I have been watching some fine documentaries on the US Presidents of late. PBS ran a series a while back called The Presidents. The narrator was noted historian David McCullough. They were well done, though I thought a bit biased, as they only tended to interview people from within the administration for Democratic presidents, but curiously had a plethora of critics for Republican ones they covered. That came off as a bit slanted to me, as I think constructive criticism should always be included in documentaries, but that is neither here nor there for purposes of this blog. Reading on the PBS website, I see they are working on Season 2 of that fine documentary series. I am particularly looking forward to see what they do with Eisenhower, whom they omitted in Season 1.
One of the minor throw away lines that popped up in that series very subtly from time to time was the reference to healthcare reform. I think many people think healthcare reform is a relatively new discussion in American politics within the last 20 years or so, but that is far from the case. FDR and Truman both tried for healthcare reform and never got particularly far. Eisenhower pretty much sealed the deal on the odd American penchant for having the employer largely cover healthcare as well as finalizing the Veteran’s Administration coverage for veterans, though both of those likewise began in previous administrations. LBJ largely pushed through what we would now recognize as Medicare and Medicaid, though those had their seeds in New Deal reforms in the 1930’s and 1940’s. Even Teddy Roosevelt back in the early 1900s touched on the issue from time to time in speeches.
This brings up the spectre of “socialized medicine.” For several reasons, “socialized” anything (I use the “scare quotes” deliberately) is reviled by some and adored by others. Personally, I find the term “socialism” or “socialized” to be somewhat misleading because they are often buzzwords on both sides, much like “family values” or “social justice,” wherein the user tends to use the term for very specific political agenda doublespeak.
I also tend to recoil when people start throwing out terms like “liberalism” and “conservatism” because Postmodern America has a very specific definition for those things which historically speaking is very misleading. Classically speaking, anyone who believes that people can actually govern themselves in a democracy or democratic republic is considered a “classical liberal.” To Marxism, anyone who might actually believe in capitalism or private possession of property is a “conservative.” My point is that terms like this have to be nuanced because they are so loaded with emotional baggage. The same is especially true with socialism.
The classic definition of socialism is “a theory or system of social organization that advocates the vesting of ownership and control of the means of production and distribution, of capital, land, etc., in the community as a whole. ” That in itself is not necessarily spooky. In some ways, one might even argue (though this is a bit of an anachronistic application) that the early Church was socialist in some ways, as the community is described in the Book of Acts as owning everything in common and having a common purse for the relief of the poor in the community.
I think what Americans fear with the spectre of “socialism” is what Karl Marx did with the notion of socialism. Marxist ideology largely sees socialism as a stepping stone from a capitalist system to a more pure form of Communism. Personally, I think that fear is not completely unjustified because there can be a latent tyrannry in a collectivist majority when individual rights are trampled in the name of the “common good.”
The perfect example that I always think of in American history is the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) that was one of FDR's great schemes. I admit, I grew up in Tennessee and went to the TVA lakes all the time. I no doubt benefited from power (my father paid it) that largely was generated from the dam system, all of which is still publicly owned.
I also have read and occasionally got to talk to people whose family farm or entire home town was completely confiscated by the federal government to make room for the TVA lake system for pennies on the dollar. I have scuba dived down to a whole town that was just flooded to make way for a lake, buildings and all. Until TVA, Chattanooga basically was under water every spring because snow melt would run down the East Tennessee Valley every year. TVA fixed that, though at the cost of folks who got displaced and did not get fair market value for their condemned land was a tragedy.
My point is that 'common good' can often be predicated on very paternalistic “government knows best” planning. When a government is honestly trying to work for the common good, socialized programs can actually be a good in the end. To this day, thousands of people still benefit from TVA and will for many years into the future. The question that is invariably wrapped up in the idea of the common good when applied to real life policies is: Do the ends justify the means? As Spock once said, “The needs of many outweigh the needs of the few.”
To that end, a moral balance is needed. When a governing body loses that moral balance, bad things happen. This is where St. Augustine's City of Man vs. City of God comes into play. Very rarely can the City of Man achieve this moral balance without becoming corrupted or self serving. This is where the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity come into the equation in terms of moral theology. I will elaborate on this in my next post, as I believe this is truly a brilliant piece of theology that the Church has to share with the current political system, and of which many do not understand.