The Second American Pathology: Fear of the Collective Solution
June 29, 2006
Freedom and the power to choose should not be the privilege of wealth.
George H. W. Bush
In Southern California, all the malls look the same while the houses are distinct and opulent. In most of Europe, it's the other way around.
Europeans spend a lot of time in public spaces in historic buildings, on public transport, in town squares and such but as in the U.S., some of the most often visited spaces are shopping malls. In Europe, these are frequently found inside beautiful renovated buildings in various architectural styles, built in one of many centuries by some of history's most talented designers, builders and artists. Such places are part of the shared experience of Europe's citizenry and often delight people, including, no doubt, many American tourists.
But half a world away in California, where average personal wealth exceeds that found in nearly all European countries, it is the private mansion that makes the jaw drop more than any of the unexpectedly bland public spaces or institutional buildings.
This observation is a symbol and possibly a symptom of a deep general American pathology an extreme reluctance to improve society by the collective allocation of resources. The relative absence of "the common good" as a sufficient justification in political decision-making perhaps represents an over-extension of America's healthy skepticism of government and sets it apart from other developed nations.
Economic vs. Non-Economic Value: A False Dichotomy
What is not possible is not to choose.
As an entrepreneur, I am a capitalist. I believe that the pursuit of profit is compatible with a good life and a compassionate society. But effective capitalism, epitomized by the American Way, does not depend on the protection of that pursuit above other freedoms. Outside America, economic freedoms are as important as other freedoms, but not more so, whereas in America, the economic freedom of the individual seems to sit atop a pedestal, protected to a point that it compromises other fundamental rights.
Robust capitalism doesn't exclude the consideration of non-economic value and metrics that are not profit-related. A society, by definition, will always face difficulties that require coordinated national decision-making. Whatever one's view about government in theory, governments are the only institutions in today's world that have the authority and the means to solve certain problems. Indeed, this is the very purpose of government. Its other raison d'etre is, of course, to protect the rights of all the people it represents both economic and non-economic.
Reasonable people can agree on the limits that in the end must constrain all social policy. No society (or government) can continue to exist if it lives beyond its means. Simply to protect individual rights, a government must be forced to operate within boundaries laid down by the people. The United States is well served by having the former written into its Constitution.
However, when society generates wealth, disagreements arise, and Sartre's maxim (above) applies. Any decision to allocate resources or not to allocate them is self-defining. A society may reasonably allocate some resources in ways that are not intended to directly return a profit, but have some other value, such as moral, social, spiritual, intellectual ... In most developed countries, this understanding transcends politics, and it underlies the support systems found in most European countries. The example of the foundation of the British National Health Service sheds light on how America just can't bring itself to do what so many other wealthy societies have ...
British Healthcare: A Socialized Solution in a Capitalist Society?
What you do to the least among you, you do for me.
Yehoshua ben Joseph, Matthew 25:40
At the end of the Second World War, the Labour party (the British "Democrats"), ran against Churchill and his Conservatives (the British "Republicans), under the slogan, "Cheer Churchill; Vote Labour." Britain did both. They cheered Churchill because he had won the world's freedom from tyranny. They voted Labour because that party had a clear view of the kind of society they wanted to make with this freedom. The core of Labour's platform was to establish a universal health care system that would embody this principle: in a society that can provide universal health care, such a care is a basic human right.
The massive coordination of effort and allocation of resources to realize this great non-economic value in our society transcended politics. However, it was implemented in an ordinary political process. Such a massive undertaking was a notable cultural act of self-definition, in which a nation refused to allow a person's health to be affected by economic contingencies, unrelated to a person's moral value. This period was one of the most optimistic in Britain's modern history.
The Brits remain deeply attached to the National Health Service. Sixty years on, there is no part of the political spectrum that does not acknowledge and seek to protect its value. There is nothing unusual about such an institution: in the United States, for example, as in all countries, no one questions the right of children to a free education. It's just that the rest of the world has also managed to get to the same place for healthcare and other provisions.
Of course, the British constantly argue about the way the NHS is implemented, just as Americans complain about how education should be delivered, but the collective provision of this right is not at issue. I frequently hear from Americans (often exaggerated) horror stories of waiting times for operations in the U.K., but none of these speak to the principle that healthcare, like education, can be provided free at the point of delivery without compromising anyone's freedom.
What is it that runs so deep in America that this country cannot mobilize, or dare one say, collectivize for the common good, in the same way that it does to provide education to its children?
Whatever it is, it is nothing to do with the vibrant capitalist model. Indeed, a truly capitalist society should ask itself: Where is the equality of opportunity, when a random illness can devastate one's economic life? A plentiful society loses nothing by saying that an economic argument can never justify a child's suffering from poor health or any other reasons.