- Created on Friday, 08 June 2012 18:43
Too often we liberals try to sell programs by appealing to altruism, arguing that we must help people in need. Appealing to altruism is fine and good, and in rare cases – when children are beneficiaries for example – it may be sufficient. But, I fear, it is seldom sufficient by itself. Human beings can be altruistic. But let’s face it: we are probably first and foremost self-interested. Citizens are most likely to favor programs when there is something in it for them.
That’s how FDR successfully sold Social Security. Social Security ensures that needy seniors are not thrust into poverty or become burdens to their families. But everyone benefits from Social Security. It keeps some seniors from the poorhouse, but it augments retirement income for everyone. That’s why it is so popular as to have become the third rail of American politics (“Touch it and you die”).
Conservatives portray liberals as unrealistic altruists who are forever concerned about the plight of the poor and vulnerable but not concerned about working people and the middle class. We liberals – as conservatives portray us – are willing to heap burden upon burden upon hard-working Americans in order to satiate our altruistic impulses. Conservatives suggest we are naïve, foolish, softhearted, and empty-headed. They suggest that we are on neurotic quests to salve guilt for our privileged lives. They even exploit conspiracy fears by suggesting that we are motivated by a Machiavellian plot to expand government because we expect to control the levers.
Most often these arguments are made in code. William F. Buckley Jr. famously said that he would “sooner be governed by the first two thousand people in the Boston telephone directory, than by the two thousand members of the faculty of Harvard University.” In the 1988 presidential campaign, George H. W. Bush said his opponent, Michael S. Dukakis, was ''born in Harvard Yard's boutique.'' Neither Buckley nor Bush was a populist. Moreover, they were both born with silver spoons in their mouths – and educated at Yale.
What were they talking about?
Buckley and Bush were deploying the Harvard faculty as liberal archetypes – people living in ivory towers, comfortable, tenured, oblivious to prosaic concerns such as making a profit or avoiding a layoff; self-satisfied idealists who look down on the average Joe and Jane but have bleeding hearts for the downtrodden. It’s proved to be an effective trope.
It is therefore essential that we liberals explain clearly that we are concerned about the entire commonweal. We cannot afford to be perceived as caring principally for the needy. In reality and in perception, liberalism must be a philosophy concerned deeply about the middle and working classes.
Here are two examples about what this means in practice.
Last week, Richard M. Aborn wrote an op-ed titled “Reloading the Gun-Control Debate” for the Washington Post. Arguing why Americans should be concerned about gun violence, Aborn observed: “African American youths are five times as likely to be killed as a result of gun violence than their white counterparts.”
That’s entirely true and entirely lamentable. Moreover, it’s disturbing because if white youths were shot at the same rate as black youths, the nation probably would not tolerate existing levels of gun carnage. I’m not suggesting that whites don’t care because they are racist. I’m suggesting they don’t care – at least not enough to become politically aroused – because they, like everyone else, are self-focused. They don’t think gun violence affects them or their kids. Someone who tells them that African American youths are being shot at five times the rate of white youths is also telling them that white kids are being shot one-fifth as often as black kids, thereby reinforcing the view that gun violence is not their problem.
Another example is the debate over the Affordable Care Act, or as conservatives like to call it, Obamacare. During the initial debate, when proposals were being considered by Congress, proponents most often made the argument that reform was necessary to cover the uninsured. This was telling people with health insurance that they had to pay higher taxes to help others. The Congressional Budget Office reported that the legislation would not add to the deficit – savings would counterbalance costs – but that did not make sense to most people. Surely, they thought, it would cost more to give people insurance.
The Act should have been sold principally as being about fairness, personal responsibility, and cost-containment. When people without insurance become ill or injured, they receive care anyway through hospital emergency rooms. Someone has to pay hospital free care and bad debt costs, and the people who pay are the people with insurance. Hospital charges are inflated to cover those costs, and people with insurance pay those costs in form of higher health insurance premiums. (To the extent employers pay their premiums, they pay the costs indirectly in the form of lower wages.)
The famous “universal mandate” is not only about expanding coverage. It is about requiring that everyone contribute his or her fair share to the system. People receive government subsidies for insurance premiums, but only to the extent they need them.
During the debate over the Act, the term that should have become embedded in the public consciousness was “free rider.”
What term did become embedded in the public consciousness? “Death panels.” But that’s another story.