In one of the recent presidential debates, a panelist asked Ben Carson what he would do about ‘grey’ drugs, life-saving medicines that have recently seen astronomical price inflation. My ears perked up. For some time I have wondered about how we might resolve the tension, and where the balance point lies, between the considerations of the free market and access to essential, life-saving products.
Carson didn’t become a neurosurgeon by being a dummy. He skillfully tiptoed right past the issue, by doing what everyone in the public spotlight learns to do: he gave a reasonable-sounding response that completely dodged the question.
I can’t blame him. The issue of grey drugs is a political third rail. Any real answer to the question must criticize either a) the free market, or b) basic human decency. As pigeonholed thinkers, we are simply not willing to deal with such conflicts.
In an editorial aside, it seems to me that if a company holds a patent on a life-saving drug, and inflates the price far beyond the costs to the point that only some people get to live, I can’t see how that’s not blackmail. I am waiting for some ambitious district attorney to prosecute the pharmaceutical companies for extortion.
My point here, however, is that it’s a new kind of problem, something that the country has not seen before. We have no vocabulary, no paradigms for considering such fundamental conflicts. That is hardly surprising. What is worrisome is that we are ill prepared, by our culture and our outdated educational paradigms, to design new paradigms and vocabularies.
Imagine you could address the US Founders, and you told them about life-saving drugs that could wipe out cancer, stop infections, and treat mental illness. And you then urged them to write into our laws ways of protecting the free market while also protecting the dignity of human life. How would the Founders respond to your request?
That’s too easy. Benjamin Rush1)Dr. Rush was one of the remarkable intellects in Colonial culture, he was a signatory to the Declaration of Independence, a physician, a scientist, a social and educational reformer, and the founder of American psychiatry. would have you bundled off for psychiatric treatment.
In my post, Changing Change I noted that Pharaoh would have understood just about everything in Paris or London of 1776, but to people of the late 18th century, our world today would be frightening, even diabolical.2)I remember an episode of the old TV show Bewitched, where Samantha and Darren were transported back to colonial Salem. Darren tried to prove that he was not a witch by desperately explaining to the magistrates that a simple kitchen match is not magic.
I picked the year 1776 in anticipation of this discussion. Consider some of our current national debates on investment derivatives, pollution, cell phone security, assault weapons, capital gains taxes, genetic engineering, childhood vaccines, terrorism, Social Security, universal healthcare, minimum wage, and a host of others. Which side is ‘right’ is completely unimportant here; I just want to consider the question, What does the Constitution say about these things? Or to ask it another way, What did the Founders think about these issues?
The Founders never thought about them. They couldn’t even begin to imagine them. Most of these topics would have sounded like science fiction, except that science fiction didn’t exist yet. And if you tried to talk about them, they would have fitted you for a straight jacket.
Except that straight jackets didn’t exist yet, either.
The few problems that the Founders could have understood with explanation – such as derivatives, or Social Security – would have seemed ridiculous. They could not imagine why anyone would propose such a thing, because they would not understood why someone would even need it. Social Security is a particularly useful example. The program started right here in Acadiana, in Abbeville. Hadacol inventor Dudley LeBlanc made it a plank in his bid for Governor of Louisiana. Huey Long thought it was a ridiculous idea until he saw how popular it was with the voters, and he adopted it as a plank in his platform for President. FDR likewise thought it ridiculous, until he saw the same popularity.
The point being, if Huey Long and FDR thought it was ridiculous in the 20th century, we can only guess at how laughable the Founders would have found it in the 18th.
Beyond the proposals themselves, the Founders would have also found the necessary infrastructure to support such policy equally incomprehensible. Remember, this was a time in which a handful of people managed the entire federal government. Consider that during the Civil War late in the next century, Lincoln was still able to carry on his office’s business with two secretaries, and citizens would drop by the White House to chat with the President personally. So back in 1776, the Founders could not imagine the massive bureaucracies necessary to administer such things. And the computing systems we need to manage them today were definitely unimaginable.3)Interestingly enough, the first punch cards for data were used for the 1890 census, and were counted with an electromechanical tabulator created by Herman Hollerith. Hollerith subsequently founded the company which became IBM. Continued below.
