Thursday, December 31, 2009

Will and process

Back in August, I got involved in a rather heated discussion over at Reclusive Leftist. Among other things, I asked why those on the Left were so eager to turn health care over to the government (RL favors single-payer) when they were forever complaining about government when it came to war, domestic surveillance, and so on down the whole litany of things the Left hates about the government. What if, I wanted to know, all health care is controlled by government and the Republicans return to power? Don’t you worry that certain procedures - including abortions - will be eliminated from government-paid health care?

Reclusive Leftist’s response was (emphasis mine):

It’s not a question of trusting goverment. It’s a question of using government for what it’s best at, which is managing shared resources and doing things which require society’s collective action. Government is just society imposing its will as a group. [snip]

A drawback in this country is that government-funded programs are susceptible to political attrition, particularly when Republicans get in office; but at least we have recourse in terms of voting.

As the health care bills moved through Congress and the attendant battles over covering abortion made the headlines, I wondered if those on the Left who are also feminists would begin to see that perhaps government-paid health care was not necessarily a totally good idea. Certainly the refusal to allow Federal money to pay for abortions is about as clear an example of society imposing its will as we can find: 61% of those polled by CNN in mid-November “[oppose] using public money for abortions for women who can not afford the procedure”; only 37% favor such use. Clearly the position that Congress has taken on funding (or rather not funding) abortion under the new Exchange reflects the will of society.*

Now it looks like society imposing its will as a group is not such a good thing after all. In a post entitled “Abortion restrictions violate women’s Freedom of Religion”, Reclusive Leftist quotes approvingly RiverDaughter’s argument that:

With anti-abortion measures, women are not just subject to the state, they are forced to recognize a religious presence in their lives whether they have faith or not. Men do not need to recognize any faith. They are allowed complete freedom of conscience.

RL then says:

... it’s absurd for the government to honor the anti-abortion scruples of conservative Christians while simultaneously forcing the rest of us to pay taxes for war or torture or capital punishment or any number of policies we abhor. [snip]

Anti-abortion laws essentially force every woman in this country to be a conservative Christian whether she likes it or not. No matter what she personally believes — whether she’s an atheist or a Unitarian or a Jew or a Muslim — she must obey fundamentalist Christian law.

It’s no different than forcing every woman into a sharia court if she wants a divorce, or forcing her to wear a veil.

Oh, dear. Where to start? Let’s get the Christianity thing out of the way first. It’s not just conservative Christianity and Catholicism that oppose abortion. Some very minimal research - a look at the Wikipedia article on “Religion and abortion” - uncovers the fact that all five major religions have objections to abortion. So while Leftist feminists are certainly free to pursue the religious freedom argument they’ll have to move away from using it to bash fundamentalist and evangelical Christians and Catholics.

Even with that, however, a lot of activities we forbid by law are also forbidden by some or all of the major religions; murder, theft, and perjury spring to mind. One simply cannot argue with a straight face that if a religion prohibits an activity, then prohibiting it by law violates religious freedom.

That leaves us with the argument that only those who are deeply or conservatively religious have reservations about using government money to finance abortions. This doesn’t hold water either. Abortion pits a woman’s right to bodily integrity against the fetus’ personhood. You don’t have to be deeply religious to accept the fetus’ personhood any more than you have to be not at all religious to accept a woman’s right to bodily integrity. Abortion is simply not a strictly religious issue. And, of course, funding abortion has even less to do with religion than abortion itself.

The argument the Leftist feminists should be making, of course, is the slippery slope argument: the government refusing to pay for abortions is the first step to the government refusing to pay for other procedures people can now purchase on their own. They cannot, of course, make this argument since it validates the central argument against single-payer or any type of government-paid health care: the fear of rationing. I hope I will be forgiven for finding their dilemma somewhat amusing.

More seriously, what the Leftist feminist’s line of reasoning is really about, of course, is two things. First, the desire on the part of Leftist feminists to avoid recognizing that a policy they believed would be an unalloyed good - government health care - is not as totally wonderful as they thought it would be. This is human and understandable: no one wants to think they’ve fought hard for something that didn’t work out and no one wants to give up the dream of something that will fix everything that’s wrong. That doesn’t exactly make them reality-based but we all have our blind spots.

