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a sprawling mess of politics, history and healthcare

March 7, 2010

On the Oregonian‘s public blog, My Oregon, Paul G. Rollis wrote:

“A Rose by Any Other Name…” (socialism, corporatism, progressivism, marxism, etc.)

You can also throw in communism, for good measure.

As people argue for and against each of the above, most seem either to ignore or are completely ignorant of the one thing that they ALL have in common. Each is based upon the basic idea that government should have constantly increasing, perhaps all, power to run a society. This, in turn, is based upon the idea that the government knows what is best for you, regardless of if you like it or want it or not. This is a proven form of creeping dictatorship with the concomitant decrease of individual rights and freedoms and the total loss of any meaningful power of the people in a democratic system. It gradually eviscerates and makes meaningless the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

Some of the proponents of these systems knowingly work for imposing these systems of government upon a society, but they rarely are open and honest about their goals, because they know that most people do not want to lose their rights and freedoms. This often causes the supporters of these ideas to operate in secret and with deception in order to gain their goals.

Does this have any bearing on the 2700+ page health care reform bills currently proposed by the Democratic Party in congress? I think so, and if you actually know what the bills contain, you would probably think so, too.

What a surprise. Someone using the word “socialism” pejoratively is equating healthcare reform with big government, and big government with the “loss of any meaningful power of the people in a democratic system.” So, liking a good debate every now and then, I replied with:

Technically speaking, socialism is an economic system, not a form of government. While governments can be more or less socialistic, socialism itself is a mass movement towards economic democracy — collectively owned and democratically controlled production based on need rather than profit — and the creation of an egalitarian, classless society.

While some types of socialism have taken the form of state socialism, whereby the state becomes the sole capitalist in the name of the people, this method has proven to be the best way to unsuccessfully implement socialism and lead to the installment of repressive totalitarian regimes that exploit their citizens more than capitalism ever could (e.g., the authoritarian and militaristic style of socialism that dominated China and Russia). Democratic socialists (e.g., Eugene Debs, Norman Thomas, etc.), on the other hand, actually push for a more decentralized and directly democratic economy and political system.

What this has to do with the [current] healthcare debacle, however, I have no idea. As far as I’m concerned, it misrepresents a host of socialists’ politics by utilizing the same socialism = statism straw man argument that almost everyone propagates to death—as if every extreme form of government intervention in the economy in which production is dominated by an authoritarian political regime or state is equivalent to socialism. This is exactly the same kind of red-baiting Reagan used in his 1961 LP recording for the Operation Coffee Cup campaign against medicare, or as Reagan called it, “socialized medicine.” As if medicare was some kind of danger to democracy and individual liberty. Pfft.

And even if the universal healthcare like they have in those horrible places like Britain, Canada, France, etc. can be considered “socialist,” the kind of aggressive government intervention that has taken place in this country with the trillion dollar bailout of Wall Street should really be called something like “corporatism,” “state capitalism” or “state corporate capitalism” because it’s pretty much doing the exact opposite of what socialism entails when it takes money from average workers via taxes and gives it to giant, multinational corporations.

What is truly leading the loss of democracy in this country is the lack of civic participation on the part of its citizens. For example, people can’t just vote once a year and think that’s the end of their obligation. But hell, they don’t even do that. Here in Oregon, for example, we can vote by mail. We don’t even have to leave our house to vote and we still can’t reach 100% turnout!

But we need to do even more than that. We need to call and write our representatives. We need to go to their offices and talk to them face to face. We need to organize with other like-minded individuals and push for the policies we want. I vote, but I’m not under the illusion that my one vote can change as much as my activism can. Nevertheless, I’d be much happier about our electoral system if we had public financing of elections and the ability to immediately recall representatives if we felt that they weren’t doing their jobs effectively. That would not only help to remove all of the big-monied interests from Washington, it would help put power back into the hands of the people.

Rollis responded:

Obviously you can not see the pervasive correlation between the increase of socialist “economic” goals and the loss of personal rights and freedoms, or the ever-increasing power of government. Where, if anywhere, do you see the tipping point when the people no longer are in control of the government, and, instead, the government has total control over the people?

Also, I see that you very conveniently left out of your description of socialism one of its most important characteristics, namely, the allocation of resources.

That is the source of concern of the American people regarding the health care reform bills, because this “allocation of resources” concept is the basis of inevitable rationing, or worse yet, the complete denial of medical care to those who need it. This is the current practice in all of those European countries that already have socialized medicine.

To which I answered with this sprawling rebuttal:

The allocation of resources is an inherent part of any type of economy. In free-market capitalism, for example, the allocation of resources is controlled primarily through the price mechanism. In mixed economies, resources are allocated through a combination of the price mechanism and allocation via various government agencies (e.g., think of a public resource like water that needs to be used for public consumption as well as things like irrigation, etc.).

As for resource allocation in our current healthcare system, insurance company bureaucrats routinely deny coverage and “ration” care. That is how insurance companies make their profit, after all. The real question is, who do we want to be in charge of approving medical care, an insurance company bureaucrat or a government bureaucrat? Each has its own pros and cons, but for the most part, more “socialized” healthcare systems that cover everyone have proven to be quite efficient and reliable.

According to the World Health Organization, for example, France has the best overall health care system in the world, excelling in 4 areas: (1) universal coverage, (2) responsive health care providers, (3) freedom of choice and (4) overall health and longevity of the population.

