Monday, March 22, 2010

America Continues to Fracture

If you scroll forward to 6:40 above, you will hear Obama saying "It's time to bring this [health care] debate to a close." That is, we are to stop criticizing his massive new entitlement program and get busy making it work. This is one of those times when his grasp of free speech seems, for a constitutional lawyer, surprisingly shaky. People who have fundamental objections to the plan have a right to say why, and they will continue to do so.

It seems to me that this legislation is divisive in a new and potentially dangerous way. Some folks have pointed out that the Democrats have in the past enacted huge new welfare state entitlements over Republican opposition, and yet the nation was not permanently fractured. The examples repeated given are Social Security (under FDR) and Medicare (under Johnson). Others have argued that those measures passed with considerable Republican support. About half the Republicans in Congress voted for Social Security. We have crunchable numbers showing that this time is different. This plan got no Republican support whatsoever.

I think I see an underlying ethical reason for this difference. Yes, the parties are more polarized than they used to be, but this is at least as much an effect as a cause.

The new plan a different sort of plan: it is openly redistributive. The earlier massive entitlements were sold to the individual voters as insurance plans provided by the government for their benefit. The money you get out of social security is even proportioned to how much you pay in, enhancing the similarity to an insurance or savings plan. We could argue about how honest/dishonest it was to package it this way, but the fact is that there was enough truth to this view of it to make it stick. This is, more or less, how the average citizen sees these plans.

The new plan cannot be packaged this way. It is plain to everyone that it is intended to provide millions upon millions with medical insurance at other people's expense. This moves the American welfare state officially into zero-sum territory. There is no way to reconcile the interests of the millions who will be provided with insurance policies with the (so far) even more millions who will be forced to pay for them.

If you add to this the "civil unrest" that is probably coming as a result of of government austerity measures (note riots in recent weeks in Greece, Portugal, and California -- California being the Greece of America), you can see we may be in for some very grim social and political conflicts in this Republic.

[For the lighter side of zero-sum politics, see this.]
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