Still More Cheering

Early in The West Wing, a newly invigorated President Bartlett abandons the key phrase in his planned State of the Union address — “the era of big government is over,” previously intoned by President Clinton — for a more complicated sell. “Government can be a place where people come together and where no one gets left behind.”

Mark it as the precise moment where today’s timid liberalism diverged from the benevolent, triumphant liberalism of Sorkin’s fictional world. Toby’s sentiment is jarring even today — we just don’t talk about government as a force for good. Not anymore. Take last night’s Republican debate:

For the second time in two consecutive showings, the Republican audience actually cheered death — here, the death of a hypothetical uninsured man in dire need of health care, whose loss is apparently preferable to government intervention — while Ron Paul backtracked, explaining that society can care for the deathly ill, rather than government. Our patient needn’t die, so long as the community chips in.

Except, it won’t — not in every case. Not everyone is so privileged as to be able depend “on the kindness of strangers.” For those without family, friends, or community support, Paul’s answer is no answer at all. And even where it might offer a solution — for a middle-class man, say, with little personal wealth but well-connected friends able to rally the community around them — what Paul’s answer saves the public fisc, it passes on to the community in the form of transaction costs. The sick individual must hope and trust that he can pay his bills, and his community must dedicate its time to solving that problem.

Government removes that burden from society — the uncertainty and cost inherent in collective action — and places it in the hands of experts. All we have to do, in return for the knowledge that our fellow citizens are cared for, and not a one is left behind, is suffer the trivial psychic indignity of having to pay taxes. “Big government” pledges us to each other, to unite us in defense of the common welfare, and there’s pride in a society that takes care of its own. I wish to God we’d discover it.



  1. No friends, no family, no community support – so nobody his death would harm. Doesn’t seem to me that saving him serves the common welfare. It serves his welfare but you yourself stated it serves nobody else’s.

    This, unlike Perry previously, I might well have joined the cheering.

  2. Let’s try to keep in mind that this is a debate with a limited, partisan audience and I heard maybe 3 people yell something specific. Watching every moment of a televised debate and looking for crowd reactions that you don’t approve of and then implying (or stating outright) that THIS is the Republican party is just ridiculous. The bulk were just applauding the case for individual responsibility.

    Unfortunately, Blitzer asked about a hypothetical young male who chose not to purchase insurance. He should have gone with someone who was laid off from their job and could no longer afford/obtain it. That would have been a more sympathetic example.

    1. Whatever. Like it or not, these are the people your party put front and center. When moderates and Democrats watch this debate, they’ll hear these absurd reactions and judge the party based on it. I don’t really care if it’s fair — this looks terrible for you guys, and you should be ashamed to the extent that the leadership cultivates extremism.

      1. Is that accurate? The GOP picked all of the audience members? And even if they did, how do they filter for those not prone to outbursts? The WH wasn’t able to keep Hoffa on a leash and he’s a veteran of public speaking.

      2. Also – we have a rule in my house. “Whatever” translates to “You’re right but I don’t want to admit it.”

      3. “Whatever” here translates as “your response is irrelevant.” Regardless of whether it’s fair, your party will be judged on outbursts like this. And maybe it is fair.

        1. Judged by who? Liberals who were never inclined to vote for Republicans anyway? Here’s what I can promise you: the number of votes that are lost to the GOP based on these audience outbursts could be offset by the starting line-up of the Yankees voting Red.

          This is liberal blog fodder in an off-year. As proof put a reminder in your iPhone to revisit this topic in 12 months.

        2. Hey, if you’re not afraid of your voters — and the behavior they encourage in candidates — turning off moderates, you’re entitled to take that risk. And we can revisit this in 2016, after Obama’s second term.

          1. I’m not afraid of it because it’s a non-issue. If I randomly picked 10 people off of any street in America, at least 3 of them are probably going to be jackasses.

            And a second term? Ames, you poor boy. You drank the Kool-Aid and it still hasn’t worn off. Let me help: Read up on how the Big O is planning to pay for his Jobs Act. It was all political theater and he missed his last chance to save his job. Repeat after me… President Romney.

