Sunday, July 15, 2012

Public Selfishness

I recently wrote about a young man using his cell phone, loudly, while exercising in the fitness center near me, a place where some awareness of other people should be taken for granted. This guy ignored the needs of others to satisfy his own desire to have a long, private conversation in a public place.

It does not take much imagination to apply this selfishness to the rancor over public policy, especially in the health care debate. Sometimes a simple word like "selfishness" sums up the underlying attitude of those who say, "I have health care and I don't feel responsible for those who don't."

In what many insist is a "Christian nation" that also happens to be the richest on the planet, 45,000 Americans die each year because they lack access to health care. Fifty-million of our fellow citizens lack health insurance and must rely on emergency rooms if they want to avoid dying in case of a medical crisis.

Arguments about health care can and have been made about government intrusion and expanding government control, and many disagree with the recent Supreme Court ruling upholding the constitutionality of Obamacare. Some feel strongly that they are being forced to purchase a product against their will. I can understand this point of view because I, too, value individual freedom.

But, as I have earlier stated, individual freedom without concern for the common good, for the whole of society of which each of us is a part, is a very limited view of the issues involved. Most people do not see, or want to see, what all major religions teach: that individual freedoms must always be balanced against the needs of others.

Greg Garrett recently made this point, using the Gospels as evidence (his book is Faithful Citizenship). He quotes Martin Luther King, on the last night of his life: faithful citizenship requires a "dangerous unselfishness."

King learned the hard way how dangerous his cause was; so did Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor who stood up to Hitler and was executed.

President Obama has often addressed the importance of the common good, often to deaf ears. In his latest State of the Union address, he asked us to imagine what our country would be like if it were founded NOT on absolute concern for individual freedoms but on concern for everyone. This perspective, which has so much in common with the Judaeo-Christian tradition of social justice based on the common good, is often overlooked or misinterpreted as a kind of government dictatorship ("socialism").

Obama and his people must do more to explain how the ACA (health care act) helps rather than harms us as a people. He must continue to invoke Lincoln and others who spoke of the better angels of our nature, which tell us that it may be easier and more comfortable and more logical to act in our own interest, but we are all part of something greater than ourselves. It is called America.

In the 1820s, Alexis de Tocqueville was worried that the extreme individualism of the new American democracy might sap "the virtues of public life." Since then the debate has raged between those who insist that public policy must guarantee the voters' self-interest and those who uphold the legal and moral obligation each citizen has to help his neighbor.

As a recent debate in the New York Times letters column indicates, we in America have become conditioned to think politically in terms of "me" whereas democracy requires that we recognize that we are all in this together.

As Paul L. Nevins writes, what J. K. Galbraith observed fifty years ago--the existence of "private affluence and public squalor"--has grown worse. And the inability of politicians to address this social injustice is leading us deeper and deeper into a malaise: selfishness is, whether we want to admit it or not, the cause of America's political and economic problems.

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