Give Me Liberty or Give Me Social Justice

Americans on both left and right are unhappy with the current health care reform bills.

The left is upset because neither the House nor Senate version goes far enough towards putting government firmly in control of our medical decisions, with the goal of providing equal coverage for all no matter what the price. The right is upset because we see the bills’ provisions as unwarranted intrusions on our liberty that create a “right” where none existed before. We believe that reform would be better handled by fostering competition in the private sector rather than increasing government intervention in vital decisions that should remain between doctor and patient.

And those objections, powerful though they are, don’t even begin to address the ugly process of passage -- which has featured haste and secrecy, ignored the opinion of the American public, and involved some of the most flagrant vote-purchasing in congressional history, capped by the cynicism of a Harry Reid dissing those senators who failed to get in line for their share of pork. And then there’s the denied but enormous and probably unsustainable cost of the current plans, the stress on small businesses, and a myriad of other unresolved issues such as whether abortion will be covered with public funds.

That’s a lot of very tough meat to chew on. But embedded in the second paragraph of this article is the most basic division between left and right, embodied in the phrases “providing equal coverage for all” and “unwarranted intrusion on our liberty.”

The first expresses the left’s push for equality of outcome, while the second speaks to the right’s concern with safeguarding liberty while providing equality of opportunity. Even if it were possible to put aside for a moment all the highly valid concerns about the way this bill has been advanced against the will of the American public -- the lack of transparency, the fiscal fudging, the vote-buying, and the lies -- this deep and primary philosophical difference between left and right would still remain.

It’s an old story. In the book The Survival of Culture by Hilton Kramer and Roger Kimball, there is a piece entitled “Burke and Political Liberty,” in which Martin Greenberg writes that the French Revolution occasioned a “deep shift, anticipated by Rousseau, of moral feeling away from concern for liberty to concern for social justice.” We are feeling the reverberations of the left’s attempt to effect or exploit a similar shift in today’s United States in the form of these health care bills.

But the U.S. is not France. Our Declaration of Independence states that our God-given and inalienable rights are to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Note the emphasis on liberty, as well as the equal opportunity for all to seek happiness but not necessarily to find it. The idea is that government should exercise restraint and not impede these inherent human impulses and freedoms.

Contrast this to the French Revolution slogan of just a few years later: “liberté, égalité, fraternité.” It has a nice ring to it, to be sure. But it contains an inherent and irreconcilable contradiction, because liberty and equality (of outcome, which is the way the phrase came to be interpreted) are mutually exclusive, with the latter inevitably requiring government intervention that inhibits the former.