The Gulf Which Divides Us

Author's Note
This essay is reprinted from with minor edits and backdated to the date of the original post. To see it in its original habitat, with original comments, look here.

This is the first in a three-part series of essays on freedom in America. The second is “I Am a Tocqueville Conservative.” The third is “Cheese, Sunroof, Freedom.”

“How about freedom from diseases and pain?”
the subject line of an e-mail spam message I received today

Joe Klein writes for Time, and he does it very well. I frequently enjoy both his style and his insights, even though, generally speaking, he is on the left, and I am on the right. Not every issue fits neatly into the left/right paradigm, you see, and it’s not unusual to find some good thought on both sides of an issue.

When the latest issue of  Time came in the mail Saturday, I picked it up and read Klein’s two-page column, “The GOP Has Become the Party of Nihilists.” Yet again, I observed that Klein has mastered the mechanics of the language and employs them artfully. This time, however, my disagreement is fundamental and possibly irreconcilable.

I suppose that last word requires an explanation. By “irreconcilable” I mean that I don’t think there is a middle ground, and I doubt that — were there an opportunity — either of us could persuade the other to change sides. I don’t mean that I can never bring myself to read him again — that would be silly — or that now I must start sticking pins in a little Joe Klein doll. (Speaking of silliness, I had a lot of Gilligan’s Island as a child and as an adult.)

I assume that Klein’s essay is an honest expression of what he feels and thinks. That makes it very useful to illustrate the chasm which has opened between two competing political mindsets in America, which is now nowhere more obvious than in the health care debate.

Many skim the surface of that debate, trying to navigate the partisan squabbling and the policy details. Good luck with that. But, fundamentally, this is not about personality or party or the intricacies of policy. It goes deeper, to something which could fracture one or both parties internally as easily as it has divided our politics as a whole. This chasm is not new by any means; it reaches back at least to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. But it is more exposed now to popular view than I remember it being since Ronald Reagan, at least — and he was half of my lifetime ago.

We begin with a look at the essay’s title and some historical detail which may be relevant somehow.


First, an historical point. Klein’s title asserts that the Republican Party, in its opposition to Obamacare, has embraced nihilism. He repeats this in the essay, so it’s probably not a matter of an editor attaching an irrelevant headline. We’re fairly safe taking the headline seriously as an expression of his meaning.

If a writer uses a word which carries specific historical and philosophical freight, he should use it properly. Klein’s chief indictment here of Republican lawmakers is that most of them are “nihilists and hypocrites more interested in destroying the opposition and gaining power than in the public weal.” Whether this charge is true or not, nothing here is nihilism.

In theory, nihilism is the rejection of all religious and moral principles. Before you start pointing fingers at one party or another for rejecting religious and moral principles, please stop and realize that such rejection really is not part of the health care debate. So let’s defer our sniping on that subject to another day.

In practice, notably in Russia in the latter half of the 19th century and the first years of the 20th century, nihilism postulated that the only way to build a just society was to destroy all existing institutions, political, religious, economic, familial, and otherwise, and start all over again — from scratch, if you will. This idea sounds extreme because it is extreme, but it may not always be too extreme for existing conditions. It’s more or less what the Old Testament says God did in the time of Noah, is it not?

I have seen nothing resembling nihilism in the current American political debates; nor does Joe Klein describe anything like nihilism in his essay.

Now that we have done justice to history, we can move on to the larger point.

Good, Therefore Government-Sponsored

Klein tells of trying to discuss important end-of-life issues with his 89-year-old father. It didn’t go well. He writes:

I tried to convince him that it was important to make some plans, but I didn’t have the strategic experience that a professional would have — and, in his eyes, I didn’t have the standing. I may be a grandfather myself, but I’m still just a kid in my dad’s mind. Clearly, an independent, professional authority figure was needed.

Klein’s experience in this respect is a common one; millions have had it or will have it. These are difficult, sobering issues with which many families wrestle at length. Outside help is usually welcome and often necessary. I agree wholeheartedly this far.

The next two sentences are where liberals and conservatives diverge, instantly and irreconcilably. Klein continues:

And this is what the “death panels” are all about: making end-of-life counseling free and available through Medicare. (I’d make it mandatory, based on recent experience, but hey, I’m not entirely clearheaded on the subject right now.)

In Klein’s mind and many others’, the fact that a thing is good means that government should provide it.  Klein also flirts with a common variation of this dogma: If a thing is good, government should mandate it.

The conservative response is that, either way, government itself must be very large, if it is to do such a large job. Since the only place the government can get more power is to take it (or receive it) from the people, it makes sense to say that the price of increasing government’s power to take care of a people is a marked decrease in that people’s freedom.

