I just read a succinctly brilliant piece by Tom Sowell on the insidious delusion involved in the false promise of "universal health care." As he so often does, he captures the essential heart of the matter in a few pithy observations.
"If everything that is wrong with the world becomes a reason to turn more power over to some political savior, then freedom is going to erode away, while we are mindlessly repeating the catchwords of the hour…"
"Ultimately, our choice is to give up Utopian quests or give up our freedom….If you think government should "do something" about anything that ticks you off, or anything you want and don't have, then you have made your choice between Utopia and freedom."
Sowell rightly agrees with the citation he makes from Edmund Burke: "It is no inconsiderable part of wisdom, to know much of an evil ought to be tolerated…I must bear with infirmities until they fester into crimes." He concludes with a similar citation from Richard Epstein of the University of Chicago; "If you cannot tolerate imperfection, be prepared to kiss you freedom goodbye."
I am sure that many conservatives applaud Sowell's reiteration of this wisdom, and agree that he has said something of great practical relevance to the ongoing discussion of health care. I am also sure that too many among them have joined in smug dismissal of people like me, who for many years have stressed the desperate need for America to address our moral crisis of character as the indispensable prerequisite for dealing with any of the supposedly practical issues we face. Tragically for all of us, this obtuse rejection of what I call the moral priority belies their superficial agreement with Sowell and the wisdom he reasserts.
Apparently, they fail to recognize that what Sowell is talking about-i.e., the ability to accept the reality of human imperfection, and to live with its unavoidable consequences-, is a moral virtue. In Christian parlance it is called patience or longsuffering. It is en essential characteristic of a free people. America's Founders took note of it as they articulated the moral basis for the American Revolution. In the Declaration of Independence they said that "Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable,..."
Sowell's argument boils down to this: the preservation of freedom requires moral virtue. What too many so-called conservatives refuse to see is that moral virtue doesn't just happen. It requires effort. From the viewpoint of the society as a whole, that effort takes the form of moral education. Since moral character is not just a matter of good precepts, but of good habits, such education must include constant exercise in putting good precepts into practice. In that respect moral education is like teaching someone to play a musical instrument.
We live in an era that boasts great sophistication when it comes to physical science and technology. To our sorrow this has come along with, and encouraged, profound stupidity when it comes to moral things. We must call it stupidity because it involves rejecting, willfully and with casual animosity, (or as some might put it today "with attitude") what we know to be the moral prerequisites of goods we profess to value highly, like "liberty and justice for all." Ignorance can be remedied, but only after such stupidity is overcome. Like drowning people going down for the last time, those prey to such stupidity struggle fiercely against the efforts of their would-be rescuers. They flail about so as to do them real, sometimes even deadly, injury.
For some years now I have felt this damaging hostility from elements within the conservative movement who vaunt their supposedly superior practical and pragmatic approach. They quietly do everything in their power to make sure that those who sincerely promote the moral priority are not even allowed to be heard. They pretend to appreciate wisdom like that which Tom Sowell reasserts in his article. But they scoff at, reject and seek to repress the common sense insistence that we must reverse the policies that disintegrate the moral understanding and virtue of our people.
"You can have it all." This is the lying slogan that encourages the surrender of moral discipline in every walk of life. It fuels arrogant sexual licentiousness. It prods the boundless ambition for money and power. It corrupts true spiritual hunger into a self-centered quest to invent and manipulate a God or gods who will be the pliable instruments of our fanciful "needs" and passions. Individuals who brook no interference with their endless quest for selfish satisfaction eventually become a people who brook no limit or constraint upon their common will. We know that this is happening to the American people when their leaders seriously assert that the majority's electoral or legislative choices don't have to respect the limits and constraints imposed by Constitutional provisions.
Tragically, once the people fall prey to the temptation to assert unbridled power, their foolish example legitimizes the old nostrum that might makes right; that power alone justifies every whim, every arbitrary disposition. How soon will they be reminded that their power of election has no basis apart from the Constitutional provisions they have discarded and destroyed. Against the power of arms, technology, and money, wielded by those of superior discipline and intelligence, the people's power of election vanishes like smoke. When the smoke clears, government of by and for the people will be gone. The arrogant few will everywhere govern unopposed, as they did for so long before the trial of liberty that is the real American dream.
There is yet a little time in which we may rekindle the moral heart that is the hope of freedom. But only if we make that task our first and clear priority. Will we heed the voices of them "that cry in the wilderness, prepare ye the way of the Lord. Make straight in the desert the highway of our God", or will we let freedom perish?