In 2005, France spent $3,926 per capita on healthcare, and of that, approximately 80% was government expenditure. The U.S., in comparison, spent $6,347, and of that, approximately 45% was government expenditure. Yet France has a higher life expectancy and lower infant mortality rate than the U.S. (Although, to be fair, I’ve heard it mentioned that the U.S. counts premature births whereas France doesn’t, and these differences can’t be attributed to the differences between the two systems alone as there are undoubtedly other factors involved, e.g., eating habits, stress levels, etc.)

Or how about Spain’s healthcare system? Spain’s constitution guarantees the right to universal healthcare and requires the state to provide it, it’s ranked 7th best by the WHO, and according to one study published last year in the U.S. journal Health Affairs, there are a third fewer deaths caused by delayed access to health care than in the U.S.

And then there is Canada’s healthcare system, which was quite similar to ours before they adopted a single-payer system. It’s not only ranked higher than the U.S. system by the WHO (30th v. 37th out of 191 nations), but like France, Canada has a higher life expectancy and lower infant mortality rate than the U.S. (Again, these differences can’t be attributed to the differences between the two systems alone, but I think it at least goes to show that Canadians seem to be doing OK with the system they’ve got.)

In addition, a 2006 peer-reviewed study of healthcare access in Canada and the U.S. done by the American Journal of Public Health concluded that “U.S. residents are one third less likely to have a regular medical doctor, one fourth more likely to have unmet health care needs, and are more than twice as likely to forgo needed medicines.” Of course, every system has its problems, but I’d still say that Canada’s system is pretty damn good considering it covers everyone and costs less per person than ours.

As for the for the idea that we’re losing our democracy to the tyranny of “big government,” you can’t lose what you’ve never really had. What we’re really losing is the fight for economic and political democracy in the U.S. The state has been skewed in favour of the ruling class from the very beginning. Although some of the Founders, namely Thomas Paine, did advocate for things like the abolition of slavery, free public education, progressive taxation, social safety nets (e.g., old-age pensions), etc., for the most part, the Founding Fathers, while arguably great men, weren’t fighting for universal freedom and suffrage, they were fighting for the freedom of white, male property owners from the tyranny of the British monarchy.

Like most forms of government centered around property rights, the basic principle behind the establishment of our form of representative democracy had more to do with the ruling elites wanting to protect the small minority of property owners (including themselves) from the majority of the propertyless than anything else. As James Madison put it in Federalist No. 10, “… the most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property. Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society.”

The Federalist Papers, as you might know, were a series of essays arguing for the ratification of our Constitution. Federalist No. 10, written by Madison, addresses the question of factions, which he defines as “a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.”

Believing that an individual’s “interest would certainly bias his judgement, and not improbably, corrupt his integrity,” he saw a groups of individuals, or factions, as an even greater threat to individual liberty, even though paradoxically, he saw liberty as the cause by which factions arise. His solution, then, was to try to control the effects of factions within American society. This could be accomplished, he argued, by the establishment of a republic in favour of a direct democracy. And the representatives in this new republic were initially elected by a select few, namely white, male property owners.

While I agree with Madison, albeit somewhat reluctantly, about the dangers of having a majority of citizens who are united and motivated by a common interest who can take away the rights of the minority of other citizens, this can just as easily lead to the reverse, e.g., a minority of wealthy/propertied interests excluding the majority of poor/propertyless from voting, or in our case, from influencing the political process (e.g., the 5-to-4 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission that overturned certain longstanding limits on political campaign spending by corporations, effectively giving them even more lobbying power).

One of the few things I think Andrew Jackson got right (as opposed to his support of slavery and the Indian Removal Act) was his support for expanded suffrage, which at that time meant extending the right to vote to include all white males instead of just white, male property owners. Without removing this form of class antagonism, civil unrest on the part of the poor and disenfranchised could have gotten to the point where revolt was a serious possibility. Removing this restriction, however, allowed more people to become directly involved in the political process, giving them (at least in theory) a more constructive way to address their grievances than violence. It was the first step in the ongoing fight for equality and universal suffrage.

But as a general principle, the ruling class seeks to do as little for the average citizen as it can. It wasn’t until 1870, for example, that African American males were allowed to vote. And women weren’t allowed to vote until 1920. 1920! So what changed? Was it the interests of the ruling class? Perhaps in some cases, but the vast majority of changes came after long, hard struggles by average men and women seeking life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. From the abolition of slavery to the right of women to vote to the 40 hour work day, it was due to the bravery of ordinary, everyday men and women who were willing to stand up and fight for what they believed in that we have these things today.

Regardless of where one stands on economic democracy and private ownership v. collective ownership of the means of production, I think it can be agreed upon that part of the reason we’re losing the battle for political democracy in the U.S. is the lack of civic participation on the part of its citizens. [As I said before], people can’t just vote once a year and think that’s the end of their civic obligation. But hell, most of the time they don’t even seem to do that much. Here in Oregon, for example, we can vote by mail. We don’t even have to leave our house to vote and we still can’t reach 100% turnout! Voter turnout [in the U.S.] for the 2008 presidential election was only 63%. And many statewide elections are decided by even less.

But we need to do even more than that to win and secure our political freedom. We need to call and write our representatives. We need to go to their offices and talk to them face to face. We need to run for office [ourselves]. We need to organize with other like-minded individuals and push for the policies we want. We need to take to the streets in rallies and protests if need be. I vote, but I’m not under the illusion that my one vote can have as much of an impact as my activism can.

That said, I’d be much happier about our electoral system if we at least had public financing of elections and the ability to immediately recall representatives if we felt that they weren’t doing their jobs effectively. It would not only help to remove all of the big-monied interests from Washington, it would help to finally put real political power into the hands of the people. But that will only happen if people demand it, which is why I believe apathy and complacency are the real enemies of freedom in the U.S.

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