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Tuesday, August 25, 2009
The Gulf Which Divides Us

With some unwitting help from Time's Joe Klein, whom I enjoy reading, I attempt to describe the more fundamental battle which underlies the health care debate -- a battle which American conservatives don't yet seem to be fighting, because we've never had to fight it before. Some things are supposed to be self-evident, and maybe they used to be, but they're not universally self-evident now.

"How about freedom from diseases and pain?"
the subject line of an e-mail spam message I received today

Joe Klein writes for Time, and he does it very well. I frequently enjoy both his style and his insights, even though, generally speaking, he is on the left, and I am on the right. Not every issue fits neatly into the left/right paradigm, you see, and it's not unusual to find some good thought on both sides of an issue.

When MFCC's latest issue of  Time came in the mail Saturday, I picked it up and read Joe Klein's two-page column, "The GOP Has Become the Party of Nihilists." Yet again, I observed that Klein has mastered the mechanics of the language and employs them artfully. This time, however, my disagreement is fundamental and possibly irreconcilable.

I suppose that last word requires an explanation. By "irreconcilable" I mean that I don't think there is a middle ground, and I doubt that -- were there an opportunity -- either of us could persuade the other to change sides. I don't mean that I can never bring myself to read him again -- that would be silly -- or that now I must start sticking pins in a little Joe Klein doll. (Speaking of silliness, I had a lot of Gilligan's Island as a child and as an adult.)

I assume that Klein's essay is an honest expression of what he feels and thinks. That makes it very useful to illustrate the chasm which has opened between two competing political mindsets in America, which is now nowhere more obvious than in the health care debate.

Many skim the surface of that debate, trying to navigate the partisan squabbling and the policy details. Good luck with that. But, fundamentally, this is not about personality or party or the intricacies of policy. It goes deeper, to something which could fracture one or both parties internally as easily as it has divided our politics as a whole. This chasm is not new by any means; it reaches back at least to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. But it is more exposed now to popular view than I remember it being since Ronald Reagan, at least -- and he was half of my lifetime ago.

We begin with a look at the essay's title and some historical detail which may be relevant somehow.


First, an historical point. Klein's title asserts that the Republican Party, in its opposition to Obamacare, has embraced nihilism. He repeats this in the essay, so it's probably not a matter of an editor attaching an irrelevant headline. We're fairly safe taking the headline seriously as an expression of his meaning.

If a writer uses a word which carries specific historical and philosophical freight, he should use it properly. Klein's chief indictment here of Republican lawmakers is that most of them are "nihilists and hypocrites more interested in destroying the opposition and gaining power than in the public weal." Whether this charge is true or not, nothing here is nihilism.

In theory, nihilism is the rejection of all religious and moral principles. Before you start pointing fingers at one party or another for rejecting religious and moral principles, please stop and realize that such rejection really is not part of the health care debate. So let's defer our sniping on that subject to another day.

In practice, notably in Russia in the latter half of the 19th century and the first years of the 20th century, nihilism postulated that the only way to build a just society was to destroy all existing institutions, political, religious, economic, familial, and otherwise, and start all over again -- from scratch, if you will. This idea sounds extreme because it is extreme, but it may not always be too extreme for existing conditions. It's more or less what the Old Testament says God did in the time of Noah, is it not?

I have seen nothing resembling nihilism in the current American political debates; nor does Joe Klein describe anything like nihilism in his essay.

Now that we have done justice to history, we can move on to the larger point.

Good, Therefore Government-Sponsored

Klein tells of trying to discuss important end-of-life issues with his 89-year-old father. It didn't go well. He writes:

I tried to convince him that it was important to make some plans, but I didn't have the strategic experience that a professional would have -- and, in his eyes, I didn't have the standing. I may be a grandfather myself, but I'm still just a kid in my dad's mind. Clearly, an independent, professional authority figure was needed.

Klein's experience in this respect is a common one; millions have had it or will have it. These are difficult, sobering issues with which many families wrestle at length. Outside help is usually welcome and often necessary. I agree wholeheartedly this far.

The next two sentences are where liberals and conservatives diverge, instantly and irreconcilably. Klein continues:

And this is what the "death panels" are all about: making end-of-life counseling free and available through Medicare. (I'd make it mandatory, based on recent experience, but hey, I'm not entirely clearheaded on the subject right now.)

In Klein's mind and many others', the fact that a thing is good means that government should provide it.  Klein also flirts with a common variation of this dogma: If a thing is good, government should mandate it.

