Thursday, December 22, 2011

How Far We've Come

Mike Konczal has some smart points on Polifact's "Lie of the Year" that I think everyone should read. The gist of Konczal's piece, and the general liberal critique of Polifact's claim, is that the factchecking organization is being breathtakingly obtuse in their defense of Paul Ryan's 'Path to Prosperity' Medicare overhaul, and is specifically obscuring some of the important details of Ryan's plan.

The basics of Ryan's plan is to shift Medicare from the broad entitlement plan it is into a voucher system. Medicare is currently a guarantee to cover a certain level of healthcare costs for a broad basket of products and procedures for American citizens 65 and older. Ryan's plan, on the other hand, coverts the program into a (poorly funded) voucher system—a coupon for healthcare. The caveat is that those 55-and older would be grandfathered into the current as-it-is entitlement-Medicare. Only those 55-and younger would face the uncertainty of a voucher; the value of which, I'd like to add, declines over time.

I bring this up because Konczal makes an important, if not interesting point:
Because I’m a senior-in-waiting, and [Ryan's] plan will affect me. Someday I’ll be elderly, and then I’ll have to deal with taking a worthless coupon to the notoriously ugly healthcare market if this plan passes. This is not semantics – it’s the basis of the inter-generational social contract.
Now the phrase "inter-generational social contract" has quite a bit of currency in political theory nowadays. But if you go all the way back to Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France, 1791 you'll find one of the first examples of the idea:
You will observe that from Magna Charta to the Declaration of Right, it has been the uniform policy of our constitution to claim and assert our liberties as an entailed inheritance derived to us from our forefathers, and to be transmitted to our posterity; as an estate specially belonging to the people of this kingdom, without any reference whatever to any other more general or prior right. By this means our constitution preserves a unity in so great a diversity of its parts. We have an inheritable crown; an inheritable peerage; and a House of Commons and a people inheriting privileges, franchises, and liberties, from a long line of ancestors. (emphasis mine – JMG)
Burke's basic point is that the “natural rights” of man, whatever they may be, do not spring fully formed in an a priori way. Rather, the rights of man are an hereditary property of a nation, formed through the process and deliberation of the government, and enshrined by the current generation for the benefit of the next.

I bring up Burke because I find it interesting that Mike Konczal, in my estimation at least, qualifies quite well as a "liberal" or "progressive" (or whatever you please). Just a few days ago he wrote an (excellent) essay arguing for a dismantlement of the current subsidization of higher education through the tax code, and simply using the money to provide college for free. Moreover, Medicare (and Medicaid) are thoroughly "liberal" programs in that they were championed by a Democratic president and fulfill the broad liberal goal of a strong social safety net; a public guarantee to aid the poor and elderly who lack the resources to fully care for themselves.

So how did we get to this point where liberal commentators are writing successfully persuasive essays on the defense of liberal polices using quite possibly the oldest argument of modern conservatism? My guess is that today's liberals are more conservative than they'd prefer, and today's conservatives are more radical than they're willing to admit, and politics in general continues its constant cyclical movement towards nothing in particular other than a repetition of the same patterns we've been observing since the Greeks.

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