“In one sense the opulence of American life has served to perpetuate Jeffersonian illusions about human nature. For we have thus far sought to solve all our problems by the expansion of our economy. This expansion cannot go on forever and ultimately we must face some vexatious issues of social justice.”
– Reinhold Niebuhr, “The Irony of American History,” 1952.
Amid the multimedia din of competing voices and opinions on health care, the voices of the past can scarcely be heard. There is no experience so singly salient as hearing words from the past, whether quoted or read, ringing with prescience in our modern context.
So maybe I shouldn’t be surprised that while catching up on podcasts on a long flight, I heard anew the words of Reinhold Niebuhr quoted above. The conversation centered on the influence of Niebuhr on Obama, including a spirited debate between E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and David Brooks of The New York Times as to “what that really means.”
The phrase above leapt out at me, assailing my verbal sensibilities with the curious and deliberate use of the word “vexatious.” Victorian, yes. Accurate? Absolutely.
Vexatious issues require serious debate and conversation. They must be accompanied by strong data and critical thinking, but also a humility that acknowledges the breadth of human experience.
Most doctors are faced with a choice in any given treatment plan: Treat the symptoms or identify the root cause. What Niebuhr causes me to consider is not the symptom, but the cause.
The “health-care crisis” is but a symptom of a larger crisis. When an economy is predicated upon limitless expansion, what happens when you hit the end? Health-care costs are destined to rise, but the same can no longer be said for incomes and cost-of-living expenses.
The crisis has everything to do with expansion and contraction. In Niebuhr’s book, just after the quote listed above, there is a curious footnote that quotes the great Thomas Huxley’s speech at the opening commencement of Johns Hopkins University:
“To an Englishman landing upon your shores for the first time, travelling for hundreds of miles through strings of great and well-ordered cities, seeing your enormous actual, and almost infinite potential, wealth in all commodities, and in the energy and ability to turn wealth to account, there is something sublime in the vista of the future.
“Do not suppose that I am pandering to what is commonly understood by national pride. I cannot say that I am in the slightest degree impressed by your bigness, or your material resources, as such. Size is not grandeur, and territory does not make a nation. The great issue, about which hangs a true sublimity, and the terror of overhanging fate, is what are you going to do with all these things? What is to be the ends to which these are to be the means?”
This struck me as curious, only because I had first read these words while researching a sermon a few months ago titled “From Scarcity to Abundance.” Huxley’s words had affected me then as Niebuhr’s did on that trans-Atlantic flight.
In the full view of American history, the “health-care crisis” emerges as yet another symptom of a far more insidious disorder within the American condition. Care for fellow human beings, indeed Americans, is not tenable with limitless expansion.
For a goose to lay a golden egg, the goose must be fed, watered and kept by another. Paying the lowest possible price for this service at some point becomes exploitative. When workers are enlisted to keep the geese at these wages, the illusive nature of prosperity takes full effect, even if laborers suffer behind the curtain. One worker can scarcely complain, but in the interest of multiplying our geese, pretty soon you’ve got a union on your hands.
Again Huxley ascertains the fragility of our democracy:
“Truly America has a great future before her; great in toil, in care, and in responsibility; great in true glory if she be guided in wisdom and righteousness; great in shame if she fail.”
The riddle (and, as Niebuhr rightly recognized, the paradox) of the American democratic experiment is that our expansion must always be tempered by the ways in which the needs of the “least of these” are met. One cannot claim to be American alone; to be American at the exclusion of another would make the same claim. Expansion that benefits one individual and damns the other leaves the commonwealth with such “vexatious issues.” What we reap now in health care, unemployment and bad banks, we sowed in excess, avarice and entitlement.
Where Jeffersonian patterns err on trusting human nature too implicitly, Augustinian views may not trust us enough.
Perhaps the key is still hidden in the Niebuhrian labyrinth of paradox and genuine humility. We are only as good and as bad as our best and our worst efforts. Deep in the center is the democratic ideal – choice. For it is, as Huxley said, ultimately a question that we are left to answer.