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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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  • Comment number 1.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

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    Comment number 2.

    Nobody raised the argument that too extreme a welfare state can undemine the incentive to work, as is being addressed in the UK

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    Comment number 3.

    On the issue of healthcare, regardless of freedoms, who do you trust more: Global healthcare corporations worth billions and with billions used to lobby, charging extortionately high prices for a poor healthcare service, or an accountable government?

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    Comment number 4.

    An interesting discussion about redistribution. But no one seemed to notice that we do redistribute and it is from the poor to the rich. After a recession the national cake gets smaller yet the percentage share of the reduced cake increases for the rich and decreases for the poor. When the economy grows, the national cake gets larger; the percentage share for all grows but the percentage grows more for the rich than the poor.

    We have created 3,000 millionaires via the national lottery, where did the greater than three billion pounds come from? The pockets of the poor maybe?

    When it is suggested that we should redistribute from the rich to the poor perhaps it should be framed as giving something back.

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    Comment number 5.

    Government was and is a 'protection racket', but one which is desired by those it serves. The four pillars of this model are Police, Army and Justice, underpinned by elected law-makers.

    When governments go beyond these basic requirements, they must do so with caution if they require additional coercive taxation. Each step along that slippery path moves government further towards 'provider' rather than just 'protector'.

    The UK is in a terminal decline as a result of redistributive policies and employment laws that can make us so uncompetitive that buying overseas (imports) are often the choice that consumers make.

    Overseas jurisdictions that afford little in the way of redistributed tax income as welfare entitlements. Little in the way of emplyment protection laws.

    We are content to fund our lifestyle of welfare and employment protection by borrowing on international bond markets, collateralised by the government's ability to jail citizens if they do not pay taxes.

    This money will have to be paid back to fund this luxurious level of personal comfort by the next generation.

    Never has a egregious financial fraud been perpetrated by one generation on the next.

    Our kids will hate us.

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    Comment number 6.

    Interestingly, a USA audience argues from the point of personal freedoms rather than how we might argue. I suspect we would be saying it is about efficiencies and conflicting personal agendas. We don't argue that paying for public health confilcts with our basic freedoms, we argue it isn't efficient, or people are claiming what shouldn't be given - our agrguements are about distribution of benefits - not whether they should exist at all. Americans seem to be still hooked on a wildly optomistic future of philanthropy filling the need for health care and survival benefits - a policy thatwould take us back to Victorian England. The track record of a charity based society and what that might be like was never discussed - but you can feel the attraction of the rich to a policy of 'keep all earnings and give to charity when you feel like it' - personal freedom to contribute (or not). I wonder what the US armed forces would make of that approach, and other government organised departments the US citizens take as a given?

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    Comment number 7.

    With regard to redistribution of wealth, instead of referring to the super-wealthy such as Bill Gates and Michael Jordan the focus should be on taxpayers of much more modest means (like small business owners) who still are "wealthy" relative to many others and would be called upon to give up what they have earned.

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    Comment number 8.

    @2 Are you seriously suggesting people don't feel like working because they have the NHS? It's an irrelevant question because I don't think we could ever have a minimum unemployment benefit that didn't cover healthcare anyway. The argument that extreme welfare makes people lazy is potentially valid one, but I don't think healthcare is part of that.

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    Comment number 9.

    Do you really "Earn" your money. Does J K Rowling sit down and hand write all her millions of books? Does Wayne Rooney score 1000 times more goals than his colleague in a lower division? Does my CEO work 100 times harder than me?

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    Comment number 10.

    For a country which prides it's self on having so many practicing Christians for whom "loving one's neighbour as one's self" is one of the central tenets I was appalled by the responses of many of the contributors to the debate and their total selfishness and selfcentredness. No man (or woman) is an island and all that.

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    Comment number 11.

    Did listeners notice how ordered and civilised this debate was compared with ours in the UK? No hesitations in choosing a speaker - like "the man in the blue pullover", or "wait till the microphone reaches you", etc. The chairman was equally concise and summarised the debate at each stage with admirable clarity. Nor did there seem to be the hostility or barracking which can often arise in debates here.

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    Comment number 12.

