What Kind of Society Do Americans Want?

by LAWRENCE DAVIDSON

On 7 May 2012 a new study came out on healthcare in the United States. Based on research carried out by the Urban Institute, the report is published in the journal Health Affairs. Here are some of its findings:

– There is a prevailing “trend toward private insurance policies with larger deductibles and higher co-payments…”

– “Employers [are] shifting more [heath care] costs onto workers.”

– “Poor and uninsured adults [there are presently 41 million such people in the U.S.] had greater difficulties not just with health care costs, but finding doctors who would see them.” In addition, “too few providers are taking Medicaid” patients.

– One consequence of this trend is that “one in five American adults under 65 had an ‘unmet medical need’ because of costs in 2010, compared with one in eight in 2000.”

What all this means is that health care in the U.S. has deteriorated in the first decade of the 21st century. That was also reflected in a 2005 study by the World Health Organization that ranked the United States (supposedly the richest of nations) as 141st in government spending on health. Perhaps not unrelated, the U.S. ranks number 1 in the world when it comes to anxiety disorders.

The Philosophy Behind the Decline

This situation reflects a culture-shaping philosophy that has persisted in this country, with but brief interludes, since its founding. That philosophy teaches that we all are, or should be, rugged individuals. We should take care of ourselves and not rely on others. That is our responsibility in life and if someone can not measure up its their problem, not society’s.

Where does this attitude come from? There are no doubt multiple roots, but one source is an historically deep-seated national dislike of taxation. From the first moment of revolution against Great Britain, freedom meant escaping imperial taxes. Americans of that day claimed that only elected local legislatures could rightly lay down taxes. The claim was made, in part, because within such a localized system taxes could be kept to an absolute minimum.

This attitude toward taxation is, in turn, at the heart of the original capitalist outlook as it evolved in the 18th century. According to this perspective there are only three things for which the government can rightly tax its citizens: national defense, internal security (including the court system) and the enforcement of contracts. Beyond that the government must leave people alone and that includes not “over taxing” them and not regulating any of their business affairs.

This philosophy has caused untold misery since its inception. For the first century of the industrial revolution when the government of Great Britain (the original industrializing nation) was controlled by people who wanted minimal taxation and no business regulation, working class people lived in dire poverty, environmental pollution was rampant, industrial safety was non-existent, and health care for the poor was the concern of private charity only. Why? Because for the government to address any of these concerns would cost money and that would mean raising the taxes of the folks who had money.

It took over one hundred years of labor organizing, strikes, riots, outbreaks of preventable diseases, and the incessant pestering of elected officials by that small minority of the population who thought all this was a scandal (mostly women and religious folks), to force politicians (kicking and screaming) to address social needs and enforce health and safety related regulations. The Great Depression beginning in 1929 forced the issue with a vengeance and led to larger government and the “welfare state.” In other words, it led to a sense of social responsibility on the part of Western governments–most reluctantly the U.S. government. In America, that lasted through the 1970s and then the situation reversed.

One would think that memory would serve us for more than a mere forty odd years. That after suffering all the misery brought on by 19th and early 20th century capitalism we would have learned that to achieve social peace and a modicum of general prosperity, the government must perform important community functions including supplying all its citizens with decent and affordable health care.

But no it hasn’t worked that way. In 1981 Ronald Reagan became president. He started the process of deregulation and shifting taxation away from the rich. Others, including Democrats like Bill Clinton, followed along. When recently Barack Obama proposed health care reform he was labeled a socialist. Now, just listen to Mitt Romney and his Republican cohorts. Just listen to the Tea Party cabal. Just listen to Fox News. All of them want to go back to the “good old days” of minimalist government and minimum taxes. By the way, in the midst of those good old days, about the year 1843, the median age of death in the industrial city of Manchester England was 17.

What Kind of Society Do Americans Want?

