Thursday, June 28, 2012

Is “Obamacare” A Moral Failure?

Republican Presidential candidate, Mitt Romney has declared that “Obamacare” (the Affordable Health Care Law) is “a moral failure”. That is strong language but we have come to accept such accusations without wincing these days. The shortest distant to the White House seems to be over the dead body of your opponent. Gone is the day when candidates at least publicly declared that their opponent was an honorable person.

But let us look for a bit at this accusation. It is possible to view all human actions as indications of one’s morality if we believe that all humans have free agency – are able to choose their course of action or speech in all cases. My inhaling of a breath of air – my choosing to inhale a breath of air – deprives all other human beings of the present use of that air. So I have made the moral decision that my gulping down of a particular breath of air is more important than the breathing of that air by all other creatures. I could choose to forego breathing so that others might breathe more deeply. Or, as most young people throughout the course of modern history have been told, I have a moral obligation to clean up my plate because someone on the other side of the globe is going without food even as I enjoy my plate of broccoli.

Mr. Romney’s criticism of “Obamacare” is that the President chose to put his energy into the passage of a health care reform bill at a time that he should have been working to restore the economy and create jobs. (This overlooks the facts that the President has been criticized harshly by Mr. Romney’s party for his support of TARP and a stimulus program that kept the economy from tanking completely in 2009, and that Congress, controlled and cowed by Republicans, have blocked every initiative the President has put forward for job creation. Those actions are seen, I’m sure, by Mr. Romney as morally justified even though they delay the recovery of the economy and the creation of jobs to the great detriment of millions of Americans.)  Thus, Mr. Romney argues, by choosing the lesser need (health care reform) the President fell prey to a moral failure. (Let’s not mention the fact that Mr. Obama’s healthcare plan was modeled after one that Mr. Romney pushed through the Massachusetts legislature when he was governor of that state. That was obviously the morally upright thing to do at that time – but not now, not from this President.)

This morning the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Constitutionality of essentially all of the Affordable Health Care Law, saying by its decision (supported, by the way, by the conservative Chief Justice, John Roberts) that the law, while perhaps “immoral” in Mr. Romney’s opinion, was not “illegal” when compared to the requirements of law. Mr. Romney immediately pointed out that legality and morality are not the same thing. He is right. But in our country we do not establish morality by our laws. We only establish legality or illegality. We allow the individual to determine what is morally right or wrong as long as their actions do not violate our laws.

So it will be up to the people to judge which Presidential candidate they trust to lead us. We expect any President to abide by the laws of the land. But we also, individually, hold them responsible for the morality of their actions. Most Americans want their President to be a morally upright person and to make decisions that reflect their moral understandings. But we do not want them dictating that their morality must be the morality of the nation. This distinction is lost upon much of the population, and apparently upon Mr. Romney as well, but it is an important one.

I suspect that President Obama will shy away from characterizations of Mr. Romney’s proposals – if he gets around to making any concrete ones – as either being moral or immoral. He understands that while the personal morality of the President is important in formulating positions to take, those must ultimately be justified on the basis of utility for the nation and legality under the Constitution.

Mr. Romney has stated that on his first day in office he will begin the process of repealing “Obamacare.” I wonder if he will consider, at that time, the “morality” of stipping millions of Americans of their newly won health insurance, leaving them without coverage either because of their poverty or because of an inability to get coverage due to their present health condition.

“Obamacare”, as Mr. Romney insists on calling it, has been declared a legally enacted program of our government. The decision whether to allow it to continue or fight to remove it is a moral decision. Mr. Romney made the right moral decision, in my opinion, when he was governor of Massachusetts; we must hope that, if he became President, he would exhibit the same moral sensitivity for the needs of our citizens. But if we are to believe Mr. Romney at this moment (he has been known to change his opinion on a dozen or so important matters over the years) it seems to me the man taking the higher moral (and legal) ground is President Obama.

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