Health Care and the Consent of the Governed

It is easy to fall into the conceit that we face greater political challenges than our predecessors; that politics now is meaner and more divisive than it used to be. One virtue of studying American history is to remind us that the many of the same challenges we face now were faced before, albeit on a different political terrain and by almost certainly greater minds.

Modern students should also be suitably chastened to recall that political positions have shifted over time in unanticipated ways. Contemporary Democrats, who worship at foot of their political patron saint Thomas Jefferson, should remember his visceral antipathy to a strong national government. Republicans, who trace their political heritage to the first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, may be disconcerted as his willingness to use strong national power when necessary.

In their eagerness to pass heath care reform, Democrats should perhaps consider the counsel of the first chief justice, John Marshall.  In 1823, many were focused on legislation to limit the power of the national judiciary. Ultimately, the effort failed in no small part because the passions of the moment created bills that were so single-minded that legislators failed to provide due deliberation on the full impact of what they were considering. It seems that the perceived necessity of passing something is overwhelming the true necessity of passing something well considered.

With the current health care bill widely unpopular and that structure of the bill complex to accommodate the necessity of cobbling together a narrow majority, Democrats would do well to consider the words on Marshall in a letter to Henry Clay.

“One of the most dangerous things in legislation is to enact a general law of great and extensive influence to effect a particular object; or to legislate for a nation under a strong excitement which must be suspected to influence the judgment. If the mental eye be directed to a single object it is not easy for the legislator intent on that object to look all around him and to perceive and guard against the mischief with which his measure may burn.”

If we are to embark changes of wide consequence in a society ruled by the consent of the governed, it is undoubted wise to do so only buttressed with wide public acceptance and support.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.