The Institute is presently involved in a variety of research initiatives and projects linked to social, health and environmental policy. I have lately been struck afresh by the ways in which each of these is underpinned by concerns that ultimately are rooted in American culture. These fault lines are enduring commitments by millions to specific values, and reflect ongoing interpretations of hoary arguments concerning how our nation’s government should relate to its citizenry, how citizens should relate to each other or how the nation and market should relate. These ways of viewing the world persist, but receive little attention in the hurly burly of political exchange in specific policy debates. And yet, more often than not, it is just these values and interpretations of them that serve as the foundation of the public policy stances our citizens and leaders embrace.
At least since the 17th century, Anglo-American law and social policies have frequently assumed that the poor were poor or the afflicted (e.g. alcoholics, downtrodden, drug addicts, homeless) were troubled because there was something amiss in their character. The idea that such individuals simply lack sufficient “spine” to pick themselves up and do whatever may be necessary to overcome their conditions runs deep in the American psyche. On this basis many contend that the addicted “bring it on themselves” and the poor are simply too indolent to undertake the efforts necessary to redress their condition. This abstract belief in personal responsibility threaded through President Reagan’s famous argument that “welfare queens” were unfairly receiving government support and made little effort to do much of anything besides watch television. A similar claim supported partisans of the successful 1996 national welfare system makeover that removed the poor’s entitlement to social support. That policy debate highlighted the view that government should bend every effort to insure the poor be encouraged strongly to obtain employment. That controversy tied long-lived American devotion to personal responsibility to the equally hardy American ideal that the commons, in the guise of government, should do as little as feasible to “get in the way of the poor (or more broadly, the citizenry), fixing their own problems.” Only those declared “truly needy” against these criteria should benefit from public succor.
The fact that no one has yet been able to eliminate the causes of poverty or of addiction does little to allay this enduring controversy. Even lawmakers sympathetic to the view that the community should support its poor or distressed confront the reality that no one has yet discerned either how to prevent or to “fix” poverty or addiction. In light of this rather cruel reality and realizing that they may be accused of “wasting” a share of whatever government funds are devoted to these intractable problems, it is indeed tempting for public leaders to assign responsibility to those so afflicted. The difficulty, of course, is that these issues pose costs not only to the individuals involved, but also to society. The relative complexity of these challenges and American devotion to individual responsibility and limited government has suggested to many leaders that government either should not assume or should sharply limit its responsibility for such problems.
A similar tension characterizes our current national debate over health policy. Late summer saw forums to discuss options for health policy change attended by groups of agitated and screaming partisans concerned that government would soon eliminate their health insurance coverage while at the same time assuming direct control over a large share of the nation’s economy. While one can debate how much of this angst was genuine and how much created for political reasons, the concerns expressed do trace a major fault line in American policy politics. At least a share of those fervent protesters were genuinely concerned that their government would assume too large a role in the nation’s economy if it sought to provide additional health coverage options for the poor and uninsured and to curtail unsustainable cost growth. And many were also concerned that government should not interfere (as they saw it) in a domain of such personal choice- making. On this view, such decisions ought properly to be individual ones. Taken together, these twin claims and their associated values provide some insight into the otherwise unsupported and apparently irrational claims of advocates concerning “bureaucratic death panels” and the like. That is, they reveal that the fears unleashed may not have any basis in legislative language or intent, but they are no less real or discomfiting for those concerned as a result. Instead, these claims suggest just how deep such currents run in the culture and how very strong and volatile those currents are.
Whatever may obtain on this point, it seems clear that the concerns being expressed in forums and in the media are born of identifiable interpretations of values otherwise widely held by Americans. It is also clear, at least in the abstract, that reasonable people could differ on how to regard these concerns. But such a discerning stance would require cooler heads and a more deliberate and deliberative discussion than seems to be obtaining now in the public square. Perhaps we are witnessing a fresh rendering of an age-old reality: for many Americans deeply held convictions anchor our personal and collective lives and once in play these may kindle all sorts of unexpected consequences. Those “mobilizing the base” for whatever purposes may have unleashed forces well beyond their power to direct or control. These then shape possibilities both for democratic deliberation and for reasoned policy dialogue. We are learning now just how difficult that environment may become for prudential policymaking.
Environmental policy reflects most clearly the ongoing American devotion to an abstract, if ill-defined, ideal of “limited government” whose leaders must be ever mindful of the role of the market in our polity. Environmental policy is increasingly cast as a debate over which forms of energy may be developed and which forms of living must be changed against growing evidence of climate change and unsustainable ecologic degradation worldwide, American policymakers are nonetheless engaged instead in a debate over whether government will unduly harm the market and undermine economic support for its citizens if it intervenes too strongly to address these issues. Those alarmed about the role of government are equally concerned not to impinge individual rights unduly. When should government regulate what its citizens may consume or determine the products they may use? Meanwhile, the privatizing tendency implicit in resistance to such interventions may pit citizens against one another for the consumption of goods.
Accordingly, there are groups now advancing claims linked to environmental justice that suggest class-based or economic discrimination by one group or another is imposing costs on other groups of citizens. Such can occur, advocates argue, precisely because of our collective devotion to allowing the market so large a role in our political economy and to limiting the role of government in our lives.
Those interested in policymaking and democracy in the United States will not soon “fix” these fault lines. No amount of rhetoric or scholarly analysis will magically allow so heterogeneous a population suddenly to agree on what are, ultimately, matters about which reasonable people may disagree. Nonetheless, it may be of some help for interested observers to point up their central significance and to remind those concerned that democracy should allow for just such disagreement in the pursuit of prudent and defensible outcomes for the polity at large. Stridency for its own sake will neither compel others to agree nor change the fact that the nation’s citizens are free to make their own choices concerning these critical valences. This reminder of the validity of disagreement in the process of policymaking does not provide one or another partisan a “win” for their fundraising letters and media ads since it does not seek to find one party or another responsible for one slant on these deep tensions. Perhaps we need to remind ourselves that democracy cannot be sustained without broad public deliberation about competing claims for what might constitute the good of the nation and its citizens. It might be well for all parties concerned to keep in mind as they study specific language and options and fear potential outcomes not in accord with their own views, that they are engaged on a much larger field and one which is far more likely to determine the fate of the nation than today’s headlines concerning who “won” this or that vote or perceived legislative battle. The deeper tensions will not go away, but the social fabric that allows civil discussion concerning them is fragile and must continuously be renewed. Perhaps that is a subject for another reflection.