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Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Hysteria in the heartland

Supporters on both sides of health care
reform argue outside of the town hall
meeting held by Rep. Jan Schakowsky
(AP Photo/Jim Prisching)
Today's editorial is by guest columnist Erik Wiegardt, Director of New Stoa, the online Stoic community...

I quickly tire of the histrionics of angry people. Maybe you do too. Maybe you are already so sick of the brouhaha over American health care reform that you can't bear to read further. I don't blame you. After all, is this a Stoic matter, and why should we be bothered with it?

That's really the point of this editorial. Certainly we can be justified in feeling some responsibility for calming hysteria with reason, that's what we're all about, but do we as a philosophy have clear guidelines as to our responsibility for the physical and financial well-being of others?

It appears that the essence of the conflict is between two fundamental differences of opinion about government itself:

Reagan Republicans, et cetera: Government is the problem; private enterprise is the solution. Health care is not a right. No new taxes!

Obama Democrats, et cetera: Government is the solution, because private enterprise has failed. Health care is a right. New taxes may be necessary.

Who is right and who is wrong in this argument? Shouldn't we be able to use our philosophy to come to a reasonable solution? Does the Stoic motto help: Live in agreement with Nature?

Yes, if we can use our reasoning faculty honestly. It's important to remember that living in agreement with Nature does not mean we live by tooth and claw and survival of the biggest, strongest, and fittest among us. That better describes the other creatures in the forest. No, our unique ability given to us by Nature is not bigger teeth and muscle, but bigger brains. Using reason is our way, or should be our way.

Unfortunately, the very nature of the conflict has a way of inciting passions, especially among those who hate taxes with an inbred fury. This attitude is deep in the American character and has been from the beginning. It was the catalyst that drove the American Revolution more than 200 years ago. The battle cry then was, “Taxation without representation,” but, for those businessmen involved in the Boston Tea Party, it was probably closer to, “No new taxes!” Just look at the names of the two best-organized forces fighting health care reform: the Tea Party Patriots and the Southern California Tax Revolt Coalition.

And, it's not just an American fight. Even UK conservatives are joining their allies across the Pond. According to an editorial in the UK Investors Business Daily (IBD) reported by the BBC (13 Aug 09), "The controlling of medical costs in countries such as Britain through rationing, and the health consequences thereof are legendary," the article said. "The stories of people dying on a waiting list or being denied altogether read like a horror movie script."

The editorial uses physicist Stephen Hawking as an example of what would happen if the US adopted a program similar to the UK National Health Service (NHS), claiming that "people such as scientist Stephen Hawking wouldn't have a chance in the UK, where the National Health Service would say the life of this brilliant man, because of his physical handicaps, is essentially worthless."

Is that true? OMG! Well, no, apparently not. Both UK newspapers, The Guardian and Daily Telegraph, recently quoted Stephen Hawking – who was born, lived, and worked all his life in the UK – as saying, “[I] wouldn't be here today if it were not for the NHS."

Unfortunately, one of our most cherished freedoms as civilized people, our right to freedom of speech, also allows us the freedom to lie. Washington Post blogger Klein, referring to the IBD editorial said, "It's not just that they didn't know that Stephen Hawking was born in England. It's that the underlying point was wrong, as you'll note from the continued existence of Stephen Hawking. They didn't choose an unfortunate example for an accurate point. They simply lied."

Steve Benen of Washington Monthly joined in the fray. "It's worth emphasizing, for those who remain confused and misled, that Democratic reform proposals would not create a British system. The comparison doesn't even make sense in any substantive way, and the very premise of the IBD attack, which has been widely parroted by the far-right, reflects a fundamental lack of intellectual honesty and seriousness."

And so it goes, charges and counter-charges, and how is one to make sense of it all? Who do we believe? It's no wonder tempers flare.

Gail Collins, Op-ed columnist for the NY Times (13 Aug 09) in “Gunning for Health Care,” wrote,
“The health care protest phenomenon hasn’t been particularly uplifting, unless your idea of decorum is World Extreme Cagefighting. But it has provided a very, very rare opportunity for members of Congress to look semiheroic. Even Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania seemed sympathetic when he was trying to appear to be listening thoughtfully while a constituent told him that God was going to send him to hell.”

Facts may be useful. They often have a way of cutting through the fist-waving and shouting matches. BBC, again, recently offered a valuable comparison of health care systems. It was very well done, but I've condensed the information because it was longer than we need for our purposes here. If interested, go to the BBC news online and look for “Healthcare around the world,” (15 Aug 09).

United States:

  • Private system
  • 15.3% (45.7 million) uninsured
  • Cost per person: $7,290
  • % of Gross Domestic Product (GDP): 16%
  • Life expectancy at birth: 78.1 years
  • Infant mortality/1000 live births: 6.7

United Kingdom:

  • Universal, tax-funded system
  • 100% insured
  • Cost per person: $2,992
  • % of GDP: 8.4%
  • Life expectancy: 79.1 years
  • Infant mortality/1000: 4.8
  • Social insurance system
  • 100% insured
  • Cost per person: $3,601
  • % of GDP: 11%
  • Life expectancy: 81
  • Infant mortality/1000: 3.8

If you didn't actually read these statistics, because such things quickly make you bored, I'll help: Compared to the UK and French healthcare systems, US health care costs more than twice as much per person, is a significantly higher percentage of our annual goods and services, delivers lower life expectancy, and gives us more dead babies. I guess that about sums it up.

Yes, I do think we can look to our philosophy for guidance in such matters. There is no need for the emotional outbursts that result from faulty judgments if we look to the cardinal virtues of Prudence (wisdom) and Justice as our guide. There is no reason for hysteria if we bother to look at facts. Bertrand Russell said that the one with the weakest logical position usually shouts the loudest.

Erik Wiegardt is the founder of the cybercity of New Stoa, and is the Director of New Stoa (, Editor of it's eMagazine, Registry Report (in which this article also appears), Charter member of the Stoic Council, and a Tutor for the College of Stoic Philosophers. He is author of The Path Of The Sage, currently being rewritten, with a condensed and updated version available on the Registry web site that can be downloaded for free. He lives in San Diego, California, where he works full time for the Stoic community.

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