Vermont Workers Center’s Blueprint for “Soft Despotism”

by Robert Maynard

The Vermont Workers Center released two documents that spell out their blueprint for speeding up Vermont’s drive toward what French Historian Alexis de Tocqueville referred to as “soft despotism.”  Those  two documents were its “Put People First Campaign” state budget proposal, as laid out in the Friday edition of Vermont Business Magazine online, and its plan for the “Equitable Funding of Green Mountain Care.”

Both documents assert that it is the government’s duty to meet people’s perceived needs and wants regardless of the costs involved.  The following is from their budget proposal:

“The focus must be on people rather than money. Put People First proposes a new approach to budget and revenue policy, based on human rights principles,” said James Haslam, director of the Vermont Workers’ Center. “Rather than adjusting the budget to match a revenue estimate, the budget must start with an assessment of people’s fundamental needs and then seek to fund the services required to meet those needs.”

The plan to fund Green Mountain Care is based on a similar notion: “Financing must ensure universal access to comprehensive, appropriate care. Vermonters have a right to receive all the medically necessary care they need.  Healthcare resources must match our health needs, not the other way around.  The financing plan must be focused on care, not on saving money.”

This may be a little surprising to those who were led to believe that the object of health care reform was to address the high cost of health care.  It really should not be much of a surprise to those who have followed the argument of the health care is a human right campaign.  The argument is that, if health care is a human right, it is the duty of the government to provide it.  In this case, costs are not a concern.  The individual receiving care has absolutely no responsibility to contribute to his own care:  The principle of equity (in access) requires that everyone get the care they need when they need it, with no barriers to access created by co-pays, deductibles, premiums or a limited package of “benefits.”

Does anyone really believe that cost control is even remotely possible if we adopt an argument that the government has the sole responsibility to cover one’s perceived wants and needs regardless of what the costs may be?  I have written here on TNR back in February of 2011 that the opponents of the push toward single payer need to address the central theme that health care is a human right in order to really counter the opposing argument:

This is the argument that free market critics of the bill need to address. Is health care a human right? The argument that it is establishes the duty of government to provide us with health care. America was founded on the premise that governments were instituted among men to secure certain “unalienable rights”. What is an unalienable right?

The word unalienable roughly means non-transferable. In other words, it is a right that can neither be given to us of be taken away, but is endowed to us by our creator. We posses such rights as an endowment from our creator as a free and rational being. Governments can only recognize and secure such rights; it does not give them to us, nor can it take them away. These are called “negative rights” in that they limit the government by telling it what it cannot do to you. For example, the government is not allowed to take an innocent life because life is an unalienable right that comes from our creator and not from government. The same is true for the right to acquire property, the right to free speech, the right to assemble, etc.

Opposed to this notion of rights is what is called “positive rights”, an idea that found its way into this country from Europe. Positive rights tell the government what it must do for you. This notion leads to a potentially endless expansion of government because there is no limit to the number of positive rights, which we could insist that the government provide us with.

The notion that health care is a human right comes from the European notion of “positive rights”, which is a notion that our founders explicitly rejected:

Our founders rejected the notion of positive rights for two reasons. The first reason was that it was something that the government had to give to you, so it was not an unalienable right. If the government can give us something, it can take it away as well. No such right could be secure from a tyrannical government. In fact, history has shown that precisely such rights were showered on the people by would be tyrants as they consolidated power. As the Roman Empire was changing from a Republic to an Empire, the Caesars would hand out grain to the masses so that they were loyal to him, rather than the Roman Senate. The dependency created by the granting of positive rights, and the potentially unlimited expansion of government that would be the inevitable result of this approach, were seen by our founders as dire threats to personal liberty. The other reason for such a rejection was the obvious fact that government does not own that which it would distribute. In order to distribute the goods demanded by a positive rights approach, the government would have to first confiscate them from someone. This is not only a threat to liberty in general, and property rights in particular, but it posses a dire threat to the social order as well. What happens here is that one group of citizens is encouraged to lobby for the state to take from another group of citizens so they can gain at the other’s expense. This creates a war of one sector of society against another and breeds envy and resentment, thus making the compassionate community impossible.

