Davis Merritt: We dare not forfeit our common conscience

08/21/2012 12:00 AM

08/20/2012 6:09 PM

Over the next 77 days, every American needs to think deeply about what sort of society we want to live in, because our choices Nov. 6 will determine whether or not we maintain the social compact that binds the nation or rewrite it.

The far-right portion of the Republican Party wants to rewrite it. That part of the party may or may not include at any given moment Mitt Romney, but it is wholly personified in Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis.

Immediately after choosing Ryan for his identification with the far right, Romney was careful to declare that only he will make the crucial decisions. It’s a way of appearing to take the edge off Ryan’s ambitions and thus having it both ways: giving those on the far right reason to hope they might achieve their dreams yet easing the worst nightmares of moderates and liberals of both parties.

If it works, if Romney-Ryan prevails and Republicans control Congress, American society will be instantly transformed. Not that the nation’s problems will go away, because neither party – nor even both together, should such a miracle occur – can fully control the economic, environmental, health and security stresses of a truly integrated world.

The cruelest change would be to our common conscience.

Republicans are clear about their plans: a much smaller federal government; repeal of the Affordable Care Act; privatized Medicare that will require older Americans, by 2020, to pay on average $6,400 more for health care; reduced Medicaid; massive tax changes that will hugely benefit the very wealthy; cuts of $6 trillion from federal spending over 10 years, three-fifths of which come out of the safety net for low-income Americans; slashes in job-training, student-loan and food-stamp programs; and appointment of judges willing to enforce all that for the next several decades.

Those policy choices would create a society in which the opportunity to pursue life, liberty and happiness is guaranteed only to the fortunate and is problematic for people who are born into terrible circumstances, or victimized by cruel and accidental turns of fate, or simply marginally competent or impaired.

The philosophy behind the policy is that economic success is always a function of merit, and lack of success is always a lack of character or will. Ryan insists that cutting benefits will actually be good for the poor and disadvantaged because the safety net “has become a hammock that lulls able-bodied people into lives of complacency and dependency.”

Each potential voter needs to perform this thought experiment:

Visualize the society the far right promises to construct and imagine how you and those you love would fit into it. Our reflex is to personalize, to project that our current economic situation, health status and social standing will continue. For the majority, that’s an acceptable place to be, given the persistent American faith that one’s fortunes will improve if one works hard.

But now imagine that you are not your present self. Instead, you have no idea what abilities, intelligence, resources or advantages of birth you will have.

How would you assess the fairness of that society and your opportunity to find happiness and success in it?

A fair society mitigates the vagaries of life through a common conscience. We dare not lose that.

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