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Thursday, March 25, 2010

What Can We Learn from the Healthcare Debate?

Perusing Facebook was a pretty relaxing, enjoyable way for my friends and I to kill time, but then healthcare happened.

One of my friends made the mistake of simply setting his status to "Healthcare. Comment." The first of many comments consisted of a single word which conveyed the person's frustration with the bill--and things only got worse from there. What started as well-meaning attempt by my friend to encourage a substantive debate on the issues devolved into name calling and personal attacks. Sociologists and behaviorists could characterize the discord as an example of team mentality combined with the de-personalizing effects of Internet debate, but those are ways of describing the present crisis of debate. How did we get to here?

Isn't the putative goal of political debate to bring others to your side? But if this were at all attainable, why do we so readily resort to ad hominem attacks? Some would disagree with my premise, and say debate is merely a way to "formalize" our intuitions as explained here.

That very well may be true in modern politics. If we are merely formalizing our intuitions, then how can we rationally explain that our intuition is stronger or better? We can't and as a result we get bitter debates like healthcare or abortion, where we can't resolve the arguments because we can't even agree on what constitutes winning.

I must admit I was sucked into the great Facebook healthcare debate. One of my friends commented that the bill was "good," in a classic display of emotivist language. I responded with asking, "What is good?" If a project which brings us closer to universal healthcare coverage is "good," then yes, this bill would align with that which is good. However, if the good is associated with the freedom from federal government mandates on personal spending, then the bill does not fall within the parameters of the good. Unfortunately, my question went unanswered.

How do we determine that which is good in American politics? I had hoped that the Constitution would provide some guidance but phrases like, "That's un-Constitutional!" or "The spirit of the Founding Fathers supports us!" are used in emotivist ways. Furthermore, our political culture seems willing to trade extensions (dare I say violations?) of the Constitution in favor of perceived utility (Daniel v. Paul for example, which held a recreational facility could be regulated by the federal government because it served snacks which contained ingredients from outside the state). Welcome to the world of "grave moral disorder."


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