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Intrinsic human differences are randomly distributed throughout the world, throughout all societies, and these differences are then modified by people's reactions to their cultural, economic, and physical environments. Writing of the USA, Albert Einstein said:
I have now reached the point where I may indicate briefly what to me constitutes the essence of the crisis of our time. It concerns the relationship of the individual to society. The individual has become more conscious than ever of his dependence upon society. But he does not experience this dependence as a positive asset, as an organic tie, as a protective force, but rather as a threat to his natural rights, or even to his economic existence.
— Albert Einstein, “Why Socialism?” ( Monthly Review, May 1949)
For many reasons the USA, and its people, requires special attention because it a very different country, with a political and social system difficult to understand if you are from a different culture – as many discover on their first visit. Many newcomers find its general affluence very seductive, yet find its ethos of individualism, and concommitant detachment from the problems of others, more than worrying. And thus it has been throughout history. There is an emphasis on private affluence and an acceptance of public squalor that is reflected in the view of many US Americans that taxation is bad and most government spending is wrong, unless it is for the military, a project in their locality, or prisons (the USA has about 4.5% of the world’s population, with about 23% of the world’s prisoners). Then the infrastructure crumbles. 1
The USA spends far more per person for health care than any other country, but large numbers of US children are without basic health coverage and depend on visits to hospital emergency rooms for treatment of most ailments. Public heath care in most industrial countries has better outcomes than private health care in the richer USA, which has a lower average life expectancy, with higher mortality and morbidity rates, than many less affluent countries. Whistling in the dark, conservative/regressive ideologues do not see flaws in the theory of private health care when they claim that the USA has the best health care in the world. In truth, the USA might have the best health care in the world – for a few people, for a few diagnoses – and it definitely leads the industrial world in infant mortality. 2
Some people are concerned now about the status of less fortunate people in the USA, just as others have been concerned throughout history, and most of those people believe that the situation could be improved by more enlightened public policies requiring more government intervention in a sector strongly protected by entrenched interests. Government intervention in pursuit of better provision for the less fortunate and those without political power has often been portrayed by conservatives/regressives as being a step towards a Welfare State or – a far greater horror – Socialism: a “government-mandated model that looks for inspiration to the socialized medical systems of Europe, Canada, and Cuba”. An additional favourite excuse for the central government doing nothing is to pretend that different states can try different approaches to solving problems, and can learn from each other, so that central government needs do nothing to upset entrenched special interests – however, not all state approaches to health care are possible, because accepting medical marijuana, say, brings intervention from central government. 3
A nation’s character is defined by its laws, and you can judge the worth of a nation’s character by how those laws treat the less fortunate – prisoners, say, or those without an automatic right to health care. Why is there no health care for all in the USA? How is the right to heath care different from the right to education? Early in the republic, those with influence (such as Jefferson) realized that an educated populace was a necessity for the country to progress but, given the nature of society at that time, the need for a healthy populace was not given an equal recognition. Individual charity by private individuals who care about the human condition is common, though often this private charity – such as helping at a soup kitchen – is needed because of inequities produced by public laws, and can be distinguished from the valuable interpersonal support given by, say, visiting those in hospice care or in hospital – or providing psychological support to clients of a soup kitchen. To change a nation's character its laws must change. To change laws, people need to know the results of the existing laws, implying a process of education and of re-education – often supported by private individuals. The desire to help others is universal, and if we could help others through our laws there would be less need for private charity to remedy deficiencies in public action, and more time available to provide other types of assistance such as visiting children in hospital. 4
If the less fortunate were agro-businesses growing corn, of course, then financial assistance from the central government would be more readily forthcoming.
As it said on the t-shirt, “The voices in my head like me most”. 5
4 See, for example: this document about ambiguities in laws; or this document about interpreting the US Constitution; or this blog about humane treatment of US prisoners; or this blog about constitutional “originalism”.
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