The conservative response is that, either way, government itself must be very large, if it is to do such a large job. Since the only place the government can get more power is to take it (or receive it) from the people, it makes sense to say that the price of increasing government's power to take care of a people is a marked decrease in that people's freedom.

I believe that many leaders in many countries seek to concentrate power in themselves for the sake of power itself, not to provide for the needs of their people. I believe this is true to some degree in Washington, DC, right now, both generally and in the health care debate specifically. But even those who argue cynically for an enlarged, paternalistic government still make their argument based on the people's welfare. Combine these cynics with some peers who are not cynical in these matters, but quite earnest in their convictions. Add millions of voters who accept -- usually not cynically -- that the fact that a thing is good means that government should provide it, and who feel themselves compassionate and humane for so believing.

This is the recipe for modern American government, which tries to provide for all needs and eliminate all risks. Such comprehensive intervention requires regulation that is equally comprehensive, and it sucks freedom and financial resources out of a nation at a rate which somehow always manages to exceed promises and estimates.

Not All Freedoms Are Created Equal

The gulf here is not between people who love freedom and people who hate it. It is between people who are pursuing a certain sort of freedom at the expense of another sort of freedom, and other people who are defending that other sort of freedom against the onslaught.

Klein and many others are pursuing what we might call "freedom from": freedom from want, freedom from fear, freedom from poverty, freedom from preventable illness. I'm not a fan of want, fear, poverty, or ill health, but even if the promised security were not partly an illusion, I still wouldn't find this crusade to be worth the price. The financial cost of everyone paying government to take care of everyone is gigantic, but the greatest cost is paid in a different currency, that other kind of freedom. It is the traditional American kind of freedom.

More than any other people in the world, Americans have guarded their political, economic, and religious freedoms, valuing them in many cases above life, economic security, and virtually everything else. These are the freedoms where people make their own decisions and face the consequences; where their government does not tell them how to live their lives any more than absolutely necessary; and where -- importantly! -- they do not abdicate their personal moral responsibilities to care for the needy among them, by turning the responsibility, along with massive funding, over to the impersonal government.

An Obvious Corollary

Those who believe that, if a thing is good, government should provide or even mandate it seem prone to reason that, if a person thinks otherwise, either he is insane, or he is himself a villain, or he is the dupe of villainous "special interests." No decent person would wish to deprive another person of needed health care, after all, so all decent, unduped people favor nationalized health care.

At a philosophical level, liberals tend to believe that mortal humanity is perfectable, if only institutions can be perfected, while conservatives hold the more pessimistic view that humanity is fundamentally flawed, and that we must adjust our institutions and expectations accordingly. This distinction is true and important. However, there is another truth which seems to apply in practice: liberals don't trust free people to take care of each other. Only the government, with its many instruments of compulsion, truly merits a liberal's trust. Government, therefore, must either provide for human needs directly or compel people to take care of each other. Alas, when government grows large enough for this, it proves to be as jealous a supreme power as that of the Decalog: "Thou shalt have no other gods before me."

It's not difficult to see why a person who thinks government is his or her greatest ally in caring for humanity, who thinks that government expansion in certain directions is a good thing, not a threat, would fail to comprehend how large the threat of expanding government appears to fellow citizens with a different viewpoint. Thus it is that Klein finds "wildly improbable" the evolution which many of his opponents fear (and which some of his fellow partisans are actually advertising):

There is a legitimate, if wildly improbable, fear that Obama's plan will start a process that will end with a health-care system entirely controlled by the government.

Even the smart liberals, like Klein, have trouble grasping that some decent people see other ways of taking care of each other, ways which are effective enough and, better still, do not require ceding their freedom to the government. This blind spot (combined with a failure to apprehend the heavily controlled, somewhat scripted nature of the President's town hall meetings) allows Klein to write things like this:

I watched Obama as he traveled the Rocky Mountain West, holding health-care forums, trying to lance the boil by eliciting questions from the irrational minority that had pulverized the public forums held by lesser pols. He would search the crowds for a first-class nutter who might challenge him on "death panels," but he was constantly disappointed. In Colorado, he locked in on an angry-looking fellow in a teal T shirt -- but the guy's fury was directed at the right-wing disinformation campaign. Obama seemed to sag. He had to bring up the "death panels" himself.

This may tell us something about the actual state of play on health care: the nutters are a tiny minority; the Republicans are curling themselves into a tight, white, extremist bubble -- but there may be enough of them raising dust to render creative public policy impossible. Some righteous anger seems called for, but that's not Obama's style. He will have to come up with something, though -- and he will have to do it without the tiniest scintilla of help from the Republican Party. (Emphasis added.)

