Monday, July 30, 2007

An Immoral Philosophy - New York Times

An Immoral Philosophy - New York Times

Now, why should Mr. Bush fear that insuring uninsured children would lead to a further “federalization” of health care, even though nothing like that is actually in either the Senate plan or the House plan? It’s not because he thinks the plans wouldn’t work. It’s because he’s afraid that they would. That is, he fears that voters, having seen how the government can help children, would ask why it can’t do the same for adults.

And there you have the core of Mr. Bush’s philosophy. He wants the public to believe that government is always the problem, never the solution. But it’s hard to convince people that government is always bad when they see it doing good things. So his philosophy says that the government must be prevented from solving problems, even if it can. In fact, the more good a proposed government program would do, the more fiercely it must be opposed.

This sounds like a caricature, but it isn’t. The truth is that this good-is-bad philosophy has always been at the core of Republican opposition to health care reform. Thus back in 1994, William Kristol warned against passage of the Clinton health care plan “in any form,” because “its success would signal the rebirth of centralized welfare-state policy at the very moment that such policy is being perceived as a failure in other areas.”

What's the argument, I wonder, on the conservative side--what would a rational reconstruction look like? I wonder if the grand goal is something like this:

In a globalized world, managed by the US, geography is largely irrelevant and nationhood as such undermines efficiency. The major players will not be geographically defined nation-states but multinational corporations, each a virtual nation in itself with its own schools and training programs, security forces, health care schemes and infrastructure, unfettered by national boundaries or government regulations, moving goods, information and labor freely in the interests of maximizing the production of wealth and consumption. The whole earth will be a factory achieving ever higher levels of productivity by exploiting every natural resource and extracting every bit of time and energy from workers. Unrestricted competition and market incentives will insure that everything, and everyone, is used to the utmost--not a drop of oil left in the ground or a seam of coal unmined, not a tree standing outside of theme parks operated by the recreation industry where workers on their down time will consume Nature, providing more work for service sector employees maintaining the parks, taking tickets and operating food concessions and for the manufacturers of ever more elaborate camping, hiking and biking equipment.

The whole earth will be an engine for producing ever more wealth, on an endless upward spiral of more consumption and more work, until the earth is depleted and we are used up. The slag heaps will rise--human waste will accumulate: huddled masses of unproductive individuals who are burnt out and used up. But even the least productive citizens will be put to use as inmates, products of a growing privately-run prison industry on contract from the caretaker state, providing jobs for legions of guards, cafeteria ladies and other service workers, and handsome profits for stockholders.

So why shouldn't we extend health care benefits to more poor children? Because while in the short run it is efficient and humane, in the long run it will slow the progress of privatization and push back the advent of this utopian future of unlimited consumption and endless work. The end justifies the means.

Of course as a utilitarian I believe that maxim. I just think the end here is pure hell. This is, on a grossly inflated scale, the life most humans have lived until very recently in history: eat to work and work to eat--the endless cycle consumption and toil. It was only after the Industrial Revolution succeeded that a significant number of people could get off the treadmill, and buy time to enjoy themselves--to consume, and produce Culture in the old elitist sense: poetry, music and art for art's sake, literature, philosophy, crafts and pure science, the whole end and purpose of life. Now we're being told to get back on the treadmill and go even faster. Work harder and longer to produce more and consume more. If we achieved so much through those generations devoted to production and consumption, think of how much more we could produce and consume if we eliminated that unproductive leisure time, got back on the treadmill and devoted all our time and energy to production.

The end justifies the means, but this is precisely a failure to recognize what the end is, to take the means as the end. And in a very bizarre way it's strikingly similar to the countercultural program of minimizing consumption and the use of technology, promoting time and labor-intensive methods to save the earth. According to the countercultural ideal, c. 1970, we were supposed to cut back on labor-saving technology, processed foods, manufactured products and every convenience, grow our own vegetables, cook from scratch, and heat our yurts with wood we chopped ourselves, eating to work and working to eat. According to the neo-conservative ideal, c. 1990 we were to supposed to exploit labor-saving technology in order to extract more labor from the population, to produce more and consume more--again eating to work and working to eat. We cranked up the speed but the treadmill was the same.

Dr. Siddhārtha Gautama got it right: this is the Wheel. We could easily get off but cling and are crushed.

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