I believe that many leaders in many countries seek to concentrate power in themselves for the sake of power itself, not to provide for the needs of their people. I believe this is true to some degree in Washington, DC, right now, both generally and in the health care debate specifically. But even those who argue cynically for an enlarged, paternalistic government still make their argument based on the people’s welfare. Combine these cynics with some peers who are not cynical in these matters, but quite earnest in their convictions. Add millions of voters who accept — usually not cynically — that the fact that a thing is good means that government should provide it, and who feel themselves compassionate and humane for so believing.

This is the recipe for modern American government, which tries to provide for all needs and eliminate all risks. Such comprehensive intervention requires regulation that is equally comprehensive, and it sucks freedom and financial resources out of a nation at a rate which somehow always manages to exceed promises and estimates.

Not All Freedoms Are Created Equal

The gulf here is not between people who love freedom and people who hate it. It is between people who are pursuing a certain sort of freedom at the expense of another sort of freedom, and other people who are defending that other sort of freedom against the onslaught.

Klein and many others are pursuing what we might call “freedom from”: freedom from want, freedom from fear, freedom from poverty, freedom from preventable illness. I’m not a fan of want, fear, poverty, or ill health, but even if the promised security were not partly an illusion, I still wouldn’t find this crusade to be worth the price. The financial cost of everyone paying government to take care of everyone is gigantic, but the greatest cost is paid in a different currency, that other kind of freedom. It is the traditional American kind of freedom.

More than any other people in the world, Americans have guarded their political, economic, and religious freedoms, valuing them in many cases above life, economic security, and virtually everything else. These are the freedoms where people make their own decisions and face the consequences; where their government does not tell them how to live their lives any more than absolutely necessary; and where — importantly! — they do not abdicate their personal moral responsibilities to care for the needy among them, by turning the responsibility, along with massive funding, over to the impersonal government.

An Obvious Corollary

Those who believe that, if a thing is good, government should provide or even mandate it seem prone to reason that, if a person thinks otherwise, either he is insane, or he is himself a villain, or he is the dupe of villainous “special interests.” No decent person would wish to deprive another person of needed health care, after all, so all decent, unduped people favor nationalized health care.

At a philosophical level, liberals tend to believe that mortal humanity is perfectable, if only institutions can be perfected, while conservatives hold the more pessimistic view that humanity is fundamentally flawed, and that we must adjust our institutions and expectations accordingly. This distinction is true and important. However, there is another truth which seems to apply in practice: liberals don’t trust free people to take care of each other. Only the government, with its many instruments of compulsion, truly merits a liberal’s trust. Government, therefore, must either provide for human needs directly or compel people to take care of each other. Alas, when government grows large enough for this, it proves to be as jealous a supreme power as that of the Decalog: “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.”

It’s not difficult to see why a person who thinks government is his or her greatest ally in caring for humanity, who thinks that government expansion in certain directions is a good thing, not a threat, would fail to comprehend how large the threat of expanding government appears to fellow citizens with a different viewpoint. Thus it is that Klein finds “wildly improbable” the evolution which many of his opponents fear (and which some of his fellow partisans are actually advertising):

There is a legitimate, if wildly improbable, fear that Obama’s plan will start a process that will end with a health-care system entirely controlled by the government.

Even the smart liberals, like Klein, have trouble grasping that some decent people see other ways of taking care of each other, ways which are effective enough and, better still, do not require ceding their freedom to the government. This blind spot (combined with a failure to apprehend the heavily controlled, somewhat scripted nature of the President’s town hall meetings) allows Klein to write things like this:

I watched Obama as he traveled the Rocky Mountain West, holding health-care forums, trying to lance the boil by eliciting questions from the irrational minority that had pulverized the public forums held by lesser pols. He would search the crowds for a first-class nutter who might challenge him on “death panels,” but he was constantly disappointed. In Colorado, he locked in on an angry-looking fellow in a teal T shirt — but the guy’s fury was directed at the right-wing disinformation campaign. Obama seemed to sag. He had to bring up the “death panels” himself.

This may tell us something about the actual state of play on health care: the nutters are a tiny minority; the Republicans are curling themselves into a tight, white, extremist bubble — but there may be enough of them raising dust to render creative public policy impossible. Some righteous anger seems called for, but that’s not Obama’s style. He will have to come up with something, though — and he will have to do it without the tiniest scintilla of help from the Republican Party. (Emphasis added.)

One wonders how long intelligent observers can continue to believe that the opposition to nationalized health care is a tiny, nutty, extremist minority. One wonders how much longer they can fail to realize that there are two radically different sorts of freedom in conflict here, and how long they can fail to acknowledge that it is their threat to traditional American freedom and their opponents’ determination to defend that freedom at any cost which motivates the masses this August. Once they see this, the honest ones will stop speaking of a tiny, nutty minority and of crowds duped by the big pharmaceutical companies and other alleged corporate enemies. Then we can start to have a reasonable discussion about how much freedom we really want to spend on how much health care, and how and for whom. Until then, the best thing freedom-loving Americans can do is obstruct the national legislative process (where we are everywhere a minority) and calmly, rationally, and systematically invite liberal lawmakers to fear for their political futures.

