interested in limiting the role of government. They tend to see government regulation of individual activity as a bad thing, almost irrespective of the nature of the regulation.

Religious conservatives, on the other hand, are principally motivated by a desire to promote certain types of behavior that they deem morally upright, and to prevent types that they deem reprehensible. They seem to have no problem with the notion that the government should be quite actively involved in the prevention of behaviors that they (or their religious leaders) find repugnant.

Conservative politicians tend to curry favor with both groups, thus muddying the waters. But I don’t want this discussion to degenerate into a flinging of accusations about what this politician or that one did or didn’t say. I think we can take it as a given that most politicians, of whatever liberal or conservative stripe, are gutless, corrupt, and manipulative, even when they’re not lying outright. There are, perhaps, a few shining exceptions on both sides of the aisle. But I don’t want to talk about politicians. I want to talk about social policy. Because ultimately, in electing politicians we hope to see our favored social policies (whatever those may be) enacted into law, and the laws upholding those policies with which we disagree repealed.

I don’t propose to lay out my understanding of religious conservatism today. Let’s stick with the secular variety, for now.

Is all that clear so far? If so, then we can begin.

I would like principally to address the idea, which I believe is a core conservative principle, that reducing and/or restricting the activities of government is a good thing. This notion, while attractive on an emotional level, seems to me to suffer from some serious weaknesses.

The first point I would like to make is that power is not distributed equally throughout society. Some people have great power; others have little or none. This will always be true. Likewise, there will always be those with more money and those with less. There are, I think, conservatives who have the idea that liberals want to erase these distinctions. But they’re wrong. What liberals want is, by and large, to reduce the aggregate amount of suffering in the world. In order to do that, differentials in power and resources need, at times, to be managed. They need to be managed so as to protect the poor and weak from needless suffering.

For better or worse, the one agency that can manage these differentials is government. In a state of lawlessness, differentials tend to accumulate. Those who have money and power tend to acquire more of it. This increases the amount of suffering among those who lack money and power.

Let’s suppose, to take a simple example, that you and I live next door to one another, and that I decide (for whatever reason) to start a machine shop in my back bedroom. Not only that, but because I’m hard-working, I will be running my power tools into the wee hours. You, meanwhile, would like to be able to sleep at night. Your back bedroom is only a few feet from mine, and you can’t sleep because of all the banging and grinding.

What will save you are the zoning laws, as administered by our local government. The government will step in and actively restrict my freedom. The government will tell me that I can’t operate a machine shop in a residential neighborhood. That’s how government works. It is a simple and necessary function. Government ensures your quiet enjoyment of your property by restricting my freedom. Next month, the shoe may be on the other foot — I may be the beneficiary, and your freedom may be restricted. But if the government operates in a reasonably fair way, without favoring the rich and powerful, we will all benefit.

The idea that restrictions on our freedom are always bad is, I think, pretty common in conservative circles. It’s a bad, wrong, pernicious idea. Sometimes the restrictions are bad, and sometimes they’re good. We need to be able to distinguish between the two cases, not just shout, “Freedom!”

One approach that is sometimes advocated by conservatives for dealing with differentials in power and wealth is private charity. Private charity is a good thing — you’ll get no argument from me on that point. But all too often, it fails to reach those who need it most. Perhaps the voluntary donations are not sufficient. Perhaps there are plenty of donations in one community, but none in another community. Or perhaps a private charity makes its services available to some of the needy while denying the services to others on the basis of some wrong-headed notion about who is deserving of help. We would like to hope that wouldn’t happen, but we all know that it can and does happen.

When the government distributes services to those who need them, these problems are avoided. The donation level is set by law. Distribution is allocated based on need, not on community proximity or on the conformance of the needy to some sort of social agenda.

In truth, the government does many things to improve our lives that private enterprise cannot or will not do. We don’t want privately run police forces in our communities; the dangers of private policing are too well known even to need discussion. Only public oversight of the police (which is far too often missing or slipshod in the system we actually have) can possibly prevent heinous abuses.

We don’t want criminal accusations decided by private judges; we want judges who have been elected by all the people, or appointed by representatives of the people. As a side note, I’ve never been through binding arbitration, but I’ve noticed that when two people enter into a contract, it’s usually the more powerful of the two who suggests or insists on binding arbitration. That makes me a little suspicious.

We don’t want privately owned and operated schools. Privately run primary and secondary schools cannot be trusted to provide a decent education to all children. At best, they will provide a good education to children whose parents can afford the tuition — and the best is not always achieved. All too often, privates schools push private agendas (usually religious agendas) on their students, leaving the students ill-prepared to function as adults. Public oversight of school curricula is a vital necessity in a free society.

In the same way, a solid college education should be available for all qualified students; it shouldn’t be restricted to those who can afford to pay a massive tuition.

