So, let me ask you this…
I have several friends who are very critical health care reform opponents for not coming up with a plan of their own. I’m often amazed at how vehemently they hold this position.
It raises a question of political theory that I’ve always found interesting: What is the role of the opposition in a republic?
One iteration of this argument goes: If you agree there’s something wrong with the system. You can’t criticize efforts to reform it unless you have a plan of your own. Just because you’re threatened by the plan proposed and how it would affect your own health insurance doesn’t give you the right to reject it out of fear of change.
One response, the weakest response actually, is expressed like this: But I have a right to my opinion. You can’t tell me to be quiet and you can’t make me propose an alternative plan.
First, that’s a ridiculous response to the argument advanced. Of course, it’s technically correct. You do have a right to not say anything. The point of the argument, though, isn’t that you can’t speak out. It’s a statement on how we want our public square to function as much as it is a partisan challenge to come up with a better plan. Incidentally just as you have a right to not have a plan, someone has an equal right to tell you to shut the hell up until you have something worthwhile to say.
So must have the opposition say anything worthwhile? Does the opposition have a responsibility to present alternatives to majority initiatives? Or is their role just to play defense?
To the extent that policy debates implicate ideas and developing consensus around solutions, I say the opposition should be incubators of new ideas and cogent alternatives to majority polices. Those who know me well, would know that I lean heavily toward this approach to opposition as an issue of principle. If an idea is worth being the policy of a nation, then you should invest heavily in developing a legislative proposal to advance it, sell it to the electorate, and bludgeon your political opponents with the strength of your argument. Plus a full airing of ideas is more likely to lead to creative solutions to complex problems. (I can just picture a relative of mine saying, “Egad. You’re a moderate!”)
But to the extent that policy debate involves political calculations about an electorate’s views about the majority’s policies and the strength of the opposition’s arguments, then the opposition need only tell people why the majority’s ideas are total bunk. This view has definite value when you disagree with the fundamental premise of a debate and refuse to fight on your opponents’ ground, so to speak. In this case, you disagree that a fundamental shift in how health insurance is governed, regulated, paid for, and provided is even necessary in the first place.
Adherents to this latter draw heavily on the example of leaders like Benjamin Disraeli, the 19th Century British Prime Minister who pioneered the idea of the “loyal opposition.” In this view the role of the party out of power is to oppose all measures except those central to issues of national defense or foreign policy and related issues. This places the impetus on the majority to make the case for their policies and explain why the opposition is wrong to do its job in, well, opposing the majority.
But you could also develop an approach that incorporates both views of opposition. The former is a strategic priority while the latter is a tactical consideration
An argument that incorporates both approaches goes something like this: The approach you’ve presented is a fundamental change to how we do health care. Our system is still the best by dozens of measures and produces world-class research, medicines, medical devices, and treatments. Sure, there is an issue with costs and the number of uninsured. But there’s ample evidence that the majority of uninsured simply choose not to be insured at all. So our view is that you need to tinker at the edges. Medical malpractice liability reform could help. A limited expansion of Medicaid would also help greatly. If anything, a public option should only work to save relieve people of catastropic health costs, not provide full health coverage. But an overhaul or a government intrusion into the market is unnecessary, would be unsustainable over the long-haul, and, as several economic and budget analyses show, would actually lead to a shrinking of the health insurance market and wouldn’t contain costs.
So maybe it’s both. Or maybe there are other approaches.
What do you think? How would you characterize the responsibility, if any, of those parties and blocs that are out of power to propose alternative solutions to the majority’s initiatives? And what arguments do you think are strongest using each view of opposition (or other approaches)? And what values are implicated under each approach?