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Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Founders Would Be Spinning in Their Graves Over Healthcare...Right?

Ahhh...the crazy, convoluted and downright bizarre world that is American politics! These days I am beginning to feel more and more that George Washington's prophetic message regarding political parties is coming true:
The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries, which result, gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of Public Liberty.
Yes, patriotism, nationalism and even God's "will" are now wrapped up in a political party's stupid partisan doctrine!

And as is common with these political parties, both sides are engaged in a continual tug-o-war over the legacy of our founding fathers. After all, if they can prove that the founders were on their side, everything else is colored bubbles. As a result, you see Democrats and Republicans try to articulate how the founders favored their brand of partisan despotism. Both sides grab a handful of quotes, often out of context, which they feel is adequate support for whatever cause they have taken up.

But most of the time they are just throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks.

Take, for instance, the healthcare debate. If you have even listened to 5 minutes of talk radio, you probably have heard pundits ranting and raving about how "unconstitutional" and "immoral" Obama's plan is. And certainly our founding fathers would be appalled at the President for creating such a massive program...right?

Well, certainly some founders would be upset. Thomas Jefferson, the quintessential small government/low taxes guy, would probably make Obama his new project of disdain and ridicule that only Jefferson could deliver. Other founders, however, might not feel the same.

In 1798, for example, Congress passed a law "for the relief of sick and disabled seamen." Under this law, tax funds were used to establish several hospitals where sick and injured seamen were able to receive government-funded healthcare. Eventually this program grew to include other groups of American workers, most notably members of the Merchant Marines. For many of our founders (most notably J. Adams, A. Hamilton and even G. Washington) the health of America's workforce was of paramount importance and was, at least in some form, even a responsibility of the federal government to safeguard. Historian Gautham Rao further explains why this issue was of importance to the founding generation:
That the federal government created this health care system for merchant mariners in the early American republic will surprise many. This is due in no small measure to the tenor of political debate about health care in American society. Advocates of government structured, universal health care plans claim that the times are too fast and costs too high to return to the old days of "pay-as-you-go" care. Deregulationists counter that only by removing the stamp of government from health care can society relive the great success of decades and centuries past. Both sides presuppose that government regulation and provision of health care is a new development. But the story of the marine hospitals in the early American republic suggests that the United States has a long history of using institutions to manage public health. Through the marine hospitals, the federal government used health care to regulate a crucial labor force in an age of maritime commerce. Treating sick and disabled merchant mariners helped stabilize the maritime labor force. More broadly, through the marine hospitals, we witness the actual points of interaction between government, community, and individuals. A glimpse within hospital walls reveals the rich, diverse personal experiences of working in, or being treated in, an early federal marine hospital. To be sure the marine hospitals were effective instruments of politics and policy. But within the marine hospitals, medical practice and administration was far more than an abstract tool of political economy. Rather, the stories of sickness, injury, admission, treatment, resistance, and regulation that characterized life within the marine hospitals reveal how the federal government shaped the social, economic, and political order of the early republic to a degree scholars have only just now begun to appreciate.
In fairness, it's important to note that while some of the founders did support at least a small type of national healthcare, this doesn't necessarily mean they would agree with something on the scope of Obama's plan. Perhaps they would, perhaps not. One could easily see somebody like Hamilton or Adams, who advocated for a strong national government, possibly being in favor, while men like Jefferson and Madison would most likely be beside themselves with anger over such a plan. In the end we'll never really know. I suppose that ascertaining the founders' position on national healthcare would be akin to uncovering their opinion on atomic energy. Different times have different problems.

And it is for this reason that appealing to the founders isn't always the best idea. Or as Jefferson put it, "The earth belongs to the living, not the dead."


Tim said...

Amen. Really, I don't have any other comment beyond that.

Hart Attack said...

Bravo! Thank you for posting this

Brad Hart said...

Thanks for the comments, Tim and Hart Attack. I appreciate it. Tim, I like your blog. Very interesting stuff. And good luck with grad school. I just finished that stuff...lots of fun so enjoy it while you can.

Mr. Hart Attack, I am curious to know who you REALLY are. A stalker perhaps???

Colleen said...

Very appreciated post! Partisan politics these days are getting ridiculous, regardless of which side you are on!

WKen said...

Well, obviously John Adams had no respect for the Founding Fathers, then!

Wait ... never mind.

Brilliant post. I'm not really familiar with this program, and I'm not often caught that far off-guard on history.

Brad Hart said...

Thanks, Colleen and WKen.