This leads us to the question, just what sort of society do Americans want? Indeed, do they want a meaningful society at all?. Why not just stick to family units or small tribes drifting about in a state of nature? Well, in a sense that is what we chose to do. The tribes have become larger and today we call them nation states. But in the American version, localism makes for myriad sub-tribes. In the state of Pennsylvania, where I live, the people in the relatively rural center of the state as well as those in the urban suburbs, not only care little for those living in cities such as Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, they actively dislike them. They don’t feel like they live in the same society. And they certainly don’t want to be taxed to help an urban population with a lot of poor folks. In others words, whatever sense of social solidarity rural and suburban Pennsylvanians feel, it does not go much beyond their own local community (or “tribe”). And Pennsylvanians are by no means unique in this country

The fact is that, in terms of social conscience, the U.S. is still quite a primitive place. And this primitiveness is sustained by a philosophy of selfishness. Among other things, that prevailing philosophy is making an ever greater number of us unhealthy. Is this acceptable to most Americans? Is that the kind of society they want? The political practice since 1981 seems to answer, yes.

Lawrence Davidson is professor of history at West Chester University in West Chester PA.

Like What You’ve Read? Support CounterPunch
Weekend Edition
August 28-30, 2015
Andrew Levine
Viva Trump?
Jeffrey St. Clair
Long Time Coming, Long Time Gone
Alan Nasser
The Myth of the Middle Class: Have Most Americans Always Been Poor?
Ismael Hossein-Zadeh
Behind the Congressional Disagreements Over the Iran Nuclear Deal
Lawrence Ware – Marcus T. McCullough
I Won’t Say Amen: Three Black Christian Clichés That Must Go
Evan Jones
Zionism in Britain: a Neglected Chronicle
John Wight
Learning About the Migration Crisis From Ancient Rome
Andre Vltchek
Lebanon – What if it Fell?
Robert Fantina
Hillary Clinton, Palestine and the Long View
Ben Burgis
Gore Vidal Was Right: What Best of Enemies Leaves Out
Robert Sandels - Nelson P. Valdés
The Cuban Adjustment Act: the Other Immigration Mess
John Stanton
Israel’s JINSA Earns Return on Investment: 190 Americans Admirals and Generals Oppose Iran Deal
Randy Blazak
Donald Trump is the New Face of White Supremacy
Bill Yousman
The Fire This Time: Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “Between the World and Me”
Michael Welton
The Conversable World: Finding a Compass in Post-9/11 Times
Brian Cloughley
Don’t be Black in America
Charles Pierson
How the US and the WTO Crushed India’s Subsidies for Solar Energy
Kent Paterson
In Search of the Great New Mexico Chile Pepper in a Post-NAFTA Era
Gui Rochat
The Guise of American Democracy
Emma Scully
Vultures Over Puerto Rico: the Financial Implications of Dependency
Chuck Churchill
Is “White Skin Privilege” the Key to Understanding Racism?
Kathleen Wallace
The Id(iots) Emerge
Andrew Stewart
Zionist Hip-Hop: a Critical Look at Matisyahu
Gregg Shotwell
The Fate of the UAW: Study, Aim, Fire
Halyna Mokrushyna
Decentralization Reform in Ukraine
Scott Parkin
Katrina Plus Ten: Climate Justice in Action
Norman Pollack
World Capitalism, a Basket Case: A Layman’s View
Sarah Lazare
Listening to Iraq
John Laforge
NSP/Xcel Energy Falsified Welding Test Documents on Rad Waste Casks
Wendell G Bradley
Drilling for Wattenberg Oil is Not Profitable
Joy First
Wisconsin Walk for Peace and Justice: Nine Arrested at Volk Field
Mel Gurtov
China’s Insecurity
Mateo Pimentel
An Operator’s Guide to Trump’s Racism
Yves Engler
Harper Conservatives and Abuse of Power
Michael Dickinson
Guns of Brixton: Another Unarmed Black Shot by Police
Ron Jacobs
Daydream Sunset: a Playlist
Charles R. Larson
The Beginning of the Poppy Wars: Amitav Ghosh’s “Flood of Fire”
August 27, 2015
Sam Husseini
Foreign Policy, Sanders-Style: Backing Saudi Intervention
Brad Evans – Henry A. Giroux
Self-Plagiarism and the Politics of Character Assassination: the Case of Zygmunt Bauman
Peter Lee
Making Sense of China’s Stock Market Meltdown
Paul Craig Roberts
Wall Street and the Matrix: Where is Neo When We Need Him?
Kerry Emanuel
The Real Lesson of Katrina: the Worst is Yet to Come
Dave Lindorff
Why Wall Street Reporting is a Joke
Pepe Escobar
Brave (Miserable) New Normal World
Ramzy Baroud
‘Islamic State’ Pretence and the Upcoming Wars in Libya