Thursday, July 23, 2009

Response to Article: How Not to Talk About Health Care By Randy Cohen

Original Article:


I came upon this article from an acquaintance who chimed in on an online discussion of an opinion piece regarding on the Public Option for Healthcare. His thoughts were clearly pragmatic (which is not a compliment). "I am not sure how we can have reasoned debate when we can't agree on really basic facts like quality and cost of healthcare here vs elsewhere, incentive structures, etc etc."

I read Cohen's article and I have to say that I was most displeased with what I found. Cohen uses the language of someone trying to create a perception that he is enlightened and above the fray. Public discourse, he says, must be conducted with "intellectual integrity". What is intellectual integrity? He doesn't take time to explicitly define this explicitly but makes a reference to "respect for logic" as being some part of his foggy notion.

I decided to outline the ways in which I consider Cohen's article to be intellectually dishonest. Let's define our terms. What do I consider to be intellectual honesty? Specifically, I consider it to be loyalty to relevant and essential facts in argumentation and there are two factors that are generally manipulated in an intellectually dishonest argument:
- context: whether all of the facts pertaining to the subject are fully represented, or in the case of comparisons, whether two things are similar in all essential aspects. This is crucial because logic divorced from all pertinent facts is meaningless and/or dishonest
- essentiality: whether the evidence presented in the argument essential or non-essential. Honest arguments are made on essential facts and fundamental principles. Anything less is an attempt to hoodwink the reader.

So let's look at Cohen's article.

Mr. Cohen begins by stating that what the government is attempting to do by providing a public option is "[not] unusual in its general approach". And, keeping his context narrow, Cohen proceeds to give examples such as private schools existing in the presence of public schools. This argumentation is meant to dismiss the notion that there is any danger in the government's move into the private sector. Cohen does not discuss the nature of rights, why they are a fundamental requirement of a free society, and whether such a government action undercuts those rights. He sets out only to debunk argumentation against what the government intends to do without any discussion of whether it has any right to do anything of the sort.

Cohen uses absurd examples that make you say: "UMass destroying Harvard? Of Course Not! How Silly!" "New York Public Library put Barnes and Noble out of Business? Ridiculous!" And the while it's hard to disagree with minor points in his article, you may or may not notice that your agreement is part of a well-laid trap. Cohen's logical groupings are rigged so that a person reading his article uncritically and agrees with his strawman examples might also, by packaging, find absurd the idea that there is a negative impact to having a public option. He never states that conclusion explicitly. Well of course not: "health policy is beyond my purview" he says. But economics is, it would seem.

How does Cohen close? He includes a quote by Orwell which, loosely paraphrased, says: all political reasoning is suspect. What does Cohen prescribe in response? Aggressive Skepticism. Which basically means: doubt worship. He suggests that people be vigilant of deception, not that they should rigorously apply reason and learn all of the facts and arguments so that they may be certain that their position is correct. He arms his readers only with skepticism and doubt so that they may dismiss immediately any argument they might disagree with in the realm of political reasoning. This is intellectual bankruptcy.

There is one sentence that I found that I particularly I agreed with. Writes Cohen, "the prevaricator who sincerely believes his lie transforms it, at least to himself and his confreres, from deceit to ideology". I believe this is a psychological confession on the part of the author. The entire article is an example of the methods and logic of the intellectually disingenuous. I get the impression that Cohen doesn't think of himself that way, otherwise he might have guessed that the lens of intellectual integrity would be turned on himself and his own article's argumentation.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Celebrate Your Independence By Choosing To Read Atlas Shrugged

For a long time, I like many people around me, believed that America was without a culture. People who had come to America from other lands came with food, language, and practices that seemed a bit archaic and out of place here, except perhaps for the food. My parents, without being able to explain it, seemed to indicate that this cultural identity was worth preserving.

I was born in this country and could not convince myself that Vietnamese cultural identity was worth pursuing. Having been forced by my parents to practice certain traditions that were not fully explained and seemed senseless, I decided at a young age that I would not adopt any cultural artifact without being able to understand and explain it's value. Value to whom? To myself, of course. My mind is the only one I have access to or control of.

In the year 2009, I feel more culturally American than I have ever felt at any other time in my life. Why is that? I read Atlas Shrugged back in 2007 and it sparked a long study of Reason, Egoism, and Capitalism until I could understand and explain the reasons for my philosophical views. I own my identity as a cultural American because I am devoted to the only social concept that made America possible, which incidentally is not democracy, but is Individual Rights.

Thomas Jefferson said it first:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator* with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.
Atlas Shrugged was the book that put words to my American sense of life. Those words constituted a logical proof, which is the only means by which a person can understand and explain why anything is and ought to be. The proof was for American way of life as it started out and how it should have remained: Capitalism, the system of individual rights, is the only system consonant with man's nature as a rational being and the requirement that man act on his own judgment for his own benefit.

This is where I might start to lose some people. You may be the sort of person that hears the word "Captialism" and instantly thinks of commercialism and that corporations are inherently evil/amoral and you quickly dismiss any criticisms that government is anything but the defender of the people. If so, I would say that you are the sort of person that needs to read it the most. I would ask you to check your idea of what you think Capitalism is at the door before you read this book. What Rand presents will challenge your assumptions.

What is my purpose in writing this post? Partly, it is to celebrate the nation that is my home not just because it is my home but because of the central idea behind it. I am proud of American cultural identity because at its core, it is the country that best embodies the moral right to rational self-interest. It is ideology that makes a culture rich, which is why I think that defining a culture on food and traditional practice is to define a culture on non-essentials. America *is* culturally rich, and every time another country grows economically prosperous by freeing their people to act for their own gain they reaffirm this principle.

I want you to choose to read Atlas Shrugged because I think every American should be able to understand and explain what it is that made America different and great. This is not nationalistic pride we're talking about. This is national self-esteem with the full realization of all of the things that are required to achieve it. We are the first country to be based on a concept of rights enshrined in a document, to be secured by the government as our agent. If you've noticed that recent government actions do not square with that principle, it's because the principle is under attack every day by an inverted morality that tells you that sacrifice is the supreme value and the only good that you do (and thus, the only justification for your existence) is service to others.

Read the book critically - questioning EVERYTHING until it is proven - and you will gain a fully reasoned understanding the nature of self-interest, and of altruism, and what rules of society our freedom depends on and why. Beyond the philosophic and the didactic, you will also gain from reading this book a presentation of heroically self-interested characters in action, Rand's primary purpose in writing her novel. If you find that you agree with Rand's ethics and her politics, then these will become crucial fuel for your spiritual consciousness to keep your inner fire going.

* for "Creator" I substitute "nature"