    Hayllar - you are kind of sidestepping the core issues into a private v public issue. Down that route we mighht want to nationalise Microsoft as 90% of people use it and to leave it in private hands in contrary to the public interest. Or renationalise BT, or the utilities. The core arguement is about whether we fund benefits in Health Care, or let our society pay as they go? Should the rich be asked for more if we opt for public funding? Who supplies the service is down the line after the basic policies have been thrashed out.

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    Comment number 13.

    One of the arguments relating to coercion was particularly troubling, that a standard government healthcare system would coerce the recipient into accepting a particular treatment and remove personal choice. Surely this is better that the rather starker choice of having treatment or having no treatment.

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    Comment number 14.

    I try to be a Christian and I thought that a majority of Americans feel the same way. How can anyone who believes in the tenets of Christianity, or indeed most benign religions, argue for a policy which would leave a suffering person untreated because they lacked the means to pay for help which was available? Would those who advocate the latter just pass by on the other side?

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    Comment number 15.

    What amuses me about Romney and his ilk (as represented by the young Libertarians in the audience) is how they make a precise connection between work and income. I was disappointed that no-one asked the simple question, "Do you believe that a person who makes $3,000,000 a year works 200 times harder than someone who makes (and in this case I might actually use the term 'earns') only $15,000 a year?"

    Ok - now I'm off to buy 50 space cars, in support of my God-given right to happiness. ..... On second thought, maybe I'll use the money to buy copies of Barbara Ehrenrieich's Nickel and Dimed for all those poor, oblivious preppies.

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    Comment number 16.

    Let's say we are morally justified in taking Michael Jordan's "excess" wealth to help those with less. Now let's follow that line of thinking down to the neighbourhood level. Should the poor residents be justified in demanding redistribution of wealth from the local owner of a shop or restaurant because they are better off? Should the street-sleepers then be justified in demanding a sharing of "wealth" from the residents of the street? It's a very slippery slope.

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    Comment number 17.

    The UK does not have an over enthusiastic welfare state system. It is simply being attacked by overly enthusiastic capitalists who feel its easier to attack poor, ill, disenfranchised individuals than bankers, politicians and financiers who lets face it have almost destroyed the entire ecconomies of some countries who will have to work for a decade or more to get back to where they were in 2008. Democracy Works, capitalism works but leaving everything to market forces have created the situation the World is facing now! that is a clear fact!. If you leave healthcare to PROFIT which relies on paying less than you take in revenue for each healthcare company then they simply will not offer healthcare to "risky" individuals or their families. We can all find example of people abusing any system, bankers, politicians and capitalists who promise lots and deliver little and yes even poor people trying to survive on little or no support BUT these are few and far between.... America is a WONDEFUL country but has many anomolies and injustices which it needs to address to hold itself out as a moral yardstick to the World..... Great series by the way, I have never studied philosphy and am a Scientist but I have seen much debate over the last few years on the morality of being poor!!. Remember education is the main way out of poverty for most families and the United States and now the UK have put huge financial obstickles in the way of a persons ability to gain advancement. Being wealthy DOES NOT mean you have any intelligence at all, just mostly been lucky, ruthless or manipulative...

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    Comment number 18.

    I would also echo another point made that access to healthcare is as important as access to a standard of education and the general maintenance of public facilities such as roads. T H Marshall defined citizenship as made up not only of rights, but also of responsibilities. Healthcare is not only a benefit or a right for the purposes of civility and moral justice (which are significant arguments enough), it is an intrinsic part of allowing individuals to contribute to society. How can those who are ill or lacking in basic medical care participate in or give to society?

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    Comment number 19.

    Can you consider free a man who's starving, who lives in poverty, who is unemployed, who's humiliated because he does not have the means to support his children and educate them? This man is not a free man, he may be free to scream and shout, he may be free to curse and swear, but HE IS NOT A FREE MAN!

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    Comment number 20.

    The BBC is widely acknowledged to be the greatest broadcasting corporation in the world.

    A similar corporation will never exist in the USA because of the view that purchasing a service must always be the decision of the individual. Television and radio in the USA is appallingly poor – most Americans know that – but there is nothing they can do.

 

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