The point is precisely this: When young adults are well educated, everybody in the society benefits. The benefits of the education accrue not only to those who go to college, but to those whom they will serve as professional teachers, doctors, counselors, architects — in any profession at all, we want well qualified workers. When smart students can’t get an education, the entire society is damaged.

This is why we pay taxes — because we all get the benefits, directly or indirectly. It seems to me (and again, I’ll invite conservatives to correct me if I’m wrong) that the conservative view of this process is too narrow and short-term. The conservative view seems to be along the lines of, “Why should I give this kid my money so he can go to college?” This question has an answer. The answer is, “Because ten years from now, this kid will be a well-trained doctor, and will be able to diagnose your daughter’s tumor and operate on her successfully.” Or maybe the kid will design a building that won’t fall down on you in an earthquake. Or maybe he’ll conduct an orchestra whose concert you enjoy one evening — and you’ll never even suspect that without your tax dollars, there would have been no concert.

These connections are not always readily visible. But they’re there. I can’t tell you how you’ll benefit, but I can promise you that you will benefit.

Liberalism is not just about compassion and fairness. It’s also about enlightened self-interest. When we all pitch in and help, our lives are better. When we all hide behind our locked doors with our guns and refuse to listen to the cries of pain that echo down the street, we all lose. Who wants to live like that? Do you really want to live like that?

Our society will begin to make progress only when the rich cease to have a sense of entitlement and begin to have a sense of responsibility. If you have more than you need, you have a responsibility to help those who are less fortunate. And the mechanism through which you do that is called government.

Now let’s talk about health care. Again, let’s begin by seeing what we all have in common. We all want high-quality health care for ourselves and our families. I don’t think anybody wants crappy health care. Nor does anybody want to be denied needed services based on some misguided or wrongly applied administrative rule.

Two questions need to be addressed. First, do we want everybody to have decent health care, or do we only want decent health care to be available to rich people? Second, how do we propose to get the health care we want?

I confess that I don’t quite understand the conservative view of the first question. It seems to me that a political philosophy that states, in essence, “No, you people can get sick and die, because you’re poor,” is not a philosophy that any normal human being could possibly espouse, not even for a moment. So I’m going to give conservatives credit for not having such a philosophy. I’m going to assume that even the most strident conservative will agree with me that decent health care should be available to everyone. Everyone, without exception.

That leaves us with only one substantive question: How are we to provide this care to everyone?

It seems quite clear to me that, in attempting to achieve this goal, private enterprise has quite abjectly failed. There are certainly things that private enterprise does more efficiently and reliably than government — rewarding innovation, for one. But providing health care does not seem to be one of those things.

When we look around the world today, what we observe is that in the nations that have government-run health care systems, the people are healthier. Relying on private enterprise (that is, private insurance companies) to provide health care just plain doesn’t work. We need to scrap that system and start over.

I don’t understand conservative opposition to the idea of single-payer health coverage. I wish somebody would explain it to me. One heard, for example, a certain amount of fear-mongering about government “death panels.” But what is a private insurance company, if not a death panel? Yes, somebody may, at some point, have to make painful decisions about who will get health care and who won’t. But would you rather those decisions be made by a publicly accountable government body whose deliberations are held out in the open, or would you rather those decisions be made behind closed doors, by insurance executives whose only motivation is to increase their profits, no matter how many people die as a result?

The idea that unregulated private corporations can be trusted to see to our well-being is absurd. It rests, in the end, on the idea that the “invisible hand” of the free market will correct any inequities that may occur. The difficulty with this idea is fairly simple to explain. The free market works well, provided two conditions obtain: First, there must be many buyers and many sellers in the marketplace. Second, buyers and sellers must have equal access to relevant information. When either of these conditions does not obtain, the free market will fail.

When there is only one seller, or a small group of sellers who collude to fix prices, the free market fails. When there is only one buyer and many sellers, the buyer can extort concessions from a favored seller. Again, the free market fails. If the seller knows something that the buyer doesn’t (perhaps that the product is defective), or if the buyer knows something that the seller doesn’t (perhaps that the item on offer is rare and desirable rather than just old and dusty), the free market fails.

No, government-run health care wouldn’t be perfect. But compared to what we have now under the allegedly free market, government-run health care would be a big improvement for almost everybody — excepting, of course, the executives at the big insurance companies, who quite naturally hate the idea. What we have now is a tragedy and a mess. And since I’m sure conservatives will agree with me that the goal is for everyone to enjoy access to decent, affordable health care, I don’t see how they can reasonably oppose sweeping reform.

Perhaps someone will be able to explain this to me.

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2 Responses to A Reasonable Debate

  1. Hullo!

    Sorry, Jim, but this is compete bunk. Everyone knows that everything in the entire universe is black or white, that shades of gray are completely impossible, and that whoever complains the loudest without actually saying anything is always right.

    So, please cease and desist from thinking things through. It sets such a bad precedent!

  2. Too bad, so far. I also would like an understandable explanation. Apparently such will not be forthcoming in this space at this time.

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