Friday, October 30, 2009

The Republic, Moral Imperatives, and The Golden Rule

Senator Tom Coburn has an illuminating profile in yesterday’s New York Times. I say illuminating because it makes plain his disdain for Congress, his colleagues, and basically anything he doesn’t like. Indeed, the reporter does not address and Sen. Coburn does not provide an explanation for seemingly chronic obstructionism except to imply that someone has to do it.

Beyond stifling the democratic process and abusing the privilege of his position he also makes at least one ridiculous statement. Towards the end of the article, in explanation for his opposition to healthcare reform, he says, “If you look historically, every great republic has died over fiscal issue. That is the biggest moral issue of our time.” If he expounds on this statement the reporter declined to include it. I dare say the reporter couldn’t include any exposition on the statement because it’s patently false as Coburn has framed it.

To my knowledge no republic has gone broke and suddenly died. There have been crises, massive loans, and rescues but not sudden death. Much to the contrary republics have “died” because of the income polarization of the haves and have-nots. Two prime examples include the French Revolution and even, to a lesser degree, the American Revolution. When the wealth of a nation is to consolidated in the upper rungs of the income ladder. When the poor get poorer, and when the government refuses to address this inequity you get revolution. Anyone would be hard pressed to say that one’s level of income has no connection to the level of healthcare they receive. Sen. Coburn would have you think that providing healthcare to the have-nots would lead to the end of our republic, when history teaches us that the exact opposite is true.

Sen. Coburn also calls this the “biggest moral issue of our time.” Now it’s unclear if he means the fiscal issue is the greatest moral issue or if he means the survival of the republic, a survival he falsely sees threatened by healthcare reform, is a great moral issue. What is clear is that for him there is not morality involved as it relates to ensuring basic healthcare to all US citizens. This seems entirely backward to me.

I balk at anyone suggesting the survival of our republic is a moral imperative. It implies a level of hubris regarding out own form of democracy that is dangerous and untethered from the reality of the imperfections in our system. It also assigns a kind of spiritual superiority to our system of government which complicates compromise. Of course, it’s not as if Sen. Coburn spends much time worrying about compromise anyway.

Instead, if one were to bring morality into the healthcare debate, it is the morality spoken of so eloquently by the late Robert F. Kennedy. Our moral imperative is to our fellow man, our fellow citizen. We are obligated by our interconnection as people to do what we can to provide for our neighbor when he or she can not provide for themselves. Why is this a moral imperative? Why in our hyper-capitalist society, built on ferocious individualism should we care for our neighbor? Because there could come a day where any one of us falls on hard times and needs a helping hand. I’m not a tremendously religious person. I don’t attend Bible study every Sunday as Sen. Coburn does, but I remember the golden rule. Treat others as you, yourself would like to be treated. Perhaps if Sen. Coburn heard "no" as much as he said "no" he would be a more humble public servant and more compassionate elected representative of this republic.


Colin said...

Response Part I:

First off, I applaud Tom Coburn and his mission to throw sand in the gears of the US Senate on a regular basis. Coburn is a friend of the taxpayer and one of the only people who seems to care about the fact that our government is spending itself into oblivion and creating a crushing burden of debt for future generations. He also seems to be one our only elected representatives that actually cares about what the Constitution says and the powers it gives to Congress.

The fact that Coburn is using the powers of his office -- I am unaware of him using any illegal measures -- to uphold the Constitution strikes me as the very height of democracy. I wish we had 100 Senators with such fortitude and principles rather than the currently flock of sheep which graze underneath the rotunda.

If you want to understand Coburn I suggest a read of his book Breach of Trust, which discusses his experience as a Congressman. I've got a copy if you want to borrow it. One of my favorite parts is a story he relates -- which has been corroborated by others -- about him and other Republicans standing up to Newt Gingrich over a particular piece of legislation and refusing to kowtow. I thought it was great, but maybe that was just mindless obstructionism.

I would also suggest that your history is flawed. The American Revolution was not a class struggle, but one against an oppressive, heavy-handed government. Go back and read the Declaration of Independence and the list of grievances cited. Where does the cry "Taxation without representation" originate other than from anger with the government? The Boston Tea Party didn't occur because of a perception the rich weren't paying their fair share, but because taxes were too high.

The colonists, it should be noted, were so wary of big government that the country was first organized under the HEAVILY decentralized and powerless Articles of Confederation. The current Constitution is an ode to limited government.

Then there is the French revolution, which has its origins in anger against the government and -- yes -- crushing levels of debt and taxation. As wikipedia states:

Another cause was the fact that Louis XV fought many wars, bringing France to the verge of bankruptcy, and Louis XVI supported the colonists during the American Revolution, exacerbating the precarious financial condition of the government. The national debt amounted to almost two billion livres. The social burdens caused by war included the huge war debt, made worse by the monarchy's military failures and ineptitude, and the lack of social services for war veterans. The inefficient and antiquated financial system was unable to manage the national debt, something which was both caused and exacerbated by the burden of a grossly inequitable system of taxation. Another cause was the continued conspicuous consumption of the noble class, especially the court of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette at Versailles, despite the financial burden on the populace. High unemployment and high bread prices caused more money to be spent on food and less in other areas of the economy. The Roman Catholic Church, the largest landowner in the country, levied a tax on crops known as the dime or tithe. While the dîme lessened the severity of the monarchy's tax increases, it worsened the plight of the poorest who faced a daily struggle with malnutrition. There was too little internal trade and too many customs barriers.

A laizzes-faire, limited government approach was not exactly the problem.

Colin said...

Part Deux:

Lastly, I fail to understand the connection between compassion and more government. How are they equivalent? Was the enactment of welfare an exercise in compassion? Was 1996 welfare reform, which had numerous salutary effects, an example of a lack of compassion? Would it be more compassionate of us to shift away from food stamps -- essentially vouchers -- to government-run food stores?

Subjecting people to government-run health care doesn't strike me as compassionate, it seems to me the very opposite.

The whole notion that government is needed to foster a compassionate society presumes that individuals are so greedy and selfish they would not be charitable were it not for the government forcibly confiscating that which belongs to them and redistributing it.

It also has no basis in reality. The "hyper-capitalist" US leads the world in charitable donations and volunteerism:

I for one believe in the compassion of the American people, and that they would give large sums to the poor, as well as their time, without government prodding. Just the other week I participated in a Leukemia fundraising walk with hundreds of other people in a steady downpour and frigid temperatures. Over $500,000 was raised.

I also believe that the poor have no better friend than the free market, which delivers high quality combined with low prices. Capitalism has done more to alleviate the plight of the poor than any government programs.