I had to check in the mirror today to see if I was getting grey hair. In the past couple of months, I’ve had flashes of conservatism, and I’m wondering if the whole “get conservative” as you get older is coming true.
I wouldn’t consider myself “older” by any stretch of imagination, unless I’m comparing myself to last year. Or for that matter, the year before. But in all seriousness, I am starting to question whether my relatively one sided perspective on the “pro’s” of a big, liberal government actually plays out in reality.
I think the first chink in my thinking came during when I was engaged in an conversation about universal health care with a friend who was equally enthusiastic as I am about the idea. At some point we touched upon the issue of employer sponsored health care, or payments to the government in lieu of actually providing coverage for employees. And then a very basic question struck me: What responsibility do employers have to their employees to provide health care? Or more importantly, What right does the government have to impose such a regulation?
Now before all of you who know me think I’ve gone crazy to even ask such a question, hear me out. I as much as anyone, (and probably more than many) (okay, definitely a lot more than most), believe that health care should be a right. The right to live a life of freedom, self actualization, and prosperity crumbles without the prerequisite foundation of safety, health, shelter and sustenance.
But if we have this “right” to health care, and other basic human needs, the question then becomes, from whom do we demand or receive this right?
It has only been in the last hundred years or so in America, where we have turned to employers, and the government to provide for these fringe “rights”. Employers only began offering workman’s comp, health insurance, and other benefits as a means to attract and retain employees- not because they were genuinely concerned with guaranteeing the “rights of the people”. Over time, these benefits in kind have become the accepted domain of the workplace, and indeed for a business to be competitive, they must offer them.
However, simply because they do offer these benefits, does that mean that they have to? If McDonalds begins offering retirement plans, does that mean in 10 years we will demand that all fast food restaurants provide retirement insurance? Of course, employment is one logical marketplace for health care- an exchange of labor for benefits- but that in itself, does not mean employers should have to. There are exceptions of course- in hazardous industries, some provisions for the health and security of the employee should be made.
So back to the question- where do we obtain our “rights from”? If we do not turn to employers, the only other possibilities are the private market, or the government. We have seen that the market has no financial incentive to provide affordable health care to the sick or indigent (or for that matter, most social services), so that means the only logical place left would be the government. And herein lies the fundamental contradiction I have encountered in my thinking:
On one hand, I would like for the government to provide these basic “rights” or “needs” of the people because they market won’t (health care, child care, education, police, fire, etc) but on the other hand, I decry excessive government interventions in other areas (military, domestic surveillance, national ID, etc). So the problem becomes that I am not for big government as a matter of fact, but rather for big government, when the ends suit me.
If I (a liberal), feel certain ends do not suit me (PATRIOT Act, immigrant deportation, civilian surveillance, business subsidies), then I wish for a smaller government. Accordingly, many conservatives are threatened by big government in certain instances (welfare, taxes, health care), but actually want big government in other areas (military, aid to businesses). It is this irony that allows the right to decry social service spending, but support military budgets; at the same time that the left can decry military budgets, but support social service spending.
So where does this realization leave me? For starters, conflicted. As a social worker, as a human being, I believe that there are certain things that all people should have access to: food, health, security, shelter, clothes, education, etc. However, how do we draw the line between what falls in the public domain and what falls in the private? The more we put in the public domain, the more rights we sacrifice in exchange for these services, and the more we put in the private domain, the more we sacrifice those who are not served by the market.
I think that grappling with this complex balance of ideas is a necessary part of informed opion formation and decision making. However, the ever present danger remains getting caught up in ideological debates and rhetoric at the expense of arriving at solutions. For an example of this, turn on CSPAN, FOX, or CNN, and notice how ideology colors everything from floor debates to coverage of political issues.
Becoming trapped in an ideological corner is the inevitable result of a two party political system, where if it’s not black its white, its us against them, and one half of the country will be perpetually unsatisfied. The difficult reality for many, including myself, lies in realization that compromise is the only solution to resolving these vexing issues. It means being open to dialogue, new perspectives, and change.
Filed under: Social Justice |