02 March 2010

How do you solve a problem like us?

For me, it's another case of 'I like your reasoning, but not your conclusion', with regard to Evan Thomas' article in this week's Newsweek.

I think Mr Thomas is completely on the right track when he diagnoses one of our nation's foremost problems as the 'I got mine' entitlement culture, and he lays out its anatomy quite nicely. The idealism of the 1960's, admirable as it was, also contained within itself the seeds of its own destruction. The very real gains and improvements within our society, and the creation of a more egalitarian social order, particularly for minorities, was a noble goal and we have the philosophy of modern leftism very much to thank for it. But in the later 1960's, a more militant and less respectful element emerged, less likely to engage in civil disobedience than to riot or to bomb science buildings (like the tragic Sterling Hall incident in Madison). Ironically, the same self-serving victimhood mentality, irrationality, disrespect for rightful authority, incivility and violent Jacobin-style radicalism we once saw on the far left we are now seeing on the far right, in the virulent, insidious and eliminationist Tea Party movement. Though Mr Thomas does not make these parallels explicitly, he follows an acceptable line of logic toward them.

Where he loses me, though, is on the subject of compromise. Compromise, in itself, is not something we have lost in our political system on account of our culture of entitlement. On the contrary, we notice that (on the Democratic side of the aisle, anyway) our leaders are too willing to throw the baby out with the bathwater in order to accommodate the other side. (Nothing is better testament to this than that the public option was originally supposed to be the compromise between a government-run single-payer insurance plan and the current profit-driven insurance model, yet thanks to the Overtonian nature of our political media, those Democrats now pushing for the public option are now seen not as the compromising wing of the party but as the partisans!)

That said, some level of tort reform would be a welcome change, though its economic benefits are negligible in the context of our total annual health-care costs and it would have to be carefully constructed to keep doctors accountable (as Sen Durbin of Illinois pointed out, referencing the CBO estimates). It may be the case that we may make some headway in terms of both the health-care issue and in terms of partisanship by compromising over tort reform, but to some extent that isn't really relevant to the problem Mr Thomas has highlighted.

Compromise in the political scene is not the remedy for which we have to strive if we want to create and maintain a healthier and more accountable culture, since it is all too easy to call for 'compromise' when you don't have any great stake in the discussion or when you are not held to account for the results beyond the next election. As Mr Thomas aptly noted, our politicians are a mirror for the society: here, we are discussing a problem which impacts our economic health as a nation and our collective health (in both the literal, medical sense and the figurative, moral one) as a society. Thus, the remedy must be one which makes demands not just on our politicians, but on us, the problem (guilty as charged)!

Perhaps there are things that we can begin doing in the political culture that may help, but I have my doubts that any procedural changes or compromises undertaken on any given piece of legislation on the floor of the Senate will have any great lasting impact on the entitlement-zeitgeist. Personally, I would like to see moves made to encourage not short-range temporary political compromise so much as respect for rightful authority, for the sovereignty of fact and - dare I hope? - civility in the wider culture; for example, a new Fairness Doctrine with the teeth to hold the memetic, self-absorbed news media to account for both what they say and how they say it.

Probably too much to hope. But such a change would be of greater benefit to our political culture than a tort-reform passage in the health-care bill.

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