Friday, March 26, 2010

American isolationism and health care reform

Watching the debates on the various incarnations of health care legislation in the United States, something was nagging at me. Ultimately, I identified the question: do they realize how absurd they sound to the rest of us?

This question may be a rhetorical one: the American collective mindset is fairly autistic. Likely, the rest of the world's population doesn't register in this as in so many other issues. This after all is the country that continues, along with Burma, to hold on to the incomprehensible imperial system (how many furlongs to a mile? Buggered if I know) and instigated the Second Gulf War against blissfully unconcerned with the position of the international community.

Likewise, the United States is an outlier in the developed world in not having a single-payer system. The principle behind the system is fairly straightforward: no one should have to choose death or bankruptcy when a family member falls ill. Private insurance is not a panacea since many if not most people either cannot afford it or do not qualify. And out-of-pocket expenses especially for things like surgery can be exorbitant. (I understand that there is in fact some provision in the US for government aid to "low-income" families, but government definitions of the term tend to be rather optimistic. Certainly my own family is not reckoned as "low-income" for government purposes, but neither could we access private insurance and I imagine we'd have exhausted our lifetime budget for out-of-pocket health care expenses by the time I, the eldest child, reached school age).

And so while, in Canada for example, we might have some empathy with the raging controversies over issues like abortion and same-sex marriage (which were had here recently enough) the idea that the above should be anything but a no-brainer is astonishing. But the United States, of course, was founded on small-government principles, and the right to property - and implicitly by extension the free market - enjoy constitutional status. And so it really is an epic battle for them, because they have to weigh two constitutional imperatives ("life" and "the pursuit of happiness" - a Lockean euphemism for property) against one another. And that I think illustrates precisely what is wrong with the United States: it's a system where unbridled capitalism is such a sacred cow that something as fundamental as the right to adequate health care can be demonized as "socialism." (Indeed, the way politicians on the Right spoke of "socialized medicine" you'd think that the Democrats were proposing genocide rather than simply the United States' belated entry into the civilized world).

And so while Nancy Pelosi, who certainly has odd ideas about Catholicism, took a lot of flack for invoking St Joseph, her detractors are no more "pro-life" than she is. Insofar as they oppose legislation that would save many more children's lives than would the prohibition of their own hobby horse, they can only claim to be "anti-abortion." And the Catholic Church requires much more of its faithful in order to be genuinely "pro-life." (Indeed, on Fr Z and kindred spots on the blogosphere, there seemed to be as much mincing outrage from sacristy queens over the Speaker's fudging of the liturgical nomenclature as to the political content of her talk, which would be entirely recognizable to Dorothy Day and was in no wise outside the mainstream of Catholic social teaching).


dpb said...

While I think your criticisms of American attitudes on this subject are both fair and accurate in terms of the current debate and its context, I just want to add a couple of comments to, hopefully, round out the picture. First, one of the most remarkable aspects of the current debate, to me, is what it shows about the rightward shift in American politics over the last 40 years or so. The new law is essentially what the Republicans wanted 40 years ago. Now, Republicans consider something Richard Nixon would have supported to be a plot to introduce full-blown socialism. Second, I just want to throw out the fact that many, many Americans consider the inequality in our healthcare system both ridiculous and embarassing. Again, I think your characterization of the general tone of the debate, its myopia, etc. are fair, and I couldn't agree more with your criticisms, but I just wanted to add a perspective that I think is important to take into account.

JCF said...

I would agree dbp, about a "rightward shift in American politics over the last 40 years or so" . . . and perhaps include ALL of North America, and even the blogger here---to the extent of his (apparent) acceptance of the Rightwing's meme that to be "anti-abortion" is to "save many more ["preborn"] children's lives."

To see this talking-point ("fetus=child") so readily accepted w/o controversy, seems nothing less than shocking to me. It certainly can't be argued that the anti-Reproductive Rights cohort has won the propaganda battle (against all logic, it seems to me).

In a planet (and Anglican Communion) where the right of sentient beings to marry the person of their choice is debated, but that non-sentient, morphologically-dependent beings are seen as having all-determinative "rights" (up to and OVER the sentient being---woman---upon which they are intrinsically dependent), I believe that Homo sapiens, as a species, is seriously confused as to just what humanity means!

Geoff said...

You seem to have read the opposite of what I was saying into my comments. I said that health care reform would save more children's lives than would banning abortion, about which I take us to be in agreement.

As for the abortion issue, it isn't a left/right one (I vote NDP myself). And your comments could equally be turned on their head: I am always chagrined at the lack of real debate from the other side. Most of my interlocutors accept "without controversy" that life arbitrarily begins at birth (even though "all logic" would tell us that there is nothing different about the "foetus" the day before it is born than the day of birth). My pro-choice friends would argue for a first-trimester cutoff, but who should be the arbiter of "sentience"?

I don't know as much about the US as the situation, but abortion is not a live issue here. Pro-lifers are not an organized reactionary movement threatening to trample the advances of feminism. We're a fairly unpopular and ragtag minority, especially those of us of a social-democratic persuasion. And for the record, while I am pro-life in the technical sense of believing that life begins at conception, I have never been involved in any form of political campaigning or lobbying on the subject.