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Krugman: There’s Only You and Me and We Just Disagree

Yes, that’s the sentiment of Paul Krugman’s column today, which makes a crucial distinction amidst this call for civility in the discourse, one I think a lot of people are missing. Sitting in a mixed bipartisan fashion or boy-girl-boy-girl at the State of the Union, or vowing to “come together” after a national tragedy is a fine goal to have, I guess. But the truth is that in the large and diverse country of America there exist very different visions for the economy, for the social structure, for morality, for just about everything, and expecting everyone to just accept the midpoint of all these visions as a “responsible” course is about the worst way to solve public policy problems I can think of.

One side of American politics considers the modern welfare state — a private-enterprise economy, but one in which society’s winners are taxed to pay for a social safety net — morally superior to the capitalism red in tooth and claw we had before the New Deal. It’s only right, this side believes, for the affluent to help the less fortunate.

The other side believes that people have a right to keep what they earn, and that taxing them to support others, no matter how needy, amounts to theft. That’s what lies behind the modern right’s fondness for violent rhetoric: many activists on the right really do see taxes and regulation as tyrannical impositions on their liberty.

There’s no middle ground between these views. One side saw health reform, with its subsidized extension of coverage to the uninsured, as fulfilling a moral imperative: wealthy nations, it believed, have an obligation to provide all their citizens with essential care. The other side saw the same reform as a moral outrage, an assault on the right of Americans to spend their money as they choose.

I’d go a step further. . . . [cont’d.]The efforts we’ve seen in recent years by Democrats to placate the other side, through weakening of that moral imperative, only serve to weaken the public policy goal. In the above example, subsidizing the uninsured without including a public program to introduce competition with private insurance companies did not quell the calls of tyranny on the right, nor did they establish any goal for better or more cost-effective coverage.

The days of the past, when Republicans accepted the welfare state as legitimate, are indeed over, and we can expect multiple assaults on that welfare state in the coming year. But the choice of the other side is either to side as much as possible with those who have a disdain for the welfare state, without alienating core supporters completely, or to defend the proposition that a moral nation does not let its weakest and most vulnerable sleep on the streets, or walk around sick, or choose between food and medicine.

I think Krugman is being very naive about the detente on the abortion debate later in the piece (George Tiller, anyone?), but he does nail that our politics now represent a significant difference in morality and on the subject of the role of government. We can absolutely criticize violent rhetoric and say affirmatively that it makes a difference. But violent rhetoric or no, we still have this fundamental disagreement at the core of our politics. That’s not something to retreat from, it’s something to engage with.

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David Dayen

David Dayen