Commentary Magazine


Contentions

“The Best Keepers of the People’s Liberties”

According to a CNS News report, a new ObamaCare regulation will enable members of Congress and their staffs to use federal subsidies to pay for elective abortions. Though it will get less attention than the broken “if you like your plan/doctor, you can keep your plan/doctor” promise, this story arguably is of more significance–if not policywise, than at least symbolically.

This latest report will suffer from a phenomenon I’ve referenced before: the sheer quantity of bad news about ObamaCare means the public can only absorb so much of it at a time. Combine that with the fact that the American public is famously unenthusiastic about prioritizing issues like abortion in the national conversation, and this report is likely to be overlooked. That would be too bad, as CNS explains:

The federal subsidy members of Congress and their staff can now use to buy health-insurance plans that cover elective abortions contradicts a vow Obama made in a nationally televised speech to a joint session of Congress on Sept. 9, 2009.

It also contradicts the express purpose of the executive order on abortion funding that Obama promised to issue in March 2010 when the House of Representatives was preparing to take its final vote on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

That executive order promise was part of the compromise that essentially ended Bart Stupak’s time in Congress. The former Democratic congressman was one of the few remaining pro-life Democrats, and he held out on supporting ObamaCare–resistance that had enough support to stall the bill–until he could be assured the new health-care law would not use taxpayer dollars to fund elective abortion.

Stupak’s principled stand was a bluff, however. When Democrats, who largely support abortion-on-demand, along with the intensely pro-abortion Obama, pushed back on amending the bill to protect life, Stupak accepted the promise of an executive order from Obama instead. Few thought Obama would keep his promise, so none of this is terribly surprising, but the pro-abortion regulation would be the undoing of the one promise that, perhaps more than any other, secured the passage of ObamaCare.

Conservatives are at another disadvantage here, however. People are rarely able to muster the outrage for stories about process that they are about policy. But Obama’s behavior on the health law has certainly been outrageous. He has been treating the bill passed by Congress as a rough draft, issuing regulations after the fact that he couldn’t get passed by Congress in an already unpopular law. He understood the will of the people well enough–he just wasn’t particularly bothered by it.

Actually, that’s not quite true. Obama is easily bothered by the will of the people when it contradicts his own vision for society. He has been, on the ObamaCare issue and others, strikingly reminiscent of the unnamed “Anti-republican” in James Madison’s brief satirical dialogue defending popular self-government, Who Are the Best Keepers of the People’s Liberties? The two characters are a bit exaggerated, but the stakes were high enough that he could be forgiven a touch of rhetorical excess. What’s interesting is the extent to which the exaggerated thoughts of the “Anti-republican” seem far less cartoonish when applied to modern Democrats.

The “Anti-republican” claims that “The people are stupid, suspicious, licentious. They cannot safely trust themselves. When they have established government they should think of nothing but obedience, leaving the care of their liberties to their wiser rulers.” His “Republican” interlocutor objects that suppressing people’s freedom to save them from themselves only makes them more likely to be taken advantage of without recourse. They should respect and obey their government, but also “watch over it.”

“Anti-republican” responds:

You look at the surface only, where errors float, instead of fathoming the depths where truth lies hid. It is not the government that is disposed to fly off from the people; but the people that are ever ready to fly off from the government. Rather say then, enlighten the government, warn it to be vigilant, enrich it with influence, arm it with force, and to the people never pronounce but two words — Submission and Confidence.

“Republican” responds that this is a “perversion of the natural order of things” by making “power the primary and central object of the social system, and Liberty but its satellite.” The “Anti-republican,” in full statist/technocratic mode, objects that the “Republican” just isn’t getting it:

The science of the stars can never instruct you in the mysteries of government. Wonderful as it may seem, the more you increase the attractive force of power, the more you enlarge the sphere of liberty; the more you make government independent and hostile towards the people, the better security you provide for their rights and interests.

“Republican” pleads for humility:

Mysterious indeed! But mysteries belong to religion, not to government; to the ways of the Almighty, not to the works of man. And in religion itself there is nothing mysterious to its author; the mystery lies in the dimness of the human sight. So in the institutions of man let there be no mystery, unless for those inferior beings endowed with a ray perhaps of the twilight vouchsafed to the first order of terrestrial creation.

Of course, all this is a bit more imaginative and erudite and even captivating in its own way compared to the discourse we have today, but the outlines and the principles are there. The story of the enlightened technocrat who knows better than the ragged masses and just wants you to trust him is an old story made new. Madison even somehow anticipates engines of outcast utilized by the left to squash debate–a sort of primitive Attack Watch. “Republican” gets the better of the exchange and ends with a libertarian flourish worth savoring, and keeping in mind:

Anti-republican. — You are destitute, I perceive, of every quality of a good citizen, or rather of a good subject. You have neither the light of faith nor the spirit of obedience. I denounce you to the government as an accomplice of atheism and anarchy.

Republican. — And I forbear to denounce you to the people, though a blasphemer of their rights and an idolater of tyranny. Liberty disdains to persecute.