The lesson of Massachusetts: all politics is local only during times of domestic tranquility, but at truly defining moments, all politics is ideological. Tuesday night, finally, in Massachusetts the battle turned from politics to ideology, a confrontation we had successfully avoided since the Civil War. While politicians dithered over details such as who would or would not pay taxes on Cadillac health plans (have you driven a Cadillac lately?), the people grasped the deeper issue.
The Enlightenment and religious reformations that swept Europe following the Renaissance threw out the old existing orders, and the great debate began between two acutely different variants of what constituted their proper replacement. The Anglo-Saxons concerned themselves with “the rights of men,” and the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and our own magnificent uprising of 1776 affirmed the notion of individual rights derived from a higher power than man. The logical consequence of this was the notion of equity: that the public official might do only that which was explicitly permitted by law while the private citizen was empowered to act in any way that was not explicitly forbidden.
This idea, which dated back to the Magna Carta of 1215, was fine-tuned in the 17th and 18th centuries by insisting the governed had a right to consent to laws that inhibited their freedom.
The Europeans, on the other hand, preferred to think in terms of “the rights of man.” The movement from plural to singular is important for now individual freedoms would be determined by a collective will, a “social compact” that would predetermine what was good and just for everybody. So while Anglo-Saxons depended on “enlightened self-interest,” the Europeans felt the need to legislate virtue.
America was born as the former. But a corrupt academy, a narcissistic underpaid media (all of whom slavishly worshiped the Europeans), and a century-and-a-half of immigration brought the collectivist view into the American mainstream. The health care debate is not really about who should be covered, but about taking decisions that were once the responsibility of the individual and turning them over to the collective.
Although born long after the Civil War, I have lived through this struggle before. In the 1960s, Pierre Trudeau took Canada, then a country of self-reliant, broad-shouldered, rugged individualists, and by sheer force of political magnetism, transformed it into a post-modern society, a European clone of overtaxed politically correct worrywarts subject to heavy taxes designed to redistribute wealth. For a long time, it was a winning formula that even conservatives found seductive. After all, as George Bernard Shaw observed, if you rob Peter to pay Paul you can most certainly count on Paul’s vote. It took almost a half a century for Stephen Harper to reawaken Canadians’ sense of self-respect and begin the first faltering steps toward dismantling the monstrosity that Trudeaupian liberals had created.
It appears the voters of Massachusetts required a mere 11 months and 28 days.