Monday, March 29, 2010

A deep philosophical divide?

During last Friday's On Point, David Gergen had some interesting points to make during the show's "Week in the News" discussion. He was speaking about last week's vitriolic-ly expressed opposition to the passage of the health-care reform bill. Were the threats, taunts, and thrown bricks simply partisan politics run amuck or were they inappropriate expressions of something deeper?

David Gergen made the point that, in modern times, all the federal government's sweeping social reforms -- Social Security, Medicare/Medicaid, and the landmark Civil Rights Bills of 1965 and 1966 -- have been passed when Democrats had a substantial Congressional majority.  But, Gergen pointed out, they were also all passed with significant bipartisan support.

Health care reform, however, was passed without bipartisan support. The GOP walked through the vote in oppositional lockstep. And, Gergen pointed out, historically when this kind of partisan divide has happened in Congress, people, sadly, have tended to become inflamed. And those of us who don't become inflamed over the actions of Congress, become alarmed by the behavior of those who do.

Mr. Gergen went on to caution that we do need to remember that  "there’s a deep philosophical divide between these two parties. One [the Republicans] has a view of private enterprise and a self-reliant view which is much different from the Democratic view that the government is there to help people who can’t help themselves. And [that it] ought to embrace those people.”

This, of course, is something I've heard countless times. Yet it was interesting to think about this "deep philosophical divide" in the specific context of last week's passage of health-care reform and the angry reaction to it.

Some very simple questions came to mind, that I think need to be answered simply and directly before we go back to our customary political posturing.
  1. Is health care a fundamental right? If someone gets sick, do they have a right to proper medical care? Or should medical treatment be the private privilege of those who can pay for it, personally or through insurance?
  2. If health care is a fundamental right, who's responsible for providing it? Who's job is it to see that sick people get the medical treatment they need?
  3. How does this all fit in with the "deep philosophical divide" between our two American political parties?
Okay, so I got questions. You got answers? Thoughts? Opinions?


  1. Martha -- Frank Rich's piece in yesterday's NYTimes is yet another take on the reasons for the Tea Party reaction to the health care reform. The anger has little to do with health care, he says, and would be just as vehement for just about any issue coming from the Obama White House.

  2. Kate: Shall read it. And thanks. But what do you think of health care, as well as all the anger it's generating? Is health care a right and, if so, is government the appropriate guarantor of that right??

    You back in Lexington? Hope so and hope that means the loooooooong copy-editing/footnote process is done and we can all just sit back and await the long-awaited full biography of Jim Thorpe? All cheer, M

  3. While I appreciate Mr. Gergen's historical perspective, there's a unique historical perspective that he's missing. The opposition to health care is financed by corporations and individuals who are almost as rich and powerful as the government. The anger is being stoked in large by corporations whose special interests are at stake.

    An alternate question might more truthfully be, plutocracy or democracy? Your question is couched on individual and civil rights, but the larger battle is among our corporate citizens. Actually, the corporate citizenry pretty much bought and paid for the health care system we had. Their influence and the fact that they needed to keep their "skin in the game" meant that meaningful reform (Medicare for all) didn't happen.

    The anger in the streets is interesting in that corporate marketing, advertising, and salesmanship have ginned up an unbelievable level of emotion adding to the already volitile political atmosphere.

    I mourn for the smart buyer, the educated consumer, the informed citizen who can look behind the curtain, see who's selling what and make informed choices. Unfortunately, the snake oil being sold and bought isn't in the best interests of most of the folks doing the buying, but they've been sold on it. It's brilliant marketing but very poor governance. We will end up with Plutocracy.

  4. To #1, I say yes. To #2: We are all in this together and have a responsibility to each other (as the world's major religions all say in their statements of the Golden Rule). In modern times, government, made up of We The People, is the most powerful venue for carrying out that responsibility, helping those who because of pre-existing illness, old age or poverty are not profitable to insurers. Re: question #3: The vitriol and violence we have seen appears to be a mix of corporate self-interest (as Brent says) with some more lizard-brain motives (of those who simply hate Obama and want his administration to fail). Why were no Republicans willing to compromise and bring their ideas, such as tort reform, into the mix in good faith? Go figure. -- Chris Edwards

  5. Kate, I agree with you -- I think the reaction is less about a philosophical divide than it is about having a plan foiled -- a perceived win for Obama is what many on the right have been singlemindedly trying to oppose, regardless of the issue at stake. Else why would the right keep saying that YES, we need health reform, but offer up no solutions to the problems?

    Martha -- to the extent that nothing is a "right" in a state of nature and rights simply define what we consider to be important and indispensable for meaningful human life, yes, I do think health care is a fundamental right. It horrifies me to think that we think it right to let people die an ignominious death on the roadside just because they're not as lucky or smart or brave or strong or responsible as the person to whom that does not happen. And it doesn't happen to plenty of people, not by dint of their great character and hard work, but simply because this world is not fair, and in a civilized society we should strive to make it as fair as possible, especially, I think, when -- and this brings me to your second point, Martha -- a little contribution from everyone can go a long way to support and take care of that sick and needy minority.

    My father in law believes that health care is a benefit and privilege and that it's not fair to make hard working people pay for others' mistakes and stupidity or misfortune. He believes that the "worthy" needy should be taken care of by charity, and that it's not the government's business to be taking other people's hard-earned money for the purpose. To which I say no one can make their money or success without the co-operation of the society in which they live (yes, in capitalism, too), and the wealthy have certain basic obligations to the people among whom and because of whom they flourish. We all have obligations to each other no matter our wealth! Maybe health care is a privilege and a benefit when it comes to designer medicine and personal choice about how much and when and where and by whom you want your health managed -- we can't all have everything and wealth isn't every one's entitlement -- but there are certain basic threshholds that have to be met, I think, and of course, health care costs are going to be lower if you work on prevention instead of ignoring huge portions of the population to the point where they are catastrophically unhealthy or ill.


  6. Self reliance as emphasized by the republican phiulosophy is a worthy goal. However this is thwarted by the very fact that our current society is heavily titled towards the ability of a few powerful and rich to basically abuse the larger and less-fortunate population. In other words, money buys power and easier ways to concentrate more wealth. Just an example: private health insurance as the only choice automatically means that the person buying it will be defrauded. Same for the Wall Street Bankers who basically conned everybody else and will do so again.
    We actually do need strong rules in order to make the playing more level and provide the basic opportunity to make self reliance possible.