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How to Lose a Political Argument

Why did House Democrats approve an unpopular health care bill?  Rich Lowry reports that it is because they think it was the right thing to do: "it was clear that Democrats considered it a moral and ideological obligation to pass this bill -- consequences be damned."

The real question is why they think that way.  The main arguments against the bill seem to be that it expands government control over our lives, that we can't afford it, and that it quite probably will slow down medical innovation.  Some also note that it's probably unconstitutional (or would be if our governing class believed in the constitution and not a "living constitution"--i.e: whatever they want it to be).

The reason why this bill cleared the House, in other words, is the same reason why our national government has been creating new hand outs since the 1930s: there does not seem to be a moral argument on the other side.  Unless and until that changes, Washington will continue to grow, at ever-rising cost to our liberties.

What might such an argument look like?  It would probably emphasize liberty and responsibility.  When President Obama speaks about responsibility, he seems to mean the responsibility of the rich, the connected, and the well educated for the rest of us.  (Our friends in Washington no longer want to make laws that allow and encourage us to be free. On the contrary, they want to take care of us.  All the name of a redefined liberty--liberty from responsibility).  That's not the only way to think about it.  On the contrary, I would suggest that by taking away from citizens the obligation to care for their necessities, the government encourages us to be irresponsible.  That has been the tragedy of Washington hand outs since the New Deal.

Cass Sunstein, President Obama's regulatory czar, suggests that government ought to nudge people to do the right thing.  But what incentive do people have to be responsible when Washington takes away from the people the obligation to care for themselves?  Charity ought to be as local as possible--that way it can be specific, and, hopefully, reduce the "narcotic" effects of it (to use FDR's term for the dangers of hand outs by government).  When our national government (it is hardly a federal government any more) pays our medical bills, it almost inevitably will encourage us to exercise and eat right by law.  That's not something I'm looking forward to.

Categories > Health Care

Discussions - 8 Comments

"The reason why this bill cleared the House, in other words, is the same reason why our national government has been creating new hand outs since the 1930s: there does not seem to be a moral argument on the other side. "

Well, there is a moral argument on the other side. It is enshrined in the Declaration, is codified in the Constitution, and is today best known as "libertarianism." Unfortunately, the conservative/Republican establishment has spent much effort marginalizing this ideology, dismissing its advocates as flakes, etc. Because the right gets just as irritated with the left when liberty allows individuals to do stuff it doesn't personally like.

Principles either mean something, or they don't. Once you've granted even an inch on the basic premise of the thing, then it's not real hard for someone else to take a mile. And that's exactly what is now happening with this whole health-care imbroglio.

Sigh. I love when a bad edit renders a perfectly good comment imperfect: "The right gets just as irritated AS the left..."

I actually started to include a couple of lines saying that the reason why Bush created "Compassionate Conservatism" is because he wished to be moral and never learned that there is a moral argument against big government, but decided that would be another point.

Libertarianism would persuade more people if the moral ideas of the Declaration, and their necessary connection with individual rights and responsibilities, were give more emphasis. Unfortunately, libertarianism is often perceived as an ideology that simply wishes freedom for sex, drugs, and rock and roll. I realize that's not fair, but that's how it is often perceived. The men who wrote and signed the Declaration were rather more comfortable with traditional morality, than are many of today's libertarians. And they were comfortable enshrining much of that morality in legislation.

Libertarians will always be Libertines when compared to those who advocate more puritan mores, especially since the core leans so heavily on consent. But you could have a slightly more legalistic Libertarianism and I think Judge Posner does a good job sketching what that looks like. You toss in a discussion of duty, Carrol Towing, good samaritan laws, and some consideration of restitution and quasi-contracts where the application of consent can be ridiculous, and you draw some solid lines on officious conduct versus unjust enrichment.

Libertarians then just see way too much officious conduct on the part of governement, or conversely put the tax bill for unjust enrichment...seems a bit steep.

The real question here for is not what would a moral argument look like, its how do we come up with a moral argument that does not spit in the face of the crude understanding most people have of the Christian faith. The only thing I can think of is to divorce taxes from charity although the right just spent a decade doing just the opposite via the faith based stuff. Since Rand is taboo for the above reasons maybe there is something in William Gram Sumner that is usable( I was tempted to simply suggest The Virtue of Selfishness for the irony). I am not dismissing her totally though, just considering the closest thing to reading her books is to play Bioshock in the last few years makes me less inclined to have an opinion, but I fear the problems you are going to encounter when trying to defend capitalism with moral arguments will lead us back to her in some form or another.

Fair points. On reading Brutus' post, I stumbled over the phrase "divorce taxes." Interesting idea!

It is easy to distinguish charity from taxes. Charity is something you give to someone without receiving consideration. Charity is gratuitous. Charity is also not enforceable unless there is reliance, i.e. §90 of the restatement of contracts.

