Thursday, June 01, 2006

Priorities (Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness edition)

From the Cato blog, a quotation on Medicaid:
no one should consider it a “right” for Medicaid recipients to have access to the very same doctors, devices, and treatments as those who pay their own way.
Why exactly not? The original author of the passage hails, after all, from the John Locke Institute, and Locke argued that life, liberty, health and property must be protected in order to defend a person's liberties, the same liberties Jefferson was talking about when he mentioned that we are all endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights.

Franklin Roosevelt saw that economic rights were as important as political rights, that freedom from want was as important as freedom of religion and freedom of speech, and that "freedom from fear is eternally linked with freedom from want." In Cass Sunstein's The Second Bill of Rights, he argues that Roosevelt was attempting to bring American constitutional principles closer to those expressed in other modern (20th century) constitutions. Those constitutions tend to explicitly grant a rights to access education, retirement assitance, disability support, health care, housing, etc. The American Constitution doesn't, but programs like the FHA, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid were established in legislative forms which make it nearly impossible to roll them back. They are thus constitutional but not Constitutional.

We can see how this plays out in a memo leaked in Nebraska. A local councilwoman proposed major cuts against public parks, libraries, flood planning and swimming pools. As New Nebraska Network points out:
These services are not only cherished but are, in fact, demanded by citizens, particularly families with young children who benefit most from the opportunities for respite and recreation that they provide. With that in mind, it's almost unfathomable that Republicans such as Eschliman should try and lay claim to family values when they stand in opposition to the very idea of community that is the family's most natural extension.
They are not rights granted by the Constitution, but they are no less an element of the agreement that constitutes civil government.

Democrats have done a poor job of making it clear that this vision of America is worth standing up for. This is why it's important to stand up for an estate tax, why getting effective welfare is important, and why it's important to change not just the people in office, but what they are trying to do. This is not a set of policies which Republicans are inherently against, nor is there some diametrically opposed Republican set of policies (limiting access to housing? increasing poverty rates?). Rather, Republicans want to promote other goals. Rather than seeing government as an insurance against accidents and the unpredictable, they see it as some sort of gatekeeper.

We can see this split in the immigration debate today. The Republican approach basically sees the job of government as blocking the border and maintaining the status quo, not just in terms of population and economics, but in terms of culture (hence the nigh racism of much of the rhetoric). The Democratic position has been to treat immigration largely as an issue of refuge. Just as Cubans get refuge against political repression by default when they enter the country, and Chinese people get a certain presumption of refuge when they claim religious persecution, the immigration from Latin America can sensibly be treated as flight from economic repression. As it stands, economic refugees are generally not granted any special status, and clearly a demand for that status would require some special evidence beyond mere poverty. And as George Lakoff (and TfK) has pointed out, recognizing that economic refugees are the problem at issue yields a new set of solutions, like a Marshall Plan for Central America, better enforcement of labor laws domestically and a greater emphasis on labor laws in free trade agreements.

The challenge of government is finding a way to make policy that protects the weakest citizens without stepping too far beyond the limits of the conservatarian gatekeeper.