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The Public Philosopher: Sharing The American Dream

Tuesday 30 October 2012, 08:50

Mukul Devichand Mukul Devichand

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Editors note: You can hear The Public Philosopher on Radio 4 at 9am on 23 and 30 Oct 2012. Here, Mukul Devichand who worked on the programme with Professor Sandel talks about the issues raised in the second programme. PMcD

Professor Sandel

"If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help," President Obama proclaimed to a crowd in Virginia back in July.

"There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive."

"If you've got a business - you didn't build that," he continued. "Somebody else made that happen."

For many Republicans, including Governor Mitt Romney who goes head to head with President Obama in the polls next week, this remark became symbolic.

They took it to be proof of President Obama's pro-redistribution, anti-business - indeed, un-American values.

"The President supports redistribution. I don't," Romney said. "It's never been a characteristic of America."

These remarks came after Romney made a gaffe of his own. Secretly filmed, he was heard to attack 47% of the US population he said were living without paying federal income taxes.

For this week's edition of The Public Philosopher with political philosopher Prof Michael Sandel, we challenged a public audience at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government to look on these statements by Romney and Obama not as gaffes - but as moral positions.

"Who built It?" we asked them. "Is the American Dream of individual success a myth?"

This turns out to be a sharply divisive issue - even in the liberal confines of Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Harvard is located.

And because it was in America, this was decisively not the usual Radio 4 fare on the question of welfare.

Our audience looked at healthcare reform and redistributive taxes through the prism of moral arguments.

From a British perspective, the arguments presented were strangely unfamiliar. From the very beginning, everyone in the room talked not about the common good, or shared responsibility - but about freedom.

Libertarians questioned the morality of taking people's incomes, through coercive taxation, for purposes like universal healthcare.

The opening gambit came from a man who questioned why someone else should ever have to pay for anyone's services and products - like healthcare.

"I am one of the someone elses," he said.

But strikingly, those who supported taxation for healthcare also raised the issue of freedom. Without basic healthcare for survival, they argued, is anyone truly free?

Prof Sandel noted that in the US debate, liberals as well as conservatives talk about freedom and coercion as the main rationale for their approaches.

Libertarians and conservatives argue that governments are wrong to take away people's incomes for redistribution - which they say contradicts American values as set out in the Constitution.

But liberals counter by quoting the Constitution themselves: without certain basic access to healthcare, education and so on, they ask, is an equal democracy truly possible?

Prof Sandel pointed out that this split goes way back in American history.

Even Franklin D. Roosevelt argued for his "new deal" reforms using the freedom argument, rather than the "common good" arguments used by British and other European social reformers.

"Necessitous men," said FDR, "are not free men."

  • But what do you think?
  • Does a welfare state limit everyone's freedom - or enhance it?
  • Is it morally right to tax the successful?

Mukul Devichand is a Senior Broadcast Journalist in News and Current Affairs, Radio

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  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    Your blog is interesting as to what people outside the USA feels/sees.
    Recently spoke with a young woman who home schools her 9 and 10 year olds and she was telling them about the America Presidential election. She explained Obama was a socialist who believes in taking the money a family makes or taxes to help for instance she said, the little boy next door. The boys thought that was fantastic that Obama would take their money and help the little boy next door. She told them they had no say in how their money would be spent that it would be up to government to decide how to help the little boy next door.

    However, she continued on to explain the conservative point of view which is perhaps it would be better for her boys to work and make money and spend their own money and help the boy because they knew what he needed and the government didn't need to decide for them. The boys decided they wanted to be conservationists and make their own decisions. The American Bill of Rights and their Constitution strictly adhere to free speech, gun ownership, and responsibilities of each and every state. The Federal Governments responsibility is national security and military. More little boys like this will maintain America's freedom.

