Via David Weigel reporting on the Faith & Freedom Coalition conference over at Slate, I think we have what might just be the perfect lens to distinguish between the competing Liberal and Conservative visions for America. Specifically, I’m referring to this statement made by former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell:
Clean water is important to us. Decent housing is important to us. But they’re not rights. And we have to begin to say that what’s important is that we in a rational way are able to reform these programs in a way to save them. And, yes, if it means that somewhere down the line individuals have to make sacrifices, because the rationalization of the system means we save it, but we are also doing it in a more efficient way. . . . I don’t think too many Americans will object to that. At the end of the day we’re going to get back to making sure we’re in a position to finance the wars in which we engage. Does that mean we can do that without sacrificing? No. We have to make sacrifices. But what’s more important? Our freedom and security or the gluttony of the federal government. (emphasis added)
Unbelievable. So much reveal is packed into this one paragraph.
On a meta level, the biggest reveal is not that Blackwell can utter these thoughts without shame, but that he can utter them with pride. Blackwell is explicitly telling us when it comes down to choosing priorities that what is more important for America – and for most Americans – is not that we have clean drinking water or basic shelter, but that the country is free to finance its chief export: Warfare. How anyone can take pride in such a morally bankrupt idea is simply beyond me.
But the manner by which Blackwell makes this argument is also instructive. Clean water and decent housing are dismissed as things that are merely “important” to us but to which we as members of our society can claim no “right.” Well, yeah, clean water and shelter are in fact important to us. In fact, “water, food, shelter” have long been recognized as the most basic of human needs. That is, they are the minimum needs that must be met in order for us to continue, y’know, living. People who cannot obtain food, water and minimal shelter quite simply die.
Nevertheless, as important as meeting these needs is to every single person in this country and on this planet, the Conservatives can dismiss their importance by asserting simply that nobody has a “right” to have these needs met. Even though this assertion directly contradicts all of human history and the entire point of human civilization.
The point of any human society – any agglomeration of people, working together, whether formally organized or not, whether it maintains a formal government or not – is to help each of its members at least meet their basic needs for survival. We are social creatures not only because we value each other’s company, but because it is nearly impossible for any one of us to survive without the assistance of each other. This is why throughout history humans have organized themselves into tribes, villages, city-states, nations. And at each stage, as our social organizations grew larger and more complex, our ability to create wealth by specializing in tasks, trading with each other, and investing in common projects for the good of the community as a whole increased. As these abilities increased our societies grew richer, and as they became richer they undertook to make sure that more and more needs could be met for all members of society.
For example, the Roman Republic made a certain amount of grain available to the poorest of its citizens to prevent those citizens from starving; when the grain dole was in short supply, Rome faced the threat of riots -- in part because it was understood that one of the rights conferred by Roman citizenship was the right not to starve to death. The Senate invested large sums to build aquaducts so that sufficient clean water could be brought into the city. As early as 600 BC, when Rome was still ruled by kings, the Romans started building their Cloaca Maxima, their “Greatest Sewer” to drain marshes and carry sewage and waste from their city. Over the centuries Rome continued to improve and expand its sewage system, because doing so was necessary for the city to continue to grow. All of these basic needs were met by “the government,” not by private individuals, because only the organizing principle of the Roman people at the time – be it the Monarchy, the Republic or, later, the Empire – was capable of meeting these needs.
Nothing about these fundamental truths of human organization has changed. People still do need clean water, and food fit for human consumption, and decent housing. Now, if these are provided in whole or in part as public goods, paid for by all of our taxes, then I suppose we can argue about how “clean” that water needs to be, how “fit” that food needs to be, and how “decent” that housing needs to be – but can we really argue that meeting at least these minimum needs for all members of our society is in fact our society’s first goal, its most basic purpose?
And isn’t our society’s immediate secondary goal to aspire to even more than that? As the American Exceptionalism cheerleaders never tire of telling us, America is the richest and most powerful nation on the planet. One would think that these facts should be reflected in our society as a whole. In addition to water, food, and shelter, why can’t we make sure that every member of our society has at least the opportunity of a decent education, and access to at least some basic level of health care? Why can’t we have the world’s best infrastructure – highways, airports, bridges, dams, electrical grid? And in today’s Information Age, as I have argued before, shouldn’t we be doing something to make sure our telecommunications system isn’t being put to shame by former Soviet bloc countries like Lithuania?
I live in a military community, and every summer an “Air Show” is put on highlighting our nation’s awesome military aircraft. And they are pretty awesome. A few summers ago I heard an advertisement for that year’s Air Show over the radio. After extolling all of the thrilling sights and machines that visitors could expect to see there, the announcement ended with the promise that “Your patriotism will be at an all-time high!”
Really? This is what is supposed to give me my patriotic high point? The fact that we have the biggest, baddest toys?
* * *
Back when the Affordable Care Act was being dragged through Congress and the health care debate was at its height I got into a discussion with one of the more conservative members of my family. He kept demanding to know how I could believe that having access to basic health care should be considered a “right” in this country, even for those unable to pay for it on their own. And I realized maybe for the first time that what we were debating was not health care or how medical costs should be paid for. Our debate really was about competing visions for American society.
So far as he was concerned, nobody in our country has a “right” to anything, not unless they can pay for it themselves. For my part, I believe the whole point of belonging to “the richest nation in the world” is that we can ensure that certain basic needs of all our people are at least minimally met, and very often the only way to do that is through the organization (and purchasing power) that only the government can provide. I can raise all kinds of supporting arguments in favor of my belief, but the point here is simply to recognize that the dispute I was having with my brother-in-law was more than about how to accomplish certain things. At issue was nothing less than what kind of a society we should be trying to build, and his and my ideas on that were fundamentally different.
* * *
In his statement, Ken Blackwell makes it clear that Conservatives no longer have any interest in thinking about the good of America as a society. He begins his statement explaining that just because you live in America, you cannot necessarily expect that membership in our society will help you to meet even your most basic needs for survival; he ends by dismissing the provision of any such help as nothing more than “the gluttony of the federal government.” But making sure we can still wage war – ah, now that is the proper focus for America.
And so there is the Conservative vision for America’s future, explicitly laid out for all of us to see: not the Welfare State, but the Warfare State.