One wonders how long intelligent observers can continue to believe that the opposition to nationalized health care is a tiny, nutty, extremist minority. One wonders how much longer they can fail to realize that there are two radically different sorts of freedom in conflict here, and how long they can fail to acknowledge that it is their threat to traditional American freedom and their opponents' determination to defend that freedom at any cost which motivates the masses this August. Once they see this, the honest ones will stop speaking of a tiny, nutty minority and of crowds duped by the big pharmaceutical companies and other alleged corporate enemies. Then we can start to have a reasonable discussion about how much freedom we really want to spend on how much health care, and how and for whom. Until then, the best thing freedom-loving Americans can do is obstruct the national legislative process (where we are everywhere a minority) and calmly, rationally, and systematically invite liberal lawmakers to fear for their political futures.

The Fundamental Conservative Failure

Among the retired veterans and newly-politicized soccer moms thronging to town hall meetings, there are probably relatively few who can make with confidence the subtle distinctions in political philosophy which I have described here. That's okay in a tactical sense, as long as pointing out a proposed policy's threat to basic American freedoms is enough to inspire sufficient opposition.

In the long term, however, conservatives have a serious problem. We have assumed, for as long as I can remember, that it is enough to make a logical connection between freedom and a particular legislative proposal. If we can show that the price of a policy is paid in freedom, we can defeat it. Liberals often use the same logic. I don't blame anyone for failing to go further than this; the Declaration of Independence itself simply asserts what already resonated with many British colonists: that people are divinely intended and have a right to be free.

In an age when something as fundamental as marriage itself is subject to redefinition -- now there is something like nihilism -- we can no longer afford to assume that every American's (let alone every human's) mind and heart has engraved on it the notion that freedom (in the traditional, American sense) is good and necessary, and that it properly trumps virtually every other human consideration. We can no longer simply say that freedom (of the proper sort) is good, and such and such a thing will diminish that freedom, therefore that thing should not happen. We can no longer assume that American lovers of freedom value traditional American "freedom to" more than modern European "freedom from."

We are not accustomed to having to make this case. Why would our fellow Americans doubt that the sky is blue? Some things are supposed to be self-evident; Thomas Jefferson and the Continental Congress said so!

Pardon my heresy, but I'm not convinced that these things were entirely self-evident in 1776. In any case, look around at American politics and society; tell me if you think they are universally self-evident now.

In the 21st century we must make the case that personal, traditional American freedom is the pearl of greatest price, that political, economic, and religious freedom are indeed more valuable than economic security and life itself. We have to make the case that it is right and best that people make their own decisions and face the consequences; that government should not intervene in our lives any more than absolutely necessary; and that it is wrong for free citizens to abdicate their personal moral responsibilities to care for the needy among them, by turning that responsibility and the fruits of their labor over to an impersonal government.

I don't hear us making this case; I don't hear us even trying.

I know it's difficult, and I know it's not supposed to be difficult, and we're not supposed to have to do it at all. But we now have to make the case for our traditional American freedoms. Strange as it sounds, we owe it to our children and our grandchildren not only to protect, but also to justify the freedoms which our fathers and grandfathers bought with their blood.

(In two subsequent posts I will attempt [a] to distinguish clearly between "freedom from" and "freedom to," explaining in the process why I consider myself a Tocqueville conservative; and [b] to persuade you that a love of "freedom to" is less universal in humanity than our lofty rhetoric likes to claim.)

Ryan Hammond comments (8/25/09):

I have been reading your blog off and on for the last year or so and have really enjoyed it. I thought I would take a moment to respond to your reaction to Mr. Klein.

I thought it was pretty clear that the nihilism referred to in the article was in terms of the GOP approach to debating/opposing health care reform, not a label he was putting in conservative thought in general. On this point I find it hard to disagree with Joe. The carefully thoughtful, thorough and articulated position you proceed to give regarding what you perceive as the underlying values at stake in the health care debate is far superior to what the vocal leaders of the GOP have presented for serious consideration. As you state at the end of the article their refusal to make such arguments by the GOP may be ultimately self-defeating. Those people interested in tackling the problem of health care in the country are begging for this type of reasonable discussion to take place. Instead what we are presented is wild exaggerations on "death panels," willful obfuscations about the proposals on the table, and patronizingly anemic alternatives. It is one thing to argue with careful logic that a given policy will lead through a series of predictable actions to some higher level of government involvement in a person's health care decisions and another to compare the current proposal to the "final solution" and Nazi death camps. It is one thing to disagree with a person's policies or world view and another to luxuriate in ad hominem attacks, comparing a sitting president to Hitler. These types of actions are nihilistic in terms of creating a workable political process. Imagine if these tactics were regularly used on your local American Fork elections (maybe they are?). How would that lead workable governance? As you know I am not one to devalue vigorous debate, but there is debate and then there is willful, deceitful manipulation. The only way to dampen this behavior (from both sides) is to punish it at the ballot box.