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    The Ron Paul principle that was referred to - taxation to pay for the services that preserve personal *property*, but not for those that preserve personal *health* - was asserted, but never justified. Why aren't the libertarians arguing that paying taxes (to help strangers hold on to their property) is theft? Surely (on the libertarian philosophy) I should have to pay to protect my own property, and you should have to pay to protect yours. On what grounds do they justify making *me* pay to preserve *their* rights? The distinction they make is convenient for them, sure; but they say nothing to support it.

    And there's a deeper conundrum here. They all talked about property and money and earning as though these were unproblematic, as though they were natural kinds. But surely they are all just social conventions? The currency, the law of contract, intellectual property rights - all are maintained and policed by the state, and are as much 'built' as anything Obama mentioned.

    In the end, though, the arguments brought to bear on both sides in this programme were equally self-serving, with no appeal to anything beyond "but I don't *like* the implications of your principles, I want a different conclusion!" Professor Sandel made some gesture towards getting people to criticise their own assumptions but (in a half-hour slot) he had a hill to climb. Well done to him; still, I'd like to hear a longer version where he actually makes the contributors think!

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    One of our friends has a doctorate of theology, doctorate of psychology, and physiology. He believes that every child (other than those born with apparent mental and severe physical handicaps) were created equal.

    The difference from all of us is our upbringing, our surrounding, our parents, our grand-parents, quality of early teachers, etc.

    Many children in the USA now live in a one parent family and a very large percentage of these children have an uneducated parent who couldn't help them learn if they tried.

    Many households with two parents are overworked or both working to make ends meet. Time is a problem for working on homework or assisting with special projects.

    Rare is the parent/grand parents who assist the children with home work and or life lessons.

    The last election in the USA proves these statements!

    It is also a proven fact if you pay people with money such as disability or support payments they will vote for you!

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    whoitis @41

    Thanks for the sermon!

    Gospel according to Ayn Rand?

    Your 'young woman' certainly gets around.

    Is 'home schooling' at all monitored in the US?

    Did you report the abuse?

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    Dear Hayllar: In the USA companies before Obamacare could self insure (meaning they put aside enough each year to pay claims based on the benefits offered versus the cost shared by the employee). Once ObCare was announced which was shoved down the throats of the American citizens who will have to pay for everyone (even illegals) in the US even visitors (but the Congress People don't have to be on it) those companies have said they will drop their plans. This healthcare plan will in this writer's opinion be the blow increasing the deficit beyond control.

    Most working Americans looked for jobs with benefits including health care. It was only the last several years that employers decided they wouldn't supply insurance; thank you Obama!

    Besides self insurance, most insurance companies made their rates more purchasable based on the rates vs benefits or true freedom to purchase what a person considered best for themselves. Companies had to remain cost effective in order to stay in business. Many people don't want to give up a car or a luxury item to buy insurance where as we always felt it was the first thing we purchased. Strictly a mind set and focus of what is more important. We were free and always felt we could make our own decisions or determination, now we can't under OC. Is it right we should pay for an illegal when they were a thief coming into our country. Their country wouldn't pay for us!

    Most people give to their Christian organization as well as help in their community, or clubs (Masonic, Eastern Star, Shriners, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, 4-H, FFA) by being leaders or contributing. Their gifts even leave the US and work to promote Christianity as well as better housing and living for different cultures. Free enterprise is the basis of the constitution which also allows for freedom to use your resources as one chooses.

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.

    ALL for All - I apologize if I insulted you. Wasn't meant to be a sermon or gospel. The Young woman is a stay at home Mom with a working Husband raising her two young boys because the schools have large 40+ classrooms and she is able to educate them better. Yes they pass state administered tests and there was no abuse, what in the world made you believe there was?

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    whoitis @44

    Seriously to uphold American Freedom, not of the master-race or its master-manipulators but of the 'created equal' individual, promotion of the general welfare would need to be established, by the People, all enjoying the Blessings of LIberty, rather than trapped in squalid Fear & Greed.

