How to Break a Camel's Back
Desirable as defeating President Obama is, the calamity awaiting America just a few paces further along its current path makes mere electoral victory inadequate. It is necessary that such victory be coupled with a greater triumph over an opponent more intractable than any mere Democrat - namely, the tide of anti-individualist morality, which has gradually swept the flotsam of entitlement, hyper-regulation, and disregard for the rights of others onto America's shores.
The problem is that the gradual nature of this tide has created its own dilemma, which is how to persuade people that another step in the wrong direction will take them to the point of no return, rather than being just "one more inconvenience." In my view, there is one issue -- health care -- which might, if presented in the right way, serve as the moral tide-changer. What is required, however, is that the issue be fought not as a difference of opinion about how to achieve shared goals, or as a disagreement about the efficiency of a bureaucratized medical system, or even as one about the constitutionality of the individual mandate. Rather, the issue must be presented as a fundamental moral divide in the broadest terms: individual liberty versus serfdom.
I recently had the pleasure of being interviewed by Guy Green and Tony Bauer on their Minnesota conservative radio program, "The Speakeasy." As our conversation took place within 48 hours of the announcement of Kim Jong-il's death, and as I live in South Korea, we naturally spent a few minutes delving into the predicament of this divided country. I noted the resiliency of South Koreans in the face of a continual threat of aggression, affronts to their sovereignty, and murderous attacks on their citizens. Repeatedly, South Koreans react with anger and stern warnings -- but with restraint. Their capacity to absorb each new "provocation" is a testament to the human capacity to keep life livable through crisis and hardship.
The danger in this great resiliency, however, is that over a prolonged period of time, it becomes a mental habit that can obscure sound reasoning. What could be the "last straw" for people who have accustomed themselves to accepting any and all outrages? What, short of an all-out attack on Seoul, would rouse South Korea to decisive retaliation against the North's aggression? Thus, it can be expected that the "provocations" will continue.
A similar mental habit has developed throughout the Western world. One more tax hike or regulation, one more manufactured "right" to someone else's property -- each one obnoxious to those still capable of recognizing injustice, but no one case rising to the level of a last straw. By remaining always a simmering pot, rather than blowing the lid off, leftism, and its corresponding moral degradation, has achieved all that it could never have hoped to achieve through "revolutionary" reforms proposed all at once.
The challenge before conservatives, then, is that a broader revival of the constitutional spirit, achieved quickly enough to prevent societal collapse, is impossible without a way of bringing the moral core of constitutionalism to bear on current events in a manner that might touch those bred on the fuzzy moral thinking induced by the long-simmering pot of American leftism.
During the Obamacare fight in Congress, the strongest, clearest moral voice among the commentariat was that of Mark Steyn. As a Canadian who had lived with "national health care" in its developed form, Steyn defined with stark simplicity what the so-called health care debate is really about: who owns your body? The discussion of Obamacare must be carried forward on this footing by the Republican presidential nominee. Anything less is just politics as usual, and whatever it might render in short-term policy gains it will relinquish in long-term moral outcomes.
The Declaration of Independence enumerates the three interrelated primary rights, as Jefferson, adapting Locke, perceived them: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The first named, with good reason, is life. As Locke explains in his Second Treatise of Government, the right to life means that "men, being once born, have a right to their preservation[.]" Self-preservation is the primary instinct, and hence the primary natural right, of human beings. As Jefferson's wise wording -- the pursuit of happiness -- implies, this right to self-preservation does not impose any corresponding duty on others to provide for one's preservation; it does, however, entail a freedom to pursue one's preservation through voluntary interaction with others who might be helpful in securing that end. Locke, in Chapter V, "Of Property," delineates the precise relationship between the right to life and property rights this way:
Though the earth, and all inferior creatures, be common to all men, yet every man has a property in his own person: this no body has any right to but himself.
That is to say that even in the state of nature, wherein the Earth is granted to men in common, one thing is never shared in common -- namely, a man's own physical existence. This is the sense in which the right to life is the fundamental right: a man owns himself, in a manner that logically precedes his ownership of anything else. His living body is his birthright; all else flows from that. And owning one's own living body means possessing the right of self-preservation, which in turn entails the liberty to pursue that preservation through voluntary relationships.
Government-run health care directly violates that fundamental right of self-preservation -- i.e., the right to life -- by limiting voluntary relationships between free men pursued in the name of that self-preservation. Government-run health care means that the state determines the means and methods of preserving your life.
Such health care systems lead to poorer care, longer waiting times for important procedures, the de-incentivization of medical careers, and, yes, death panels. All of this is secondary, however. If a government healthcare system could be devised that somehow avoided these traps, it would be unconstitutional nonetheless. The issue that matters most -- the moral issue -- is not, "Which system is the best means of providing for the preservation of the citizenry?" The central issue is, "Who gets to make the decisions about the means to a citizen's preservation: the citizen or the state?" If the latter, then the final line has been crossed -- the citizen belongs to the state, as property to a property owner. An owner has decision-making authority over the preservation of his property. If the state has decision-making authority over the preservation of your body, then you do not own yourself, Locke's fundamental natural right is undermined, and the U.S. Constitution isn't worth the paper it's written on. The United States of America ceases to exist as a constitutional republic founded on individual rights.
This is the ultimate significance of the transitional stage on the path to "universal coverage" that is Obamacare. This is the moral argument that might, if presented by a statesman with credibility and conviction in such matters, finally begin the superhuman task of turning back the creeping leftist tide with the necessary rapidity. This task is wholly unsuited to the so-called "frontrunners" of the moment, who have shown themselves to be policy men, and oblivious to the moral issue outlined here.
I have previously argued that Michele Bachmann is the candidate most suited to the moral argument for constitutionality. Hers is the call for repealing Obamacare that is expressed with the most urgency, as she stresses that this is the last chance to do it. She is right. Once a society relinquishes its right of self-preservation to the state, the slide into a presumption in favor of the "mother's love" notion of government is precipitous and all but irreversible.