A Philosophical Challenge for the Left

Long-time friend of the blog Matt Zeitlin having recently resumed blogging at his old place again, has been doing some interesting work on the left’s internal debate over the Senate health care bill (which will likely be, more or less, the conference bill). Characterizing the argument of bill opponent Glenn Greenwald writes:

What matters is not that the bill “will also do some genuine good, as it will help many people who can’t get coverage now to get it.” The immediate policy implications are not as important as the affirmative says they are.

The “genuine good” is really insignificant when it comes to the fight that truly matters, the fight against corporatism: “But if one finds this creeping corporatism to be a truly disturbing and nefarious trend, then the bill will seem far less benign.” We should bed discussing corporatism and strategies to defeat instead of wasting our time thinking up and passing policies in the corporatist system.

We shouldn’t just consider the immediate consequences, but instead consider how this bill upholds and strengthens a corrupt mode of governance and policy making: “Even if one grants the arguments made by proponents of the health care bill about increased coverage, what the bill does is reinforces and bolsters a radically corrupt and flawed insurance model and an even more corrupt and destructive model of “governing.” It is a major step forward for the corporatist model, even a new innovation in propping it up.”

This entire debate comes down to a weighing of alternatives. If we accept Greenwald’s own terms and his description of the debate, we must ask what is more important, expanding health care coverage and regulating the insurance industry, or drawing a line in the sand and saying that this “corrupt and destructive model of governing” is wrong and should be fought and rejected at every turn?

Which is to say he’s making a process argument. Greenwald is an attorney, and so he’s concerned with matters of precedent.

Clearly, the factions in this dispute can’t be easily categorized as “corporatist” and “anti-corporatist.” Paul Krugman, Matthew Yglesias and Ezra Klein all support the bill–none of them could be accurately described as content with the level of influence large corporations wield over American politics. So if we grant, for just a little while, Greenwald’s premise that this bill is somehow advancing the cause of corporatism, it’s fair to say that most of its supporters on the left aren’t supporting it out of an ideological commitment to corporate hegemony.

Instead, they marshal arguments like this one, this one, and this one. All arguments about the immediate impact of the policy as viewed in a political vacuum; in other words, arguing that the bill is good independent of both the process through which it was written and the precedent it sets for future legislation.

Now, for the record, I think this is a good bill. I think that you do the best with the tools that you are given, and that it’s a remarkable victory that the left was able to wring a reform bill out of Congress in the first place. I also think that, despite what Greenwald says, the passage of this bill will set a fantastic precedent; it will break a long drought during which nobody ever dreamed of Congress passing sweeping expansions of the welfare state.

But that being said, I think that left-leaning supporters of the bill need to eventually confront the broader worldview that Greenwald represents here. He’s asking us if spending political capital and time to reach policy goals we see as achievable right now is worth it if it means working through a corrupt system that will go unreformed in the meantime. If I can extrapolate from his position a little bit, it seems to suggest that the more we work through that system, the more we become bonded to it, and the more difficult actual reform becomes.

So there’s an interesting tension there. And progressives pretty much across the spectrum are frustrated with the process, broadly speaking–Yglesias, one of the more prominent bloggers supporting the bill, is particularly concerned with reforming the Senate rules. The question is how much we’re willing to sacrifice immediate policy goals to work on process goals that will (hopefully) make achieving those policy goals easier in the future.

That’s a conversation I think the left needs to start having. It probably won’t be an easy one.

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