Sunday, April 22, 2007

“No American Left Behind”

Part 1: The Irresponsibles

Part 2: “No American Left Behind”

I’ve written this before, but couldn’t help responding to a local conservative columnist, an army vet whose column one weekend praised those in the military for serving the greater good. Yet with all the danger, he asked, why do they stay in?

I replied, in part:
In large part to serve, and in part for the comaraderie. And in part to be a part of "something greater than themselves."

Believing in something greater than ourselves is something we should promote in the civilian world where often we promote just the opposite. I'm reminded of the old line from "First Blood": "In the field we had a code of honor, you watch my back, I watch yours. Back here there's nothing!"

Never leave a team member behind is something we teach our military. For Marines too it is a code of honor: never leave a Marine behind.

Until you're discharged, then it's every man for himself. Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps. Don't expect any help from me.

No wonder they stay in.

We promote No Child Left Behind as a goal both conservatives and liberals should eagerly embrace. So why not No Worker Left Behind? No Family Left Behind? No American Left Behind?

Why is the Army's esprit de corps not a model for public policy? Why is No American Left Behind a noble goal for our military - our largest single federal program - but socialism in civilian policy? (Certainly not because the military fosters personal weakness?) Why is it good enough for the Marines, but not good enough for the rest of us?

A former Fort Sill artillaryman I met said he found the military to be a kind of ideal society: everyone had a place, everyone had a purpose and a job, their basic needs were met, and everyone (or nearly everyone) pulled together.
That artillaryman was Markos Moulitsas of Daily Kos.

My local columnist replied politely:
I guess there is a certain socialistic aspect to the military, "three hots and a cot", medical care, etc. There is one critical difference that causes it to diverge from socialism: the military requires and expects individual responsibility and risk taking to complete it's mission. I believe that's what builds that sense of selflessness and esprit you mentioned. Socialism has proven to be a system where people are dependent on government for everything to include decision making … That is a system where people are taken care of by the government and there is no sense or requirement for personal responsibility or individual decision making. Now that is socialism. If we can build a "No American Left Behind" program based on personal responsibility, I'm all for it!
The Irresponsibles are always the deal-breaker.

Even if he fails at it, a soldier serving the greater good gets help to be all that he can be – or to escape the battlefield alive – even though he’s “dependent on government for everything to include decision making.” For conservatives that’s the kind of heart-swellingly patriotic stuff they make movies about. America vows not to leave him behind and will spend blood and treasure to save him even if he’s only “one-hundredth of 1 percent” of the troops in the AO.

But fellow citizens who need help succeeding in the private sector deserve only pity, if that. It's the law of the meritocratic jungle. Social Darwinism. If they aren’t smart enough, talented enough, disciplined enough, educated enough or well-born enough it’s because they are Irresponsibles. Helping them enables their dependency and unjustly burdens the more virtuous and successful.

Worse, a society that taxes the able to help the less able disincentivizes success by responsible conservatives, deprives them of their freedom, tilts the nation towards socialism, and fosters personal weakness.

If there’s one thing conservatives cannot abide, it’s personal weakness. Ask Bill Bennett or Rush Limbaugh.

In The Great Risk Shift Jacob Hacker explores what he dubs the "Personal Responsibility Crusade," finding its roots in the insurance industry. Pooling risk among policyholders was once the point of insurance, like spreading the costs of national defense so that no citizen had to bear the burden of buying his own tank or fighter-bomber. One downside was an obscure insurance concept called moral hazard: "Protecting people against risks reduces the care people exercise in avoiding those risks." It's a potential risk the insurance industry deals with through properly designed programs.

But by the 1980s, Hacker contends, moral hazard became the conservative justification for dismantling New Deal-era programs that pool risk in the private sector.
"Insurance had been justified as a way of aiding the unfortunate - now it was criticized as a way of coddling the irresponsible. Insurance had been understood as a partial solution to social problems like unemployment and poverty in old age - now it was condemned as worsening the very problems it was meant to solve."
Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. Insure him against famine, and he'll have no incentive to fish. Insure him against illness and he'll overconsume health care, driving up health care costs and inefficiency, dragging down the economy.

And all it takes are a few bad apples.

Next: Bad Apples

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