The subject of the previous post was “penance.” The subject of this post is “trust.”
What we’re seeing here is not merely distrust in the House health-care reform bill. It’s distrust in the political system. A healthy relationship does not require an explicit detailing of the “institutional checks” that will prevent one partner from beating or killing the other. In a healthy relationship, such madness is simply unthinkable. If it was not unthinkable, then no number of institutional checks could repair that relationship. Similarly, the relationship between the protesters and the government is not healthy. The protesters believe the government capable of madness. There is no evidence for that claim, which means that there is no answer for it, either. That claim is not about what is in this bill, or what government has done in Medicare and Medicaid and the VA. It is about what a certain slice of Americans think their government — and by extension, their fellow citizens — capable of.
It requires an amazing kind of selective amnesia to think that there is “no evidence’ that the U.S. government is “capable of madness.” The government of the United States invaded Iraq and its agents have killed many tens of thousands people on the basis of the fact that some Saudis trained in Afganistan flew planes into the World Trade Center, plus some lies. Torture, extraordinary rendition, indefinite detention, etc. I call that madness. Of course, Ezra means the other parts of government concerned with domestic affairs. But not the parts that break into peoples’ houses and destroy their lives for selling contraband herbs, or that subject us constantly to mendacious propaganda about drugs. Our government — and by extension our fellow citizens — is capable of terrible things and proves it every single day. Is it really possible to love government so much, to invest so much hope in its benevolent efficacy, that we grow blind to its evident capacity for evil? Anyway, there must be some parts of the government that are not capable of madness. Ezra invites us to think about those when considering health care reform. Will you accept?
Ezra responds to Wilkinson:
I actually thought Will Wilkinson’s takedown of me was going to be a bit more pointed than it was, given that I misspoke significantly this morning. Instead he spins off to promote an old paper he wrote on Social Security privatization. For all that, Will, and many of my commenters, were right that it’s silly to say “there is no evidence for [the] claim” that the government is capable of madness. Iraq, the World War II internment camps and much else provide plenty of evidence for occasional bouts of madness.
But as I said in the next sentence, and meant more broadly, there’s no evidence for madness in government health-care systems. Medicare does not have death panels. Medicaid does not promote euthanasia. Dozens of other countries have universal health-care systems, and none of them approaches the health of its citizenry with a tenth the cruelty and capriciousness on exhibit in our system.
Indeed, if any of them made a conscious decision to let 20,000 of their citizens die because the government judged them too poor to deserve health-care insurance and then made a further decisions to force millions of families into bankruptcy because a loved one got sick and cost the state money, that would be an excellent example that nations can indeed lose their minds and do terrible things. But that describes a single year in our system, not in theirs. And we escape judgment because we haven’t made a decision to kill those people or rip through their savings. We have simply made a decision not to stop it from happening.
Conor Friedersdorf at The Scene:
It is notable that the mainstream Republican position is that the President is a mysterious quasi-socialist who isn’t to be trusted… except with sweeping executive powers to do pretty much anything he wants in foreign policy… whereas the mainstream Democratic position is that it’s irrational to fear that the federal government will engage in obviously immoral practices… except for all the torture it committed and detainees it abused over the last 8 years.
Peter Suderman in Reason
John Payne in The American Conservative:
I’d also add the massive slaughter of innocent civilians in the War Between the States and the dropping of the atomic bombs, but the point is pretty clear: large chunks of the government are constantly committing mad acts.
Following this criticism, Klein backed down from his original statement by saying that he was only speaking of government involvement in health care, and surely there are parts of the government that don’t do mad things (often), but why should we trust that any specific sector of the government won’t? In fact, the more the government monopolizes any part of the economy, the more we should expect it to act crazily because people have no alternatives to turn to.
But I think Klein actually does make a salient point about political systems in general, but it proves far more than he wants it to. I think Klein is correct when he writes that
“[a] healthy relationship does not require an explicit detailing of the “institutional checks” that will prevent one partner from beating or killing the other. In a healthy relationship, such madness is simply unthinkable. If it was not unthinkable, then no number of institutional checks could repair that relationship.”
But of course these institutional checks are the entire basis for our political system–think the Bill of Rights, federalism, checks and balances, etc. And, when push comes to shove, they don’t work. If you put a huge amount of power into relatively few hands (i.e. form a government), it will be abused no matter how much you attempt to safeguard it. Klein probably wasn’t aware that he was arguing for anarchy, but he was.