President's Question Time - One More Time

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I want to post again the full Q and A yesterday between Obama and the Republican leadership. It felt so good to watch and listen because it finally brought us a conversation - rather than a shouting match over a canyon. So much of American politics is debate conducted at a distance, through ads or soundbites or various talking points that never actually engage one another in debate. Reared in the British debate tradition - I debated through high-school and college, becoming President of the Oxford Union in 1983 - this has always felt to me like the biggest drawback of the American system.

The point of debate is to clarify things, to find where the real points of disagreement are, and to assess them in that context of actual alternatives. All last year we had a rather wonkish debate going on about the details of health insurance reform - how to insure 40 million people without breaking the bank, how to expand insurance with the cooperation of insurance and drug companies, how to curtail costs, how to pay for it, etc. I don't blame people for finding their eyes glazing over. Mine tend to as well. And I don't blame people for watching the sausage-making in Washington and feeling nauseated.

But the Dish forced me to grapple with these arguments and to subject my knee-jerk resistance to this topic to yield to a deeper understanding of how crucial it is for our fiscal future - and our moral present. Your emails brought home to me the desperation out there - not of the idle or irresponsible, but of those who had done all they could to take care of themselves and were rendered indigent or sick or terrified for no fault of their own. Finding a way to get insurance against the exigencies of human life, of which illness is a prime example, is not socialism. It's insurance. it also helps labor mobility, reduces crippling anxiety, and is fundamentally humane. Hayek again:

Nor is there any reason why the state should not assist the individuals in providing for those common hazards of life against which, because of their uncertainty, few individuals can make adequate provision.

Where, as in the case of sickness and accident, neither the desire to avoid such calamities nor the efforts to overcome their consequences are as a rule weakened by the provision of assistance - where, in short, we deal with genuinely insurable risks - the case for the state's helping to organize a comprehensive system of social insurance is very strong... Wherever communal action can mitigate disasters against which the individual can neither attempt to guard himself nor make the provision for the consequences, such communal action should undoubtedly be taken," - The Road To Serfdom (Chapter 9).

This argument seems to have been lost on many of my more rigid libertarian friends out there.

But outside this reasoned debate, we had people and politicians and charlatans like Beck and Levin and Limbaugh turning understandable anxieties about this process into hysteria and hyperbole and panic. The reaction was so severe on the tea-party right that it seemed simply impossible to counter. You can't reason people out of total hysteria or utter contradiction: "Get the government out of Medicare!"

2006-2011 archives for The Daily Dish, featuring Andrew Sullivan

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