Democratic Politics, Dignity and Freedom

            National Public Radio (NPR) sometimes touts the poignancy of a share of its reports by labeling them “driveway moments,” stories so affecting or engaging that listeners are willing simply to sit in their cars after turning off the engine to hear them out. NPR Morning Edition co-host Steve Inskeep supplied one such moment for me on March 14 when he reported the drive-by murder of a Pakistani woman he had met in 2008 while reporting on that nation’s continuing turmoil. Parveen Rehman literally gave her life for the profoundly marginalized poor in the large informal communities her organization, the Karachi-based Orangi Pilot Project, served. No one is certain, but it appears that her interest in helping this population to assist itself and to demand its rights had run afoul of an extremist group in Pakistan. Many have pointed to the Taliban. At all events, Inskeep reported that assailants on motorcycles had murdered this deeply dedicated and courageous woman with impunity in her car, and then, typically and sadly for Pakistan, simply drove away. The perpetrators left Pakistan’s poor without a vital voice and advocate for their rights. That population, and especially the most poor within it, continues to lack access to the basic human rights nominally available to them.

            This singularly tragic episode set me musing about how many people in our own culture regard the poor and vulnerable members of our society; that picture may not be so dramatically heinous, but it is no less sad for that. Representative Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin), House Budget Committee chair, recently released his party’s budget proposals to address our nation’s current accounts deficit and balance the federal budget during the next decade. Like his 2010 proposal, Ryan’s latest plan promises to reduce tax rates for the nation’s most wealthy (again) by more than a third (39.6% to 25%), to address unspecified loopholes and to reduce deeply, eliminate or completely refashion many of the country’s most significant programs for its poor and vulnerable citizens. Ryan, for example, calls for essential repeal of our recent national health care law via budget reductions, demands that Medicaid become a block grant program (permitting states unsympathetic to the poor and the impaired to reduce support for those groups still further) and assumes that Medicare, too, will be made into a voucher program, resulting in seniors of all incomes bearing a much higher risk, financial and otherwise, should they fall catastrophically ill.

            It is worth noting that none of these steps is necessary to secure Ryan’s posited aim, which, as I have argued previously, is singularly misguided as policy in the short term. Moreover, as before, he does not provide evidence to support his assertions that his proposals make sense and add up. Indeed, most non-partisan analysts contend they simply do not. Instead, what they do evidence is a “doubling-down” in the Republican Party’s ongoing ideological war on the commons in American society and a continuing implicit bedrock assumption that all individuals, irrespective of their circumstances, can succeed in the United States without social support, and if they do not, there is something wrong with them. In this view, society (at least in the guise of government or the public via that instrument) owes the poor nothing to help them escape the difficulties they confront that are beyond their control. But it does owe its wealthiest citizens more and more tax breaks on the view that they will invest the dollars provided in developing their businesses and providing Americans employment. As with Ryan’s budget claims generally, however, there is very little empirical evidence to support this argument and much that casts doubt on it. In any case, Ryan does not offer contentions about what sorts of aid should be provided to the poor and vulnerable and why, so much as he implicitly and stridently evokes a deep cultural and ideological belief that resonates with many in his party’s constituency that, put clearly and coldly, those who are rich are somehow worthy while those who are poor are just as surely lacking and, as often as not, deserve only contempt.

            In this assumption and attitude Ryan and his counterparts have some surprising company around the world. The most marginalized and poor Hindi dalits heap contempt on their Islamic counterparts who otherwise share their desperate circumstances. Yemenis, living in desolate poverty in that nation’s informal communities, still regard the Akhdam population in their midst with contempt. One might speculate endlessly on why this disposition exists across cultures and income groups, but it surely represents a sharply constricted view of the role of community in assisting its most vulnerable, even among many who find themselves in that group. All the more reason then, that the national government of a democratic society that purports to care deeply about equality of opportunity recognize that not all individuals begin from the same circumstances and that it may be deeply inimical to the realization of human rights and genuine social opportunity to pretend otherwise. One may well debate how such is to be accomplished, but it should be attempted, and in no event should public policy result in jettisoning the principle of human equality and dignity that underpins it. That is ultimately what is most concerning about Ryan’s and others’ posturing about human liberty in the United States political debate. His stance concerning how “freeing” it is for the immiserated to remain in that condition (without, of course, recognizing or stating its consequence) ultimately and systematically robs those individuals of both their freedom and dignity, surely a misguided and unacceptable premise for a democratic republic.