Monday, August 10, 2009

Misplaced Outrage and Civil Debate

Many are outraged by the raucous and angry protests at these so-called health care town meetings. The main culprit seems to be the ‘shouting down’ of the speakers and loud heckling at the meetings. As far as I’m aware there has been no actual violence or assault. Nevertheless, these are not laudable practices for public (or personal) debate.

I am not, however, all that outraged by the tactics at these protests. I am outraged, as are these protesters, at the imminent threat of further expansion of government control over health care (and the costs associated with that). Still, I am uncomfortable with these tactics. They do not tend to encourage civil, rational debate. They encroach on (though don’t violate) individual’s right of free speech.

The rub is that civil and rational discourse is a two-way street. Both sides have to be civil and rational for such engagement to occur. But what we see is a persistent attempt to shut down debate on the part of Obama and his supporters.

Criticisms of Obama and his policies are often quickly dismissed with ad hominem instead of rational debate. Critics are called ‘extreme’, ‘far-right’, or ‘fringe’. They are accused of being lackeys of ‘industrial operatives’ or merely hired guns spreading, quoting Obama, “outrageous lies”. They are attacked as racists and lumped in with bizarre conspiracy folks. It’s hard, even impossible, to be a part of a civil debate in such an environment.

Moreover, consider the President’s infomercial on ABC not so long ago. Opponents and critics where purposely excluded. Recently, the President is quoted as saying “I don't want the folks who created the mess to do a lot of talking” – referring I guess to Republicans (so much for bipartisanship). The administration and the Democratic Congress were trying to push through Congress the health care bill before anyone could reasonably have read and digested what was in this bill (as they did with the equally disastrous energy bill). I don’t think one is interested in discourse of any kind when is trying to pass a bill in this manner.

How can the American public engage in honest and civil debate over central issues of government when the side in power won’t allow the opposition a voice at the debate? How can we have rational discourse when the White House’s response to criticism is not to clearly articulate the economic and moral arguments for their plan but to create an informant database of the opposition?

This is why many feel that their only recourse is to disrupt these ‘town hall’ meetings. This seems like the only way to get the media to pay attention to voices of opposition. And, reluctantly, it appears to be working. While for the most part, the media focuses on the protesters themselves and continues the canards and ad hominem put out by the Democratic leadership, it has brought attention to the fact that many people outside of the Beltway are strongly opposed to the plans and policies of the administration. The anger and fear over the further expansion of an already bloated and too-powerful government and the limiting of liberty even further is real—and not just talking points from some ‘far-right conspiracy’.

In the end, however, the principled, pro-liberty opponents to more government control in health care and other areas of our economy need now to communicate the moral, political, and economic case for liberty and freedom and against government-control. These protests have got the attention. Now, let’s use this to make the case for real health care reform.

P.S. I do find it somewhat laughable that those on the Left are so enraged by the tactics at these protests, when, after all, these tactics have long been standard practice for Leftist protests.

Update: After posting this, I came across a similar blog post by Lester Hunt, check it out.