The Fundamental Conservative Failure

Among the retired veterans and newly-politicized soccer moms thronging to town hall meetings, there are probably relatively few who can make with confidence the subtle distinctions in political philosophy which I have described here. That’s okay in a tactical sense, as long as pointing out a proposed policy’s threat to basic American freedoms is enough to inspire sufficient opposition.

In the long term, however, conservatives have a serious problem. We have assumed, for as long as I can remember, that it is enough to make a logical connection between freedom and a particular legislative proposal. If we can show that the price of a policy is paid in freedom, we can defeat it. Liberals often use the same logic. I don’t blame anyone for failing to go further than this; the Declaration of Independence itself simply asserts what already resonated with many British colonists: that people are divinely intended and have a right to be free.

In an age when something as fundamental as marriage itself is subject to redefinition — now there is something like nihilism — we can no longer afford to assume that every American’s (let alone every human’s) mind and heart has engraved on it the notion that freedom (in the traditional, American sense) is good and necessary, and that it properly trumps virtually every other human consideration. We can no longer simply say that freedom (of the proper sort) is good, and such and such a thing will diminish that freedom, therefore that thing should not happen. We can no longer assume that American lovers of freedom value traditional American “freedom to” more than modern European “freedom from.”

We are not accustomed to having to make this case. Why would our fellow Americans doubt that the sky is blue? Some things are supposed to be self-evident; Thomas Jefferson and the Continental Congress said so!

Pardon my heresy, but I’m not convinced that these things were entirely self-evident in 1776. In any case, look around at American politics and society; tell me if you think they are universally self-evident now.

In the 21st century we must make the case that personal, traditional American freedom is the pearl of greatest price, that political, economic, and religious freedom are indeed more valuable than economic security and life itself. We have to make the case that it is right and best that people make their own decisions and face the consequences; that government should not intervene in our lives any more than absolutely necessary; and that it is wrong for free citizens to abdicate their personal moral responsibilities to care for the needy among them, by turning that responsibility and the fruits of their labor over to an impersonal government.

I don’t hear us making this case; I don’t hear us even trying.

I know it’s difficult, and I know it’s not supposed to be difficult, and we’re not supposed to have to do it at all. But we now have to make the case for our traditional American freedoms. Strange as it sounds, we owe it to our children and our grandchildren not only to protect, but also to justify the freedoms which our fathers and grandfathers bought with their blood.

(In two subsequent posts I will attempt [a] to distinguish clearly between “freedom from” and “freedom to,” explaining in the process why I consider myself a Tocqueville conservative; and [b] to persuade you that a love of “freedom to” is less universal in humanity than our lofty rhetoric likes to claim.)

One thought on “The Gulf Which Divides Us”

  1. Alison says:

    Thanks, David. You have a way of teasing out and articulating things that I have some vague notion of but can’t really put into words.

    Nihilism may not have applied to Klein’s column, but the irony is that nihilism is exactly what IS occurring in this country (as you touched on in your redefinition of marriage comment). I read Patty Noonan’s post that you linked to elsewhere about the dismantling of institutions in this country, and that is most definitely nihilism. I didn’t realize that was happening–I was just looking at the trees going down one by one in the forest–but I do see the greater movement when Patty put all the pieces together. I’m just wondering if most citizens are where I’m at–we stress about this thing happening and that thing happening, but fail to see the larger picture. People may get so caught up in the issues that they don’t realize they are part of a greater current of nihilism. Do they realize fully what they are doing? or maybe this is their greater intent?

    I know there is much to be frustrated about with institutions, but dismantling everything seems to be throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Institutions can only be as good as the people running them (or are they? can they ever be better than the people running them?) and as you mention above people are fallible and imperfect. I think we expect everything to run perfectly or it is ALL corrupt or at least wrong/unnecessary/an unwanted annoyance. I have been pondering why we have institutions–so far I am at the idea of they serve as structure in society, as protection, as orderliness to support the rule of law. They are a way of passing on our society with its values to future generations (I suppose so they do not need to recreate everything every generation). So what does this mean for future generations? Perhaps this is why the socialism of Sanders gained so much traction in this election…

    At least students in the schools here (and I believe everywhere in the US) must take a government class. I feel strongly that the discussion of freedom–including your point of freedom TO as opposed to freedom FROM–must occur for all young people. Rather than just learning about the structure, they must learn the WHY and the HOW. Of course, they also have their own agency and can make up there own minds about their own philosophy to follow, but they definitely need to be presented with all the pieces. Alas, I am but a lowly science teacher and it is all I can do to rail against the waves of pseudo-science and talk about the need for the INSTITUTION of scientific endeavor itself…but the development of a philosophy and the need in these times (more than ever before) to act on it should be a lifelong pursuit and evolution with all citizens, alongside all the other activities of life (talking to myself as much as to anyone else).

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