These are some of my concerns when people quote the Founders and invoke Constitutional fundamentalism to resolve modern disputes. We are dealing with situations and problems the Founders could not possibly have anticipated, and wouldn’t even have understood. If they had understood them, it’s highly unlikely that they would have responded in the simplistic, black-and-white ways that various partisans argue they would.
Many have repeated the quote that the Constitution is “a machine that would go of itself.” The problem is, it’s a misquote. The original comment was actually a warning from James Russell Lowell in 1888 that the Constitution was “not a machine that would go of itself.”4)The Place of the Independent in Politics.
Likewise, various American political and judicial figures have been attributed the quote, “We are not a nation of men, but of laws.” In all cases it’s pseudepigraphy.5)I’ve been waiting for a chance to use that word. It means a false attribution. The real quote is no pronouncement, but a contemplation by John Adams: “If Aristotle, Livy, and Harrington knew what a republic was, the British constitution is much more like a republic than an empire. They define a republic to be a government of laws, and not of men.”6)John Adams, Novanglus Essays.
This also points up the problem with simple, sweeping pronouncements. The reality is obvious: we are a nation of men & women who write laws, and who are free to change them at any time. Prominent Constitutional fundamentalist Antonin Scalia said the Constitution is “Dead, dead, dead.” With no disrespect to the Justice nor the US Founders, the easy rejoinder to that is an obvious – but nevertheless necessary – consideration.
People quote some earlier statesman, or scientist, or scholar, and expect everyone to defer to their opinions. The Constitutional fundamentalists are wrong. We are a nation of equals.
We should defer to no one.
That is very different from refusing to listen to others, refusing to think about what they are saying and being closed-minded. In fact, that is the point here: fundamentalists, including Constitutional fundamentalists, are arguing for exactly that: don’t listen, don’t think, close your mind.
Well, up to a point. Because if you think about it, what they are really saying is, ‘Close your mind to everyone but my preferred authorities.” And you don’t have to listen very long to realize that ‘my preferred authorities’ is just code for ‘me’. Every viewpoint can find authority to support their opinions. And everyone who quotes them is really arguing for their own side.
Beyond the idea that citizens in a democracy should not defer to others, there is the point of this post. Using the opinions of long-dead men to resolve problems they could in no way understand, is simply fatuous.
Ours is a living democracy of living men and women, and as such, our Constitution is very much alive. Or to be more accurate, in a democracy the Constitution is as alive or dead as we decide it will be.
To take the approach of Constitutional fundamentalism, to bow to the opinions of the Founders or other thinkers, is to make a mockery of everything democracy purports to be. Yes, historically there was a group of remarkable men who gathered in Philadelphia in 1776 and created a daring new form of government. But the business they began, was only that: a beginning.
If our nation is to survive and prosper, it falls to each generation to rise as equals, and to take our place among the Founders. We must constantly reconsider anew who we are, and where we are going.
We must be the New Founders.
Mount Rushmore courtesy of Wikimedia.
Footnotes [ + ]
|1.||↑||Dr. Rush was one of the remarkable intellects in Colonial culture, he was a signatory to the Declaration of Independence, a physician, a scientist, a social and educational reformer, and the founder of American psychiatry.|
|2.||↑||I remember an episode of the old TV show Bewitched, where Samantha and Darren were transported back to colonial Salem. Darren tried to prove that he was not a witch by desperately explaining to the magistrates that a simple kitchen match is not magic.|
|3.||↑||Interestingly enough, the first punch cards for data were used for the 1890 census, and were counted with an electromechanical tabulator created by Herman Hollerith. Hollerith subsequently founded the company which became IBM.|
|4.||↑||The Place of the Independent in Politics.|
|5.||↑||I’ve been waiting for a chance to use that word. It means a false attribution.|
|6.||↑||John Adams, Novanglus Essays.|