          2. I would enjoy that campaign. But I doubt it’d have the result you think. Hey, remember when you were sure Sarah Palin would lead the GOP to its salvation in 2008?

            1. Perry is already fading. My guess is that he will be a distant memory (Michelle Bachmann?) by January. The biggest flaw in your political analysis is always your interest in haning an albatross around the GOP’s neck prematurely.

              And you misrepresent my position on Palin. I never thought she was anything other than a good VP choice. I stand by that assesment giving what we knew about her at the time of her selection (smart on energy policy, good-looking, female).

              And honestly, given just how ineffectual Obama has been as a national leader – I don’t know that a President Palin could realy be that much worse.

            2. Romney is your only hope, it’s true. I just don’t think evangelicals will turn out for a Mormon. If they don’t, it’ll just be a repeat of 2008, even with a weak president.

              And come on, no-one ever thought Bachmann would get the nomination. I DO think Perry will.

              1. Evangelicals will be just fine with Romney.

                And again, Perry is already fading. He’ll also lose NH. And Florida.

  3. Of course if the community could be relied on this to do this effectively, why did we need Medicaid and Medicare (and Social Security) in the first place?

    Why can society *now* be relied on to effectively care for the poor and sick when a few decades ago, it could not?

    1. An even better question.

    2. I think that Paul is saying that a willful decision to avoid insurance coverage means you are also hoping for charity in the event of an illness.

      Personal responsibility…

    3. And failing that, death? No. That’s not the deal in a civil society.

      1. People die based on free choice every day. You can’t mitigate stupid.

      2. So, to be clear,

        (1) the only reason anyone fails to insure themselves is a failure of “personal responsibility,” and
        (2) society needn’t rescue them from that error.


        (3) we should let them die.


        1. 2 and 3 are both true. #1 isn’t entirely true due to widespread underemployment caused by overpopulation – which points to 3 as the solution.

        2. It’s situation-dependent. Someone gets laid off and it takes a year to find a job? I’m okay with certain social safety nets (unemployment, gap medical coverage, etc). Someone make a CHOICE to forego health insurance, takes on a mortgage they can’t afford, blows all of their disposable income on luxury goods…society doesn’t owe them much.

      3. What is with you people’s pathological phobia of death? Death is good more often than not.

        1. Yet, I can’t help but notice you have not yet availed yourself of the option.

          1. “What is with you people’s pathological phobia of death?”

            I think an exceedingly premature death is the primary concern for most people. Moreover, I stopped fearing death a long time ago after being unfortunate enough to come close to it on several occasions. Presently, I primarily fear the effect my death will have on those close to me.

        2. Just out of curiosity: What is it that makes death “good more often than not”?

          1. I suppose in evolutionary terms death of an individual is of little significance compared to the survival of the specie. Death results in a constant generational shift and is a barrier to overpopulation and the eventual consumption of resources leading to extinction. New Generations continuously replacing the old lead to greater genetic variation and the greater likelihood of survival. A specie that never dies also never changes for better or worse.

            Of course I’m only guessing here. It certainly would be nice to have a 200 year life span.

            1. Well, this is at least a start, but I have some worries. First, it seems odd to assign a positive value to a process like evolution — it doesn’t make things better, just different. And since Steve has identified death, rather than survival, as “good more often than not”, I think you may be barking up the wrong tree.

              Also — and this is really minor — it’s not death that allows the process of evolution to act, it’s reproduction.

              1. I agree the outcome and surviving traits (forget about lateral gene transfer for now) can be p[positive or negative in many ways. Evolutionary “improvements’ are usually ad hoc and mesh poorly with previous upgrades. However traits that survive generally do so because they are at least somewhat beneficial for the perpetuation of the specie, and in that sense they are positive. At any rate, I’m merely brainstorming and jesting, none of it was meant as a serious precursor to any evolutionary theory.

          2. Igor pointed out two reasons I agree with: making room for a new generation and combatting overpopulation. In a sense, better living through fewer people. It’s also a matter of clearing out the deadwood to allow new growth. Prune away the elderly.

