Different Moralities, Different 'Hopes and Dreams'?

We asked about our common "hopes and dreams," and we got some inspired answers. We also got some pushback. Today, we follow up on this conversation with a look at the limits of our shared political values and the roots of where we diverge.

So, we're trying another exercise: Tell us what you think the top priorities for American government and politics should be, and why you believe that. For example, as Paul Krugman wrote about in The New York Times, tell us if you think Obama's health care plan is a moral imperative or if you find it morally offensive. Is a moral common ground possible?

The Brian Lehrer Show started this conversation this morning with two callers—one a  Libertarian, the other a liberal—who came at the question from different sides, but seemed to find some common ground in what the overarching goal of a government health care policy should be.

Alex, who self-identified as liberal, believed that providing health care to as many citizens as possible is a moral imperative.

If you allow poverty or sickness to develop and carry on unchecked, you basically create a situation where those who are not sick or threatened by health problems to be at risk from the people who are...That's why it's important, as a society grows in numbers, that you have to make sure that the health of a society is being taken care of. It's somewhat draconian for a government to have to enforce something like that, but if you don't have government involved in that, then you run the risk of the sickness growing to a point where you threaten those who are not.

The "draconian" enforcement Alex mentioned was a reference to the individual insurance mandate, which starting in 2014 requires every American citizen to either purchase health insurance from a private company or pay a fine to the government for not having coverage. It was of the major sticking points in the health care debate, and the mandate also became a source of friction in this conversation.

Colin, the self-identified Libertarian, was in total agreement that it's in the best interest of society to care for the sick, and said that he would support government policy if it resulted in more people having better, affordable health coverage. Unfortunately, he lamented, that's not what the health care law does.

The solution Obama and the previous Congress chose to adopt is wrong, but I absolutely agree that it's important to take care of the less fortunate. When I see this health care bill, I see crony capitalism, where the big health insurance lobby, and the hospital industry, and the doctors' lobby have gotten in bed with the government to mandate what's best for them rather than what's best for us. I don't see a mandate as being necessary for us to take care of the less fortunate.

The question seems to become, how can government shape or reorganize society for its benefit, without compelling individuals to spend their money in ways they don't want to? Even with the best intentions at heart, Colin said, the health care mandate is the top of a very slippery slope.

What bothers me about the government telling me to spend money on health insurance policy, it's like, where can they tell me to spend money next? To me, I view that as a gross breach of their powers of interstate commerce. If they wanted true interstate commerce, they should allow me to buy and carry health insurance plans across state lines...What happens next year? Chevy is in trouble so every American needs to buy a Chevy or incur a tax penalty, because interstate commerce gives them the power to do so?

Alex had reservations about the individual mandate as well, and expressed his preference for universal coverage or a public option provided by the government. Like Colin, he thought this provision of the health care law was flawed, but he was more forgiving because it signaled to him a step in the right direction.

Throughout the conversation, it was the nuts and bolts of policy that sparked controversy: the idea that everyone should have health care, and that the government can be a facilitator in this respect, was a given; how that happens is what's at issue. Did that make our callers any more optimistic about our chances for getting past such divisive, bitter squabbles? If we all want to get to the same place, can we at least stay calm and look at the map together?

Alex remained pessimistic. He talked about the "all or nothing" attitude in American politics and policy debates, and how that needs to give way to conversation, compromise, and the search for common ground. As many others have said in the wake of the Tucson tragedy, it's a change that needs to start at home.

I don't really see us getting away from an "all or nothing" approach anytime in the near future...Right now, our government is very much split, but it's also our society. Folks really believe it's us or them, and that has to change before our government can change. Otherwise, you're going to have the difference between people claiming their decisions are leadership, and others that are claiming it's tyranny.

Did anything Colin or Alex said strike a chord with you? Continue the conversation in the comments below.