The second underlying issue is more serious and far more dangerous. It’s about ends and means and whose will should be considered society’s will. If the legislative process produces the end result desired by Leftist feminists - government health care - then the legislative process is the means by which society’s will should be expressed. However, when that process produces a result not desired by Leftist feminists - exclusion of abortion from government health care - then the legislative process is invalid and it is the courts through which society’s will should be expressed. Clearly it is not really society’s will that is to be expressed by government but the will of those who know best what society’s will should be.

I don’t imagine this is a new phenomenon. I’m sure that throughout our nation’s history every political group has sought to insure that its will is considered society’s will and is therefore the will government expresses. But as the health reform effort makes clear, the more government does the higher the stakes become. And, therefore, the more dangerous is the idea that any one group’s will is the correct will for the government to express.

I have a very good friend who has always said his preferred form of government is a benevolent dictatorship - with himself as dictator of course. The fact that that is everyone’s preferred form of government seems to me to be the basis of democracy. That formulation acknowledges both our own conviction that we always know best and some healthy laughter at that conviction. Out of that acknowledgment and that laughter comes the understanding that we must let everyone’s policy aims play out in an open, democratic manner or risk ending up with just the benevolent dictatorship we desire - but with someone else as the dictator. To be so convinced that one’s own policies are the correct ones that one is willing to insure those who prefer other policies are not permitted an equal shot at achieving their goals is to undermine the very bedrock of democracy.

I have a fair number of half-finished posts laying around and at some point I realized that a common thread running through many of them was a concern with process. Democracy is not about outcomes; it is about process. In some sense democracy begins with the idea that in many policy areas there is no “better” outcome; there is simply what the majority of the citizens want. In our particular form of democracy, the founders attempted to insure both a good process and protection for those policy areas where there was a “better” outcome. Then they gave us a process to change the protections if we so desired. But process is all-important.

In writing about the passage of the Senate’s health care bill, Megan McArdle said:

But to a libertarian, process matters. Having a good process is better than getting a good outcome, because a good process is one that maximizes your chances of getting good outcomes over time.

This is not an argument in favor these days with either side of the political aisle. We have become a nation focused solely on outcomes and seem to scarcely even remember we have a process - except of course when we accuse the other guys of making an end run around it. Somehow we have managed to forget that when we distort the process to get the outcome we want today, we open the door for those who oppose us to distort the process to get the outcome they want tomorrow. We forget that our “good process” is our only protection against that benevolent dictatorship where - I can absolutely guarantee you - all but one of us is not going to be the dictator.


* I simply have to comment on another result of that CNN poll: 26% of those polled thought that “abortion should be legal under any circumstances”. I find this impossible to believe. Surely a quarter of the country does not support a perfectly healthy woman expected to give birth without difficulty to a perfectly healthy baby having an abortion when she is 8-1/2 months pregnant. And I sincerely hope that a quarter of the country does not support having an abortion simply because the mother - or father - is unhappy with the baby’s sex. I’d really like to see some more in-depth answers from the “any circumstances” people.



FindLaw: An interesting FindLaw article by Marcia A. Hamilton that argues the Stupak Amendment is unconstitutional on three grounds. I’m unimpressed but expect to hear much more of these arguments. She credits the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops with achieving the Stupak amendment and seems to think that proves this is a strictly religious issue. I doubt that anyone on either side of the health care reform issue would similarly interpret the USCCB’s support for universal health care as clear evidence such reform is a religious issue prohibited under the Establishment Clause of the Constitution.

Interestingly, Hamilton makes a slippery slope argument but only in a limited sense: that not funding abortions will lead to not funding contraception. I took a brief look at her other writings for FindLaw and recommend this one: “The Case for Instituting Healthcare Reform at the State, Not Federal, Level”.

Grim writes approvingly of RiverDaughter’s concerns about taxes being used in ways an individual taxpayer does not want and proposes a system to make sure that doesn’t happen.

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