Posted by: Jeff | February 26, 2010

Philosophy Matters, Even When It Doesn’t Matter

Ezra Klein quips that the Republicans have suddenly discovered the value of holding fast to philosophic principles now that Democrats are in power.

The GOP surely supports the policies it says it supports, at least at the moment. But they have elevated a variety of policies that they’re willing to compromise on in other contexts to the level of philosophical difference. That makes compromise very difficult. After all, if you believe in purchasing across state lines (which means the national standard is equal to that of the laxest state) and I believe in federal regulation, a compromise could be that each state handles its own regulations (which is what we have now), or that states can choose to enter into compacts with one another that will allow insurers in one state to sell to all participating states (which is what is envisioned in the bill). But if this is a philosophical difference, well, too bad.

Similarly, if the question is the precise method of figuring out how to define insurance, than a compromise can surely be reached. After all, if Ryan’s plan demands actuarial values equal to Blue Shield/Blue Cross and the Senate plan actually allows for more variation in actuarial values but says that certain categories of treatment (pediatrics, for instance) need to be included, that seems custom-designed for compromise. But if, as Cantor says, this is really about “a deep philosophical difference,” then compromise is unlikely indeed. You don’t bargain with Aristotle.

It was during the Cantor exchange that Joe Biden finally had enough. “Mr. President, can I have 10 seconds?” He asked. “Literally 10 seconds.” The president nodded, or didn’t answer fast enough to head Biden off. “We don’t have a philosophic disagreement,” Biden said. “If you agree that you can’t be dropped, that there has to be dependent coverage, that there’s no annual or lifetime cap, then, in fact, you’ve acknowledged that is the government’s role. The question is how far to go.”

But because the Republicans in the room didn’t want the question to be “how far to go,” they drew philosophical battle lines that will be erased next time they’re in power, or find a bill they want to vote for. This was most clear, possibly, in Sen. Lamar Alexander’s opening remarks, in which he explained that “we’ve come to the conclusion that we don’t do comprehensive well.”

This complaint is accurate so far as it goes, but I think it misunderstands human nature. The interaction between when we defend philosophic purity, and when we’re willing to make practical compromises with people who don’t share all our principles, is a complex one, and has as much to do with trust as with intellectual consistency.

Republicans and Democrats have both been willing to compromise their philosophies in circumstances where such compromise seemed politically or practically necessary. But they usually only do it when they’re compromising with other members of their own party. In other words, they compromise when they feel they have some sort of underlying social or communal understanding that everyone is pushing for the same basic values. Remove that understanding, and everyone gets a lot more suspicious that some necessary principle has been lost or undercut.

This is precisely what people are referring to when they lament the absence of Ted Kennedy from the health care process. In all likelihood, Kennedy would have made the same compromises with centrists – on the public option, etc. – that others have made. But leftists and progressives trusted Kennedy to earnestly support their values, so if Kennedy was ready to make those deals then those deals must have been necessary. In his absence, they’ve been far less willing to go along. (Klein himself has blogged on this topic.) So everyone does this.

The problem is that this kind of behavior assesses the desirability of compromise based on what are essentially social instincts or tribal factors. Which is silly. Ultimately, a bill says what it says and does what it does, regardless of the motivations various people on either side of the aisle have for supporting it. Really, if it’s a compromise a politician can live with intellectually, they should vote for it, and if not, then not. But that’s not usually how human beings function in either party.

So I think you have to deal with philosophy, as desirable as it might be to keep things in the less contentious and less nebulous world of practical give-and-take. At some point, you have to confront the Republicans head on, and tell them why their values and philosophy are just plain wrong.

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