September 25, 2012

Mitt Romney made headlines last week when a video surfaced of him declaring that 47% of the country’s citizens do not take personal responsibility for their lives and are dependent on the government. He also mocked the idea that health care is an entitlement. Well, an entitlement is something that someone has a legal right to, something they are owed, based on legal principles and cultural values. In our political discourse, however, the word “entitlement” is often used to refer to something that someone does not deserve. Personally, I think everyone should have a right to health care because our society should value human dignity enough to guarantee access to medical treatment regardless of an individual’s ability to pay. I think health care should be an entitlement, in the sense that everyone should have a right to it based on our society’s laws and religious values.

Health care aside, it seemed to be Romney’s assertion that people are not taking personal responsibility for their lives that upset most people. Why? Because, personal responsibility is not simply a conservative value; it is also a progressive value. The disagreement between conservatives and progressives is over whether or not today’s society provides equal opportunity for success. Progressives argue that today’s society does not provide equal opportunity, which invalidates the outcome of the “competition” between individuals. Conservatives mistake the progressive demand for equal opportunity with a demand for equal results. Progressives stand for equal opportunity rather than equal results.

What makes equal opportunity possible? Education. Health care. Housing. Safety. Basically, the overall social and economic environment within which an individual grows up largely determines their opportunity for success. Something that conservatives tend to forget when they judge the personal failure or success of the individual, and from that judgment vote for economic and social policies, is that all adults were once children. Again, all adults, those individuals who succeed or fail, were once children growing up in a certain type of social and economic environment. Family values cannot always overcome social and economic conditions.

Progressives argue that today’s society does not provide equal opportunity to all citizens due to a lack of education, lack of health care, lack of affordable housing, and lack of safety. Thus, the idea that everyone is competing on equal terms is false. In order to create equal opportunity, our society must create the conditions that equalize the opportunities of all children as much as possible. The creation of a society that provides equal opportunity requires spending by the government in the form of public education, health care, housing assistance, and neighborhood safety.

Conservatives argue that spending money to create equal opportunity is accomplished by “punishing” those who are “successful,” but what conservatives fail to understand is that using tax revenue to create equal opportunity is the only way to provide equal opportunity for all children. Conservatives want to hinder the ability of children to get a good education, have health care, have housing, and live in a safe neighborhood simply because the children’s parents are “unsuccessful.” The argument, without conservatives being fully aware of it, is this: the parents are “lazy” and do not take personal responsibility for their lives; therefore the children do not deserve equal opportunity.

As a society, we cannot determine who deserves what, or who is truly “successful,” until everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed. Progressives believe in personal responsibility, but they understand that social and economic conditions play a crucial role in determining whether or not a child can grow up to become what society defines as “successful.” Many people who view taxation as “punishment” fail to recognize how much their “success” was influenced by their own social and economic situation. They pride themselves on how responsible and successful they are, but fail to see that when they were children they did not teach themselves the K-12 curriculum, pay for their own doctor visits, build their own house, or choose what type of neighborhood they grew up in.

If our society wants to have a spectrum of economic inequality that is legitimate, that is the result of actual competition between people who had relatively equal opportunity to succeed, then our society must redistribute, yes, redistribute some wealth, in order to create a society that provides equal opportunity. Not only is the inequality within today’s society illegitimate, it is also immoral. Every child should have access to medical treatment when they are sick, regardless of how much money their parents have. Period. Every child should have access to a good school, regardless of how much money their parents have. Period. Education and health care should be guaranteed to everyone. They should be viewed as public goods, something that our society collectively guarantees, rather than private goods that people compete for in the marketplace.

Conservatives are currently defunding pre-school, eliminating college grants, and gradually eroding the funding for K-12 public education by emphasizing standardized test score accountability, supporting the expansion of for-profit charter schools, and promoting a voucher system. If pre-school is not available to everyone, if K-12 public education is privatized and if higher education continues to rise in cost, then the inequality that emerges within the next generation can hardly be considered the result of fair competition between people who had equal opportunity to succeed. The people who will succeed will be the people with money and they will continue to argue that they should not be “punished” for being “successful” and society will continue to become more unequal.

Progressives believe that education and health care are a right, not something to be earned. Education and health care are what make possible truly fair conditions for individuals to compete for success. Conservative arguments for “choice” and “competition” are really attempts to preserve existing inequality and increase corporate profits. Progressives reject the idea that everything is about competition and profit. Progressives and conservatives agree on many values, such as personal responsibility, but disagree on how society should be governed. What type of society do you want to live in: one where the common good is at least part of the goal (progressive) or one where everything is governed by the profit motive (conservative)? Mitt Romney is a businessman who views the government as a business. He intends to cut spending (education) and externalize costs (health care) in order to make the business as profitable as possible. Profitable? Yes, as profitable as possible for the wealthy and the corporate elite.



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