Monday, August 17, 2009

Government is your friend (just keep saying that)

The Tuskegee Syphilis Study, in which federal officials denied proven treatment for syphilis to African-American men just to see how the disease progressed, came to a belated end in 1972, so Ezra Klein, the high-school intern ... err ... young columnist at The Washington Post can perhaps be forgiven for failing to recognize the officially sanctioned 40-year abomination as evidence that we do indeed have a "government capable of madness." But government officials have engaged in other horrors in recent memory, so his astonishment that many Americans distrust the state can only be taken as appalling naivete -- or incredible idiocy.

On August 11, Klein wrote:

What we're seeing here is not merely distrust in the House health-care reform bill. It's distrust in the political system. A healthy relationship does not require an explicit detailing of the "institutional checks" that will prevent one partner from beating or killing the other. In a healthy relationship, such madness is simply unthinkable. If it was not unthinkable, then no number of institutional checks could repair that relationship. Similarly, the relationship between the protesters and the government is not healthy. The protesters believe the government capable of madness. There is no evidence for that claim, which means that there is no answer for it, either. That claim is not about what is in this bill, or what government has done in Medicare and Medicaid and the VA. It is about what a certain slice of Americans think their government -- and by extension, their fellow citizens -- capable of.

Leave aside, for the moment, the wisdom of the various health care proposals rattling around the chambers of Congress at the moment. Can anybody with even a passing knowledge of the past century's history say with a straight face that governments -- very much including the one under which we live -- are not capable of madness?

R.J. Rummel, Professor Emeritus of Political Science, University of Hawaii, has made a rather depressing name for himself by calculating the number of people murdered by governments during the course of the twentieth century. His latest estimate, revised upwards, stands at 262,000,000.

Yes, that mountain of bodies can mostly be blamed on the world's totalitarian governments, with bloody additions tossed in by merely authoritarian political systems. But democracies are capable of madness, too. The American Civil Liberties Union is currently digging through memos written by the late, unlamented Bush administration, which authorized the use of torture against detainees. The Obama administration is still resisting efforts to shine some light on just who is being held under brutal conditions at Bagram, in Afghanistan.

And then there's Tuskegee, which continued for decades under presidents and congresses from both major political parties.

Ezra Klein may ridicule public doubts about the wisdom of allowing the government further control over health care as the equivalent of demanding "what will prevent you from beating your wife?" of elected officials. But the truth of the matter is that government has been an abusive and untrustworthy partner for as long as it has existed. That doesn't mean that everything politicians touch ends in horror and bloodshed, but it's hardly an exercise in paranoia to voice the "distrust in the political system" that Klein finds so worrisome.

In fact, our political system was built on an (imperfect) system of checks and balances meant to minimize the toll it takes on life, liberty and property since the founders didn't trust what they were creating. So when Klein objects that "A healthy relationship does not require an explicit detailing of the 'institutional checks' that will prevent one partner from beating or killing the other," we have to wonder just how long he's been skipping Social Studies class to pen his oh-so-earnest columns.

In the end, maybe the Obama administration's proposals for a greater government role in health care will prove to be a good idea. I doubt it, but I've been wrong before. But in the course of the debate over those proposals, questions about the trustworthiness of the government -- and its potential for madness -- should take center stage.

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Anonymous TJP said...

JD, I'm very nearly out of words for these people. Did Mr. Klein miss that our political system is built on a premise that our political system is untrustworthy? I believe that most of us understood this before reaching the Eight Grade. But then again, he also believes that the established form of government was "democracy".

August 23, 2009 2:07 PM  

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