the little picture

Political discourse this campaign cycle is stuck in “big picture” rhetoric and I’m sick of it. The problems in this country will absolutely not be solved by a competition between “liberty” and “fairness”.

I recently saw a perfect example of this kind of argument, from the conservative point of view, on the topic of health care:

“According to the American ideal–we are independent individuals with inalienable rights to support our own lives and happiness by our own efforts. That means taking responsibility for your own medical needs, just as you take responsibility for your grocery shopping and car payments.”

This type of argument frames the debate as one of ideals: if you are in favor of national oversight and control over the health insurance industry, then you are against the ideal of freedom.

Unfortunately, I see my liberals fall into exactly the same trap. They respond by saying, “Do you really think it’s fair that a person’s life can be ruined by a single unexpected illness? Don’t you have feelings for the people whose lives will be helped by insurance reform?

Both of these arguments are rubbish.

Most people on both the “right” and the “left” agree that some things are completely private responsibility (e.g. your grocery bills) and some things are part of the “commons”: the shared resources that everyone pays into because everyone benefits from them (e.g. the military).

The real question is simply where to “draw the line” between the two. Extreme conservatives think the ONLY thing that should be paid for by taxes is the military; extreme liberals think that housing, education, and medical care (and possibly even more) all belong in the “commons”. Most people are somewhere in between.

Where health care lies in this debate is a legitimately complicated area of concern. It’s not an “all or nothing” issue. Most liberals agree that it’s stupid for a person to be able to go in and demand a CAT scan for no good reason and have it paid for by taxes; and most conservatives agree that person who has been making monthly payments his entire life for health insurance shouldn’t be denied coverage AFTER THE FACT (with no refund of the monthly payments) once he needs it. And between those extremes lie a billion scenarios about which intelligent, rational people can disagree. Where to draw the lines: this is what we will have to figure out, over time, as a society.

But the devil is in the details. Despite what a lot of the politicians and pundits would like you to believe, the “health care debate” is not a debate between grandiose ideas and pure ideologies. The debate is a debate over the little picture… not the big one.