            There’s the social benefit of removing noxious people, as with the death penalty and with mandatory euthanasia. And euthanasia is, of course, far kinder than allowing someone to continue suffering.h

            With the deaths of children and not-yet-reproduced adults, there is something of an evolutionary benefit: they won’t be able to pass on whatever flaws caused their early deaths. Genetic diseases are increasing in the population, for instance, because modern medicine is keeping them from killing people in childhood like they’re supposed to.

            And that’s the thing, too. Life is a privilege that has to be constantly re-earned. People routinely fail at re-earning their continued living (“To need help is to not deserve help”). Their deaths therefore prevent the moral wrong of them continuing to live.

            Average life expectancy at birth has skyrocketed in the past century or so. It is now far in excess of where it should be.

            1. While you are correct to point out that the human population is not currently sustainable, I do have some concerns with the rest of your claims. First, what do you mean by “mandatory euthanasia”?

              Second, and seriously problematic for your view, is your claim that genetic diseases are increasing in the population. There is absolutely no — and indeed, there cannot be any — evidential backing for this claim, since we’ve only been able to identify genetic diseases simpliciter for a very few years. And the whole “evolutionary benefit” line is a non-starter, since evolution (which is, after all, nothing more or less than the change in frequency of alleles in a population) confers neither benefit nor detriment to organisms as individuals but only to populations.

              Third, you make a moral claim that life is a “privilege”. On what basis do you make this claim? That is, on which ethical system are you relying?

              Fourth, and finally, while life expectancy at birth has skyrocketed (thanks in large part to Semmelweiss’s realization that washing one’s hands after fondling a corpse is probably a good idea), life expectancy for those who reach adulthood has not significantly changed. If you want to make an evolutionary argument, you should be aware of the distinction — especially since humans can breed well before “adulthood”.

            2. Isn’t over-population geographically-dependent? I mean, yeah, it’s problematic in say, Somalia, but not so much in rural Nebraska. What’s your criteria for ‘thinning the heard’?

            3. Their deaths therefore prevent the moral wrong of them continuing to live.

              “Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.”

              1. Yeah, never understood why people love that statement of Gandalf’s so much. In my mind it’s the essence of amoral cowardice. Of course you’re not going to be able to kill everyone that deserves to die and you’re not going to be able to delay the death of everyone who deserves to live a while longer. How does that make it ok not to try and to do what you can?

                1. The point is simply that you never know which person seemingly currently deserving of death will, for instance, bite off a hobbit’s finger and plunge the One Ring to its fiery doom in Mordor. Since you can’t unkill people, and your moral judgment is fallible, it’s best not to kill people you’re not absolutely sure deserve to die.

                  Also, you still haven’t explained which moral system you rely on for determining who deserves death.

                  1. You’re right, I haven’t explained my moral system. I’m going to, it just still hasn’t been convenient yet given constraints on time and how I access the internet. I intend to, though. For now, let’s just say it’s a mix of Draconian retributive justice and meritocratic distributive justice with no intrinsic value attached to human life. I should’ve gone to bed an hour or two ago.

                    As to the Lord of the Rings, since destruction of the One Ring was paramount Sam should have pushed Frodo over the edge when he wouldn’t throw the ring in. For that matter, if you go by how the movies staged it, Elrond should have shoved Isildur over. I think using Gollum was a lame cop-out on Tolkien’s part. Of course, he seems to have been under the mistaken impression that Frodo was actually the hero of the story, and he wasn’t above a stupid deus ex machina. Fucking eagles…

                    1. I do look forward to your elucidation of your moral system. That said: you’ve put your finger on my biggest problem with the movies (yes, worse than hobbits tricking tree-gods into battle): Had Elrond been in that position, that guy (in the books) would have coughed, looked around, and totally shoved Isildur into the fire. “Oops”, he might have said later, but seriously. No fucking around for the scion of Elwing and Earendil.

  4. Society and government aren’t mutually exclusive. In fact, government is the logical product of society. If you expect something from society, vehement opposition to encoding that expectation in government is absurd.

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