Left. Right. Liberal. Conservative. Big Government. Small Government.
I never have been certain these labels are all that useful or informative, and it sometimes seems like the labeling itself leads to more confusion and controversy than clarity. I believe a more useful and instructive way to examine the issues that face our nation and world today is to consider the balance between “rights” and “responsibilities”. If we do so, I think that we may be able to better examine some of the apparently intractable public policy debates of today.
First, some definitions, obviously simplified for the sake of space.
Rights: that which is due to us as citizens (although some might argue whether actual citizenship is necessary for some rights).
Responsibilities: that which we must do in exchange for those rights (although some might argue that certain rights are free of any responsibility at all).
Now think of the two as ends of the same continuum. In a world where we have all rights and no responsibilities, we could pretty much do what we like, when we like, with no regard for the needs of anyone other than ourselves. On the other far end, in a world where we have all responsibilities and no rights, every aspect of our personal life would be secondary to the collective needs of others, and we will be entirely defined by our group identity.
Given that I’m an English teacher, it is easiest for me to define each world in terms of novels I cherish. If I think all rights and no responsibilities, it conjures up The Lord of the Flies, a descent into individual depravity of the first order. On the other hand, a world where the individual lacks even the basics of individuality and is captive to the power of an all-knowing, all-powerful central authority conjures up Orwell’s nightmarish, 1984 and all the horrors inherent in totalitarianism.
Clearly, neither extreme is acceptable, and the vast majority of us prefer to live in the broad middle, somewhere between the two ends of the continuum. Perhaps if we apply this method of inquiry to one of today’s pressing problems, we can see how it might work out.
Consider, as an example, the hot button issue of the recently enacted national healthcare plan, or Obamacare as it has come to be known.
It would, it seems to me, be difficult to argue that citizens of the United States should not have the right to a basic level of healthcare, and we have a certain collective responsibility to relieve needless suffering, particularly when small amount of medical treatment could do so much.
Of course, this leads quite naturally to the question of just how much medical care we are entitled to receive as a right of citizenship. Minor surgeries? Major surgeries? Plastic surgeries? Modern medicine can lead to unimaginable complexity and equally unimaginable costs. An open-ended right to healthcare could easily be a slippery slope to financial ruin, and our nation, not surprisingly, is currently struggling with our own budget-busting cost spiral.
It seems, therefore, there must be some functional limit to the right to medical care because we have an individual and collective responsibility to maintain the financial health of our country. In addition, we must consider how we should manage our individual responsibilities for the costs of our care as part of our broader responsibility to maintain our nation’s economic stability.
Moreover, as part of the responsibility that comes with the right to healthcare, there are other pressing questions that arise as to whether we should encourage, or perhaps compel, citizens to adopt lifestyle choices that are congruent with better health outcomes or pay a penalty for behaviors that are known to lead to disease and illness.
Should we, for example, insist on higher payments, or perhaps restrict care, for smokers? Should users of illegal drugs or alcoholics have the same right to the level of care we would give to someone who spent their lives abstaining from drugs and tobacco while exercising regularly? Do we even want to give bureaucrats the power to limit our right to medical treatment, or do we feel that the right to care is independent of individual choices and circumstances?
How then, do we balance the right to health care with the fiduciary responsibilities that come with citizenship, and does it advance the debate by discussing rights and responsibilities instead of turning this issue into yet another endless and divisive ideological battle?
The question of providing healthcare to our citizens shouldn’t be a question of liberal or conservative. Nor should it be a debate about big government or small. Insisting on one-size-fits-all solutions to every problem leads to nothing but stalemate, and we need to start being a lot more practical about balancing our rights and our responsibilities if we are to avoid the catastrophic problems popping up in nation’s all around the world.
More government is clearly not the answer to every question; however, private sector solutions are not suited to every need. Rather than turn every discussion into a philosophical fistfight, we need to stop being so dogmatic and start being more results-oriented. By continuing to insist that candidates for public office pass some arbitrary “litmus test” to prove they are ideologically pure to their respective voter blocs, we going to accomplish nothing but continue to put people into positions of power who enter their offices wearing blinders that restrict their understanding of the range of available options.
Should we be struck with a natural disaster, I don’t want a limited government ideologue to insist I find a private contractor to dig my relatives out of the rubble. Likewise, I don’t want to a Big Government type to hand me a pile of forms requesting a rescue. I just want somebody with a shovel.
Whether we are talking about healthcare, education, foreign policy, urban planning, national defense, or any other area of human need and endeavor, we need to find that solutions that provide the shovels we need to dig ourselves out of the hole we find ourselves in as a nation. I don’t want to spend another decade listening to tired right/left/liberal/conservative blather. If we can start thinking about issues in terms of rights and responsibilities and leave the reflexive ideology on the curbside, I think we can start to creep forward; more of the same old nonsense will, however, doom us to arguing our way into national oblivion.
We have the right to expect that our leaders will be responsible, and we are responsible for making sure they do what is right. And we need to do this now. Jobs are disappearing at a frightening rate, and our nation’s bank account is way overdrawn. Our national psyche is battered, and we’re too often left wondering whether our best days are well behind us. If we insist that results, rather than brain-dead dogma, guide our public and private lives, we can get back to the “can do” attitude that once made America the envy of the world. It’s time we got started on creating a tomorrow that weds common sense to the big dreams that made our country great.
Also published in The News-Gazette (news-gazette.com) July 24, 2011