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Erring through cynicism

By Daniel M. Ryan
web posted September 7, 2009

According to the Wall Street Journal, the current fate of ObamaCare was quite foreseeable. Back in 2005, a liberal group called the Herndon Alliance had the idea of asking focus groups about government-owned health care. What came back served as a real foreshadow of the current protests. To put it bluntly, the Obama Administration et. al. should have known that ObamaCare would be a tough sell; they were forewarned, or should have been by the Herndon Alliance.

What went wrong? Simply put, the Obamaites' cynicism got the better of them.

The liberal brand of cynicism is used by liberals to convince themselves that the general public agrees with liberal goals. An example, using health care, is: "Oh, the people really want single-payer health care. They're just bamboozled by the big corporations, like the pill companies and the insurance companies." Well, that belief has been tested; the success of ObamaCare depends upon it. The insurance and pharmaceutical companies were brought on board before the big bill was unveiled in Congress. Had those two industries the powers ascribed to them by liberals, there would have been no wide-scale protests. As we all know, though, there were and are. Evidently, the liberals erred by being too cynical. They still can't believe what they're seeing, even though said protests were telegraphed fairly clearly by those Herndon Group focus studies. The polls that group took also foreshadowed the current opposition.

Political cynicism has a long history in the United States. It was a cynical look at the institution of monarchy in Thomas Paine's Common Sense that helped tip the balance towards America becoming an independent republic. He claimed therein that sovereigns had no inherent claim to rule over their subjects; they got the throne from being either a conqueror or the heir of a conqueror. Hence, Paine wrote, a king is little more than a "gilded brute." This argument was quite radical for its time, as the mainstream belief was that monarchy was a force for good in the world or (at least) a necessary evil. Doing away with kings, it was held in mainstream opinion, would have made for mob rule.

It was a real step to blame George III for the Intolerable Acts. They had been passed by the U.K. House of Commons, with MPs fortified in their rights to make laws by the Glorious Revolution. Many Americans knew of the set-up in the U.K. back then, and wouldn't have believed that the egregious taxes foisted upon them were the result of arbitrary decrees by King George. The balance might very well have been tipped by noting that Lord North, the Prime Minister of the Intolerable Acts, was an earl. Earls represent the Sovereign. Given Lord North's position, it was plausible to claim that he bore down on America as an earl, and that the King approved of (or was behind) what he was up to.

Another, more crucial, nugget of revolutionary American political cynicism came from none other than Ben Franklin: "Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch." This point was made to deflect calls for Americans to have representation in the U.K. parliament, through MPs being elected by Americans. Had such a right been granted, it would have satisfied the demand "No Taxation Without Representation." On the other hand, American MPs would have been outnumbered by British MPs. Had the Intolerable Acts enjoyed wide Parliamentary support, they would have been passed anyway – with Americans' "consent." The two wolves, it was understood, were British mercantilists. The lamb, of course, symbolized America. It could be that Franklin smelled a trap in the let-Americans-into-Parliament program.

So, political cynicism and American politics have a near-conjoined relationship. The rich tradition of political cynicism surfaced early on in the Republic, when it was believed by many that the Federalists just wanted to take over from the Brits. That suspicion was one of the reasons behind the "Revolution of 1800" and the Bill of Rights.

Despite the rich tradition of American political cynicism, it is possible to err by being too cynical. Look at the fate of ObamaCare. The cynicism that's lethal in a democracy, any kind of democracy, is the kind that dismisses public opinion out of hand. Part of what makes it lethal is the need for judgment by elected officials. Legislatures that enact laws simply on the basis of public polls are quickly pegged as demagogic. It's normal and customary to introduce a bill for reasons other than "the polls say it should be passed."

There is, however, a fine line between letting a temporary storm pass and imposing upon the electorate. The protests, and the planted nature of the counter-protests, show ObamaCare has crossed that line.

Of course, conservatives are hardly immune from political cynicism blinding them in a similar manner. In America, the 2006 elections show that conservatives underestimated the doubts the American electorate had over the war effort. Much of the Republicans' defeat can be ascribed to a "they don't know what their own good is" attitude. As is often the case, neither side owns a political rule of thumb. ESR

Daniel M. Ryan blogs these days about low P/E stocks.

 

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