Saturday, August 22, 2009

Just stick to music, Osbert

The mass media are full of invective on the current American health-care debate, most of which is exceedingly tiresome. (I refer in particular to statements by the lunatic fringe of the Republican party, which collectively seem to suggest that Obama is simultaneously a socialist, a fascist, and a deformed anarchist/supervillain.) Discussion has spread to areas of the blogosphere that normally avoid politics, with predictably disappointing results. The last thing you want to read is an organist's opinion.

I realize, too, that my Canadian background makes it almost impossible for me to understand what the fuss is all about. You mean not all countries have government-funded health insurance? How would that even work? Canadians have a broad consensus that their health-care system is essentially successful, and generally fail to understand the strong libertarian streak in American politics.

Yet, it seems to me that the following from Charles Taylor is particularly applicable here:
What should have died along with communism was the belief that modern societies can be run on a single principle, whether that of planning under the general will or that of free-market allocations. Our challenge is actually to combine in some non-self-stultifying fashion a number of ways of operating, which are jointly necessary to a free and prosperous society but which also tend to impede each other: market allocations, state planning, collective provision for need, the defence of individual rights, and effective democratic initiative and control. In the short run, maximum market "efficiency" may be restricted by each of the four modes; in the long run, even perhaps economic performance, but certainly justice and freedom, would suffer from their marginalization.
Charles Taylor, The Malaise of Modernity, 110.

Detractors of Obama's health care plan oppose it on the basis that it could compromise the defence of individual liberty, both for the doctors who would come under the regulation of a nationalized system, and for the patients who would have no choice but to accept the State as their health care provider. Defenders of Obama's health care plan support it on the basis that it would enable society to provide more effectively for the needs of the underprivileged. They are both right.

"Defence of individual rights" and "collective provision for need," to take two almost at random, are irreconcilable goals; irreconcilable because incommensurable.* For a government to provide for the needs of the underprivileged will always endanger the individual liberty of others, because this provision will necessarily involve some level of government coercion; for a government to uphold the absolute rights of every individual will prevent the forcible transferral of resources that is necessary for a redistributive concept of justice. One sets out a separate sphere of influence for each individual, the other insists on the individual's responsibility within a broad social context. These goals will never harmonize properly, to use a musical metaphor: they belong to different tonalities, and one will always sound out-of-tune with the other. Depending on which chord you hear as the tonic, you will try to strengthen it and drown out the others. No compromise is possible, only a continual struggle for position. This, perhaps, explains the essentially agonistic quality of liberal democracy, with its sometimes fractious policial parties and its innumerable checks and balances: its founders realized that the future was not a peaceful one.

If we accept this battle at the heart of the democratic process, we might be able to wage it more constructively, alleviating the fears of both parties by agreeing to spurn both unchecked individualism and Orwellian statism. By making the most intelligent and forceful case for their positions, both sides would ensure that the resulting decision would approximate an ideal state of equilibrium. The British parliamentary system does well to refer to the second-place political party as "Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition": that party's influence, if properly used, can produce political institutions of lasting value.

Of course, none of this will happen as long as Republicans make near-slanderous remarks about the sitting President, and Democrats dismiss all opposition to their plans as the fearmongering of ill-informed hillbillies. Intelligent, forceful statesmanship begins with "intelligence".

*Someone will probably realize that this argument could be completely collapsed if we consider the provision of adequate health care, a guaranteed minimum income, etc., to be rights in the same sense that freedom of speech is a right. I think this common objection is an example of fuzzy thinking about the nature of "rights": surely rights come with complementary responsibilities, which does not seem to be the case with a "right" to health care. Better, I think, to approach the issue of provision for social need with respect to the virtue of charity: providing a social safety net for those who fall should be seen as a virtuous action and an expression of the collective goodwill of society, rather than as the fulfilment of a default entitlement, which breeds resentment.

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