What intrigues (worries?) me is that you seem to equivocate a bit on whether such "tactical" means justify your preferred political ends. From my perspective, this is also not the case of trying to tag the GOP with the actions of its ragged fringe. It appears that the heart of the party -- potential presidential candidates, senior members of Congress, widely-accepted and respected political commentators of the right are all engaging in the activity. I am begging for a GOP leader strong enough to stand up for what is right in terms of how the country's founders, and I believe Christian morals, demand that our leaders and policymakers lead and make policy. It seems to be all Christ and the moneychangers right now. Is this really righteous indignation or the natural man gnashing his teeth at marginalization and loss of power and privilege? Please point me to some serious GOP leaders that you believe are living up to acceptable standards of integrity and serious-mindedness. From what I can tell the only group making good faith efforts at trying to debate on the facts are the most hard core libertarians -- a group with which I have fundamental disagreement about how the world actually works. (I assume that you count yourself among their number.) Still I have high respect for many of them in terms of having a thoughtful, cohesive and sincere take on policy. They, of course, have little chance of becoming very powerful within the GOP, since part of the philosophy is not compatible with the social politics of many of its strongest supporters. I assume that there are many conservatives who feel betrayed by its recent leaders. They have not shown the ability to live to either the moral or fiscal standards of their ideals. Maybe this is simply proof of the correctness of the conservatives "pessimistic" view of humanity.

I leave you with two questions to which I am very interested in your answer. Is there a country that believe has health care/insurance approach that deserves careful consideration or is our status quo as good as it gets at the moment? In your view, what is, if there is at all, the golden age for the US in terms of government and its resulting consequences on American's as a whole?

David Rodeback comments (8/25/09):

Thanks for your thoughtful response, Ryan! I probably cannot do justice to every point, but here are my thoughts.

I have never thought of myself as a libertarian. Libertarians are, indeed, often thoughtful, but without the breadth of practical vision which would make them political influential. In other words, as you say so well, "I have a fundamental disagreement about how the world actually works."

As to the voices on both sides of the aisle in Washington, I think both parties need new leaders with a new attitude. From President Obama on down, virtually every Democrat voice we hear very much seems to resist any effort toward careful, detailed, analytical discussion of the proposals. They can't even seem to agree on their talking points about the proposals and where they might lead, but they can agree on a childish and bitter campaign of name-calling, with masses of their constituents as the principal targets. How nutty is that? I assume there are some more reasonable minds and voices on the left; I would like to hear them.

There are some reasonable, thoughtful folks on the right, among both office holders and pundits. But the leadership and most of the followers seem less inclined to logic and more disposed to latch onto a single feature of the plan, pull it out of context, blow it out of proportion, set it on fire, and whip up a frenzied dance around it.

For example, consider the "death panels," I think we need to have some calmness on both sides, while we discuss the simple facts of life: Resources, including health care, are scarce. In the case of health care, when recipients aren't paying the bills directly, this is especially true: demand exceeds supply. So someone has to make decisions about the allocating those resources. On the principle that he who pays the piper calls the tune, it makes sense that the person or entity paying the bills should have a great deal to say about allocation. If we put the government in charge of health care, these and other decisions will ultimately be made or significantly influenced by the government. I see nothing here that is more scandalous than the idea of nationalized health care in general;. I don't see the "death panels" as a separate issue at all.

If it makes sense to have government pay the medical bills -- an enormous "if" -- surely it makes sense to have government make decisions about allocating scarce resources. Otherwise, decisions will be made without regard to cost, even more so that at present, which will bankrupt either the system or the taxpayers, or both. Besides that, government traditionally doesn't do the whole "silent partner" thing very well.

In any case, when the ceaseless crowing and the vitriol come from loose cannons on the back row, but the leadership is more serious, sensible outcomes are possible. When the calm reasoning comes from the back row, and crowing and vitriol are the leadership's principal repertoire, we scarcely notice the back row, and . . . may God have mercy on our politics.