    Hard-pressed though many are, that enough turn out to 'vote their hope' does nothing to prove or disprove your statements. Generalised disparagement of voters, and of human potential, tells more of the author than of his or her subjects.

    The case for Equal Democracy is as powerfully reinforced by stories of vote-purchase with benefits as with tax-reliefs. May you begin to understand why.

  • rate this

    Comment number 48.

    All for All, I do understand the Democracy, but perhaps you don't understand the American way. As a youth (not telling my age thank you) my father made under $5.00 a hour. But he was able to educate 5 of us, clothe and feed us as well. What did I want...something better than my father and mother had not stating I was ashamed or embarrassed by them because I was never embarrassed or ashamed of them. We knew we were blessed and never looked down upon anyone, my parents helped wherever they could regardless of faith or ethic status. My parents were married well over 65 years and I over 40 and yes to the same person. This is also unheard of nowadays, too easy not to believe in oaths, or to work through problems. We have instilled the same in our children. This is not to say we don't have disagreements! It's human nature.

    As far as not being able to get medical services, our countries hospitals are mostly non profit hospitals. They already treat people who have no insurance and most of the states "had" a plan called Medicade to assist those with larger needs. Now we hold auctions, dinners, etc to raise money for special needs such as cancer of little ones to assist parents with their costs. I'm not saying there are not many many selfish people either who could work but work just seems to be beneath them, or people who never give to any organization that helps those in need.

    The real issue I was referring to is the human issue of those who must learn by the lessons of hard knocks rather than a structured education, or are behind because of their parents ignorance. Do you suggest these children should be taken and raised someplace like an orphanage? I always thought that was the nice things about humans, they are all different!

  • rate this

    Comment number 49.

    Hallar - where is the fear? Sorry missed that! There is no fear unless it is losing our freedoms. Regardless, we are a relentless lot.

  • rate this

    Comment number 50.

    whoitis @45

    "The deficit" is distressing, as a 'headache' for comfortable policy-makers, a political 'risk-factor' for our masters, one more excuse for real abuse of the ordinary citizen made unemployed or further short-paid, and a virtual stick with which humanity and democracy may be 'beaten'.

    It will be in serious address of US democratic deficit, that due control of "the deficit" and prudent reduction of national debt will be efficiently negotiated.

    For the economy to be enabled to transform itself with maximum intelligence of capital and labour movement, enlightened free agreement will be needed on universal liberation of conscience, the putting aside of conflict of interest.

    To suppose otherwise is frankly to risk treason, in falsehood to 'God & Man'. We are indeed 'as children', no society yet to approach 'maturity', and sympathy is due for dashed hopes in the US as in the UK with respect to post-war dreams of social justice.

    Individuals and families will always be unique, but such has been and still is the range of forced disparity of circumstance, it is self-deception to generalise and moralise on 'the unwise choices' of others. Sad the day, and the days I fear many, when Americans in healthcare 'have to' turn away any sick.

    Having given so much to so many at such personal cost in two World Wars and many other 'scrapes'… Having discovered ourselves to have been led 'not always' ethically… Must we continue to sell the culture of serious 'winners', and 'serious' losers? Our 'charity' then to rescue?

    PS @46 "no abuse"? Your young woman's 'story' rings a bell, the gullibility of 'her boys' as implausible now as it was at first hearing!

  • rate this

    Comment number 51.

    whoitis @48

    Good news here, no shame in wanting "something better".

    Hard indeed, the road ahead, even with maximum afforded 'social belonging'.

    Born 'ignorant', we all will know 'hard knocks' from folly and ill-luck; and some will know many more than others, perhaps never to settle. Better context will be of help - great help.

    Your neighbourhood has kept you 'righteously busy', and it is with no intent to disparage that I suggest of your life as I wish of mine, would that our energies could have been given to fullest benefit, in our own ways as "all different", but in full concert sure of each other's free conscience.

    I must say goodnight - wrong time-zone!

    PS. Truly sorry if your young woman told the truth.


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