Mr. Right was grumbling about media bias again while Mr. Peepers was goading him by reading some liberal diatribe from a magazine he was reading. Why, Mr. R. asked rhetorically, didn't the mainstream news media report the "truth" about the proper use of the reconciliation process in legislation? I was less interested in his theories on that score than in what, exactly, this famous bias consisted of, so I asked him. I got no more detailed answer than that the corporate employees of the three major commercial networks somehow seethed with left-wing bias -- for what or against what remained unclear.
"Maybe they just believe that Americans should all have decent health care," I suggested.
"They do," Mr. Right affirmed, "When they're in an accident or gravely ill they're taken care of. They can go to the emergency room. If they're indigent they have Medicare or Medicaid."
"What about decent health care on a regular basis, not just in a crisis or when you're helpless?"
"Why, do you think people have a right to health care?"
"What about a roof over their heads?"
"Do you think some people shouldn't have those things?"
"Have I ever given you any cause to believe I don't?"
"But if you don't think they have a right to health care, you must assume that there are circumstances when they don't deserve it."
"I just said that the indigent should be taken care of, and they are."
"Yeah, and your ideological ancestors were probably crying 'Socialism!' when those plans were up for debate."
"Well, those are different. They're meant for people who for whatever reason absolutely can't afford health care for themselves. The difference is, the majority of people in this country can afford to pay for their own health care, and it's their responsibility to pay for it themselves. Why should my grandchildren have to pay for Rush Limbaugh's health care? Why should your grandchildren have to pay for mine? It isn't a right, it's a responsibility, and that's what the majority of people in this country believe."
That's what it comes down to. For people like Mr. Right there's an irreducible element of individual responsibility in life that society can never replace. The answer that his grandchildren and mine (in theory) are fellow citizens of himself and Limbaugh, and that we're all mutually obliged to each other, simply does not occur to him. He's incapable of envisioning a civil sharing of resources; any such proposal sounds to him like robbery. In this kind of mind there are only three options: the regime of "personal responsibility" under which each person ideally pulls his own weight; the regime of charity that stigmatizes the recipient whether the donor intends it that way or not; and "socialism," the antithesis of "personal responsibility" and thus immoral in some profound way. But "socialism" would not seem offensive to people like Mr. Right if they didn't believe, whether they admit it or not, that those people who don't meet their standard of personal responsibility deserve to suffer. Mr. Right himself denies that people would be left to suffer in America, thanks to the existing safety net (since he claims to have been a Democrat until the late 1970s he may not have opposed those once-"socialistic" measures), but when it comes down to the principle of the thing, there's inevitably an "or else" inherent in the personal-responsibility ethic. There may be an "or else" in any ethical system, but whether your system is cooperative or competitive makes a big difference. An ultimate insistence on "personal responsibility" may make a competitive order inevitable, since those who insist on it may be too distrustful or too proud -- or too competitive -- to live cooperatively. It may offend them, but it shouldn't surprise them if other people question whether their right to compete as a matter of "personal responsibility" counts for more than other people's well-being, or their very lives. Mr. Right is offended when this comes up. He accuses me of leaping from "Point A to Point P" without recognizing any middle ground -- but how much middle ground is there, really?