The typical conservative feeling now is not, I think, that we have been betrayed by our conservative leaders. Rather, there is a sense that the leaders who have been in positions to betray us have not been conservatives, and that the conservatives who have run for national offices and (in some few cases have been elected) have not yet proven to be leaders.

As regards the tactical situation, given who the Republicans in Washington are and are not, and the range of things they don't seem to be able to do, I think the possible defeat of the current health care bills, with the help of House Democrats responding to angry constituents, is about the most positive outcome we can hope for. I would love to see two things in the aftermath: some serious discussion of ways to address health care issues without turning them over to the government in one guise or another, and an ongoing pattern of standing-room-only town hall meetings for representatives from both parties, on other issues.

You write, "Please point me to some serious GOP leaders that you believe are living up to acceptable standards of integrity and serious-mindedness." I was hoping you could point some out to me.

Suppose I recast your question to embrace potential leaders. Specifically, is there a serious conservative with presidential possibilities? Former Senator Rick Santorum is thoughtful and articulate; he gives the impression that he thinks things through. I don't know Texas Governor Rick Perry well, but I think we'll have to take a look at him on the strength of what's happening in Texas with the state budget and with health care, not to mention his refreshing fondness for the Tenth Amendment. Some speak hopefully of Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, but if he's half as good as they say, Louisiana desperately needs him to stay where he is. Mitt Romney has the intelligence and the economic sense to excel, but I have yet to be persuaded of his world-class political skills and instincts. I haven't paid much attention to Steve Forbes in recent years, but I still like what I occasionally hear from him.

In short, I'm not sure . . .  But we need to find someone, so we can turn former Governor Palin loose raising trainloads of money for our genuinely conservative, serious-minded, but somehow still electable candidate.

A few more quick points, before I touch on your two final questions:

President Obama is the second President of this century whom opponents have compared to Hitler, not the first. Both camps of perpetrators went very far afield in doing so. It's a tasteless and wildly disproportionate attack. Moreover -- pardon my cynicism -- half the people who are dull-witted enough to let it sway them scarcely know who Hitler was.

I love your thought, "The only way to dampen this behavior (from both sides) is to punish it at the ballot box."

Though it rarely visits the depths where American politics now lurks, American Fork elections are not entirely free from such tactics. Here's an example.

If you ask me, the heart of a party is in the cheap seats at town hall meetings, not the expensive suits at the fund-raising dinners. Both national parties forgot this. I hope August has been a useful reminder, at least on one side of the aisle.

Now, about those two questions:

I have not made a comprehensive survey of every nation's approach to health care. But I am not content with our health care system or our health insurance system. Both should be both better and less expensive than they are, but I don't see a good reason to reduce them to something we already know is inferior. (Canada, England, France, Germany, Sweden, Mexico, Cuba . . .)

Let's allow the states to experiment. Utah has an interesting program coming online shortly, for example. Texas deserves a long, hard look. A very long, very hard look. It actually makes sense to look harder stateside than abroad, because a key component of an exceptional health care system is cutting-edge medical and pharmaceutical research, and we already have that, well beyond every other nation.

As regards a golden age . . . I don't think we've had one yet. I disqualify without a second thought any time in which slavery was legal. In a similar vein, in the last century we flipped from discrimination to reverse discrimination so quickly that we didn't have time for a golden age. There are numerous other criteria -- but if there's a hole in the balloon, it hardly matters that the rest of the balloon is intact.

It's hard to see how any time since the massive expansion of government under FDR could have been a golden age; then LBJ make things much worse. Then Nixon, post-Nixon (I think his name was Ford, a bright guy in an impossible position), Carter . . . Reagan got us out of the Carterian dark ages, but there was so much crude course correction needed that there wasn't much opportunity for finer corrections.

George H. W. Bush inherited some Reagan momentum and was a steady hand while the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain fell, but was not enough of a visionary to lead us anywhere. The Carnal Years that followed had some interesting moments, including some serious and effective welfare reform and some budgets that weren't really balanced, but were closer to balance than any we've seen lately. As for George W. Bush, I don't think a golden age is possible under "compassionate conservatism"; it's too profligate, and that's neither conservative nor compassionate. Any golden age President Obama is likely to envision will not be very much to my taste.

So if there is a golden age to be had, it must still be sometime in the future. Does this make me an optimist?

How do you answer your two closing questions?

Thanks again for your thoughts.

Carla Carpenter Elliott comments (8/26/09, via Facebook):

Because I don't really care for petty arguing, I don't usually get into political debates. This particular article does a good job of expressing my particular views about health care and politics.

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