July 24, 2009

So Much for Of the People, By the People, For the People

Justin Katz

While perusing YouTube videos of one of our [cough] U.S. Senators, Sheldon Whitehouse, for a bit of writing that may turn out to be more than a blog post, I came across an astonishing indication of Mr. Whitehouse's political philosophy in a prepared Senate floor speech from June (italic emphasis in speech; bold emphasis added):

At last, government must act. The problems of healthcare in America are rooted in market failures. We can't wait for the market to cure a problem rooted in market failure. It is nonsense. We've got to change the rules of the game. We also can't pay for one thing and expect another. We've got to change the incentives. We don't expect Americans to go out and build our highway infrastructure for us; we do that through government. We can't sit around and wait for our health information infrastructure to build itself, either.

There's so much baloney to wade through, in this paragraph, that it's difficult to focus in on the critical matter of government's relationship to the people. To say, for example, that it is "nonsense" to expect a market correction of a market failure not only airbrushes the role of government(s) out of the unhappy result, but also stands as a nice contrasting illustration of real nonsense sounds like. The market's ability to correct itself is one of its most important defining features; it is certainly more flexible, in that regard, than a large, bureaucratic government. On a moral level, we may not like what the market is correcting for, but that is a reason guide the correction, not to begin rewriting rules.

The comparison of an "information infrastructure" with a physical network of paved roadways is similarly inane. Apart from a few facilitating computer centers and such, "building" the former suggests two things: designing it, and forcing people and organizations to use it. The design element is common to all systems, but the requirement of usage is unique. A web of pavement across our vast nation would be too huge an expense for most entities to create, even though, as proven, all are eager to have one. If a "health information infrastructure" were the gaping hole that a lack of roads in an industrial society would be, businesses and other organizations could easily fill it. Indeed, the infrastructure already exists for any two computers (almost) across the world to communicate.

But the truly frightening tell in the commentary of our aristocratic friend is his image of a government distinct from the people and taking on responsibilities independently of them. Our of/by/for-the-people society has discerned that the federal government provides the appropriate route for maintaining highways that reach beyond state borders — although states pick up their roadways, towns maintain theirs, and I have yet to receive a call from a public employee to schedule the repaving of my dilapidated driveway. Likewise, if our society determines that the government ought to operate our healthcare system (and I sincerely hope that we come to our senses before that happens), then it will be nothing other than "Americans' going out" and making it happen. There is not supposed to be an "us," in American government, exclusive of the national Us.

Of course, if Sheldon were to admit such a thing, then his cry that "at last, government must act" could not be a mere assertion, but would have to be the conclusion of a laborious proof. Indeed, given the structure of the Constitution, made explicit in the tenth amendment, it must be proven that all other courses are ineffectual.

The scary thing is, however, that Senator Whitehouse's statement is probably not a rhetorical maneuver around the need for such proofs, but an expression of his actual understanding of his role as a "leader" and Congress's role as a branch of government.