 The fact that the notion that health care is a human right did not come from our Declaration of Independence does not seem to be lost on those at the Vermont Workers Center.  In fact, they do not even make an attempt to pretend that our Declaration of Independence is the source of their notion of rights:

Guidance from international health and human rights institutions affirms the importance of the principles and criteria stated above. To ensure that a healthcare system truly meets key human rights principles, the World Health Organization recently issued new guidance for the development and assessment of health systems. It states that health financing mechanisms must support people’s right to universal access to care, and that the “State must use maximum available resources and identify effective health financing mechanisms to ensure that health facilities, goods and services are accessible and affordable for all.” To meet the principle of equity, WHO guidance states that: “Financial contributions to the health system need to be collected in ways that ensure that low-income households are not disproportionately burdened with health expenses as compared to richer households.”

The notion that government has the duty to provide all of our wants and needs has been a popular notion in Europe for quite a while now.  In the early 19th Century French Historian Alexis de Tocqueville started to perceive that democracies were susceptible to a new form of tyranny he referred to as “soft despotism”:

I would like to imagine with what new traits despotism could be produced in the world.

I see an innumerable crowd of like and equal men who revolve on themselves without repose, procuring the small and vulgar pleasures with which they fill their souls.

Over these is elevated an immense, tutelary power, which takes sole charge of assuring their enjoyment and of watching over their fate. It is absolute, attentive to detail, regular, provident, and gentle. It would resemble the paternal power if, like that power, it had as its object to prepare men for manhood, but it seeks, to the contrary, to keep them irrevocably fixed in childhood … it provides for their security, foresees and supplies their needs, guides them in their principal affairs…

The sovereign extends its arms about the society as a whole; it covers its surface with a network of petty regulations—complicated, minute, and uniform—through which even the most original minds and the most vigorous souls know not how to make their way… it does not break wills; it softens them, bends them, and directs them; rarely does it force one to act, but it constantly opposes itself to one’s acting on one’s own … it does not tyrannize, it gets in the way: it curtails, it enervates, it extinguishes, it stupefies, and finally reduces each nation to being nothing more than a herd of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.

When he visited America, he was looking for a cure to the European disease.  He found it in the American tendency to combine religious piety with the ideal of liberty.  This led them to form “associations” to deal with most of their wants and needs, rather than turn to the government as their shepherd:

Americans of all ages, all stations of life, and all types of disposition are forever forming associations. There are not only commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but others of a thousand different types — religious, moral, serious, futile, very general and very limited, immensely large and very minute. Americans combine to give fetes, found seminaries, build churches, distribute books, and send missionaries to antipodes. Hospitals, prisons, and schools take shape that way. Finally, if they want to proclaim a truth or propagate some feeling by the encouragement of a great example, they form an association. In every case, at the head of any new undertaking, where in France you would find the government or in England some territorial magnate, in the United States you are sure to find an association.

This trait, which set America apart for Europe, could save it from succumbing to the tyranny of “soft despotism.”  We have come a long way since de Tocqueville wrote “Democracy in America,” and we seem to now be quickly succumbing to that which he held out hope we would be the place to resist.  Unfortunately, Vermont is leading the way in this respect.

3 thoughts on “Vermont Workers Center’s Blueprint for “Soft Despotism”

  1. I know I’m not going to make a dent in the perceptions on this site, but….this statement in your post is simply incorrect: “Both documents assert that it is the government’s duty to meet people’s perceived needs and wants regardless of the costs involved”

    It’s the “regardless of the costs” that makes the statement dramatic and also makes it incorrect. Both of your quotes from the VWC statements include the concept of “focus” on needs. Right now the “focus” is on money without even looking at needs. That’s not only damaging, it’s absurd. You don’t do that in your own financial life.

    That needs to change. But putting the focus on needs doesn’t mean that anyone expects “unlimited” funding to be available. What will change is knowing how much money would be required to actually meet the needs, which is a handy thing to know when you start deciding how much money to make available.

    You can obviously prefer another approach, but please take the time to present the opposing view honestly.

  2. despair not. enjoy the schadenfreude.
    do not oppose these idiots. draw them into the open where they will wither in the heat of the sun

  3. Unfortunately, we are doomed to become just like Europe. The genetic stock that fled the soft and explicit tyranny of Europe has been diluted and bamboozled. Where do those of us who wish to flee the growing soft and explicit tyranny in this nation have to flee to now?

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