As the health care reform battle in the House and Senate sees new fervor on this Monday morning, as the president unveils his own plan, perhaps the time is right for a little review on the communitarian philosophy as it relates to that battle, as well as current beliefs about the economy in general.
Communitarian philosophy claims to be a merger of capitalism and socialism, in which the good of the whole is weighed against the needs of the individual. This idea appears to make as much sense as merging matter and anti-matter. I believe, however, this merger has a philosophical base in the history of the West, and is a natural outcome of the social interplay between the government and private industry in America since the middle of the twentieth century.
Perhaps the place to look for the roots of communitarianism is in the philosophy of Utilitarianism, summarized in the famous phrase “the greatest good for the greatest number of people.” The two men credited with making Utilitarianism a social force are Jeremy Bentham and James Mill. Like many Europeans of the 18th and 19th century they were brilliant, persuasive, and seemed to have no clue whatsoever about the kind of messes they would create later on when people read what they wrote and tried to apply it.
In my college years, Utilitarianism was described as one of the most destructive philosophies ever constructed against the principles of Natural Law and the Rights of Man. Utilitarian followers believed all rights are granted by the government, since history shows governments have the power to take all rights away. The purpose of a society is to provide for the greatest pleasure to the largest number of citizens. It is based on an early behavioral model, which states everything we do derives from pleasure and pain. Naturally, humanity wants pleasure, and avoids pain. (Unless you are a Chicago Cubs fan.)
It doesn’t take a genius to automatically see the problem with this philosophy right away. Some individuals would be bound to suffer. It is to the advantage to the majority of Americans, for example, if fruits and vegetables are inexpensive to buy. These low prices may result from the labors of workers that are underpaid and ill-treated. If farm workers wages were suddenly doubled, though, the majority of Americans would suffer economically.
And, of course, free speech would be a threat to the group because it would allow individuals too contest the decisions of the majority. And you can imagine what they think about the right to own a gun.
In order to keep the society in balance, the left looks to the government to regulate, cajole, and ultimately punish those they deem a threat to the harmony of the good for the whole. For an example of this, look at how the leadership at Toyota feels about the Obama administration’s attitude toward the automobile industry and business as a whole. Two excerpts from Politico:
Internal Toyota documents derided the Obama administration and Democratic Congress as “activist” and “not industry friendly,” a revelation that comes days before the giant automaker’s top executives testify on Capitol Hill amid a giant recall.
According to a presentation obtained under subpoena by the House Oversight and Government Relations committee, Toyota referred to the “changing political environment” as one of its main challenges and anticipated a “more challenging regulatory” environment under the Obama administration’s purview.
The slideshow is titled “Toyota Washington, DC” and the cover sheet is labeled “Yoshi Inaba” – the president of Toyota North America, who is slated to testify.
It is a peek into how Toyota executives view the American political environment.
The “Activist Administration & Congress – increasing laws & regulations” is listed as one of “Toyota Challenges,” as is “Massive government support for Detroit automakers.”
The July 2009 presentation also says the Department of Transportation and National Highway Transportation Safety Administration “under Obama administration” is “not industry friendly,” and anticipates a “more challenging regulatory and enforcement environment.”
Or, for another example–and these are only two stories selected from Sunday’s headlines, hardly anomalies for this particular administration–consider how the president plans to provide the federal government with the authority to obstruct rate increases deemed necessary by private health insurance companies. Two more excerpts, these from yesterday’s New York Times:
President Obama will propose on Monday giving the federal government new power to block excessive rate increases by health insurance companies, as he rolls out comprehensive legislation to revamp the nation’s health care system, White House officials said Sunday.
The president’s bill would grant the federal health and human services secretary new authority to review, and to block, premium increases by private insurers, potentially superseding state insurance regulators. The bill would create a new Health Insurance Rate Authority, made up of health industry experts that would issue an annual report setting the parameters for reasonable rate increases based on conditions in the market.
Officials said they envisioned the provision taking effect immediately after the health care bill is signed into law.
The legislation would call on the secretary of health and human services to work with state regulators to develop an annual review of rate increases, and if increases are deemed “unjustified” the secretary or the state could block the increase, order the insurer to change it, or even issue a rebate to beneficiaries.
This need for government intervention contradicts the capitalist belief in the laws of the marketplace and the “invisible hand” promoted by the followers of Adam Smith, the 18th century author who is considered the father of economics. He is the foundational thinker who put forward the idea that liberty and economic well-being go hand in hand, even though it may appear at any moment that freedom breeds unfairness and instability. (This has theological overtones since ministers preach the same kind of outlook about God and the world. Humans might not comprehend the underlying order of the universe, but it is there.)
The left in modern times has adopted the Utilitarian outlook as a form of higher consciousness. All Americans are supposed to be more aware the interrelatedness of all beings, which may lead an individual to sacrifice his well-being for the betterment of the group. This is the basis of the modern ecology movement. I have taught Freshman English classes at different colleges and there is almost always an essay for the students to read that is by Peter Singer, a world famous animal rights activist. He is a great example of using a higher consciousness to re-examine how humanity ethically views suffering. High schools have adopted this by insisting their students not only take classes on economics and history, but they also need to be socially conscious. In my own field I have read the resumes of people looking for jobs in the field of law, and often they make the claim they want to be involved in the law because they want to make the world a better place. None of them start out by saying they want to make lots of money and promote justice in the meantime. After all, how can a greedy person be morally good?
From a practical point of view the American government has been engaged in a battle of its own between capitalism and socialism for over fifty years. The Republican Party argued for decades that the two philosophies are incompatible, and that socialism destroys capitalism. The reigning members of the left are trying to tell us that is not true.
Utilitarianism, like all philosophies, has been made complicated enough by professional thinkers that it borders on incomprehensible. This may be another reason why it appeals to the left.
Ultimately, it appeals to the leftist need to be rich urban chic and socially conscious at the same time. It also is the result of running a country that is financially bankrupt. This means that Utilitarian ideals will become an excuse for rationing government benefits. Now, if they could only find a legislative vehicle for something like that.