Taxes pay for the sum total of goods and services provided by the government. Some government spending is charitable, a lot of government spending on public goods are officious, that is to say not requested by those who pay taxes.

If someone gives you something charitably then they can't ask that you pay them. This is officious. The government is the only charitable organization that can give or provide services without a contract or consent and then request payment for services rendered.

Charity then is distinct from officious conduct.

If Brutus is feeling charitable, he can wash my car. If Brutus washes my car or rakes my leaves, I am unjustly enriched, howhever if I did not contract for such services and we can see that the transaction costs are low, then Brutus cannot come knocking on my door with a bill. Officious conduct may enrich me, but it can easily be an annoyance, and permiting it would allow Brutus to bill me for what he thinks the service is worth.

Sometimes officious conduct is permited, if for example transaction costs are high or an emmergency situation is present. If my house is about to be burnt down by a wildfire and Brutus sacrifices his pond by opening a damn and therebye looses a lot of water and prized fish...if my house/property is saved then Brutus can recover. I probably can't gripe at Brutus about water dammage...and if I have fire insurance but no flood insurance, we can see how officious conduct might not be fully appreciated.

Brutus also has no real duty in a good samaritan sense. If Brutus is driving down the road and sees two toddlers in the middle of the road and swerves to avoid hitting them, he has no legal duty to pull over and bring them to safety. But Brutus can do so. He can do so charitably, or he can do so expecting a reward. If Brutus pulls over immediately and saves the toddlers, and while doing so a car smashes into the back of his car, he can bill the parents of the todlers for the dammage to his car. No one should be unjustly enriched while another is unjustly emmergency based officious conduct is acceptable. Technically I would go ahead and make it a rule that moral duty follows legal duty, but this isn't the majority legal rule. I would say you have a duty to prevent foreseable harm to third parties where such harm is foreseable and likely to result in great dammages and the cost to self is low. So I wouldn't mind impossing the duty on Brutus to save the kids, and have him decide at his convenience if doing so was an act of charity or permisibly officious.

Also if Brutus undertakes charitable good samaritan conduct and the benneficiary promises to pay him for it then this is also enforceable.

We can distinguish these cases from officious conduct because my car being dirty or my lawn having leaves doesn't present an emmergency and transaction costs for entering into a contract are low. My house potentially burning down or my todlers being in the street represent an emmergency situation where transaction costs for remmedying the situation are prohibitive. Only in such limited circumstances is a person entitled to perform a service without secureing an agreement. Being the recipient of such charity, one has a duty to pass it along, or reward the good samaritan.

Not all of this is actually the law, but Libertarians could build out a sort of skeleton morality, and I don't see why they would be forced to maintain the traditional holding on good samaritan conduct, only requireing duty in limited cases of "relation" or not at all.

"divorce taxes" seem like a pretty serious nudge, and might discourage marriage. Libertarians can also build out a legal framework using unjust enrichment to determine who gets what in a divorce or even a breakup in cohabitating partners. I think it is clear that Libertarians would have to come out in favor of gay marriage.

Also it is unclear that marriage doesn't share contractually all the bad aspects of government.

"But what incentive do people have to be responsible when Washington takes away from the people the obligation to care for themselves?"

But what incentive do wives have to be responsible when husbands takes away from the woman the obligation to care for themselves? Or vice terms of shared duties... Also a boat load of charity and officious conduct in a marriage... I suppose if you love someone you value what they do for you in accordance to the effort you know they put into it... but being married sounds close to having brutus wash my car or rake my leaves and then demand builds reliance...once you start cooking and cleaning or working you can't decide to stop because of everyone rellying upon you.

Keeping people in bad marriages via a marriage tax seems close to not letting folks leave the soviet union...the justifying assumption being that you love your wife "owe her a duty" greater than the "duty" you owe your country.

The East Berliners had so much love and duty that a wall was built to "ring them in" thereby commemorating the shared commitment.

If immigration is divorce, then the US is the land of divorce, the land of contracts and consent. There could be something about americans that resents staying married.

Libertarian morality would be based upon contract law. Ayn Rand is simply a certain version of Locke exasperated by the impossible difficulties of living in the Soviet Union, and inspired by a singular autonomy. It may be even be possible to criticize Ayn Rand's personal relationships as springing from what happens if you let "Locke" out of the "Locke box".

Marriage probably is the most important contract most people enter into, but contracts can't really exist without a remmedy for breach...divorce is necessary. this is why immigration or voting with feet is popular when it comes to government, this is the only solid is just arbitration.

You will never win this with semantics. It is good to help others. Taxes (in theory) sometimes help others. It is good to tax. I don't buy it, but what part of it can you change when you try to put it simple and clear enough for people to understand. Taxes don't help people is not an outright truth so you loose there. Helping people is bad sounds insane. So it goes to semantics and asks what help or giving means which sounds confusing and is. I don't know how overcome the simplicity of the argument and some sort of a compromise is what we have already.

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