04/23/2007 02:38 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Gun Control, Health Privacy, 5-4: Time for a Conversation About... Ugh... Philosophy

Looking back on a terrifying and threshold week, and trying to wrestle it into perspective, one cohering theme is actually a question that has bedeviled us since the beginning of the national experiment: what is the right level of government involvement and intrusion in our lives?

The question has many levels. The tragedy in Virginia has re-focused us on the ongoing matter of gun control, which had been quiescent for a while, but is likely to be re-emergent (to the political horror of Rudy Giuliani, whose website waffles beyond public twitching John Kerry ever displayed when it says "But Rudy understands that what works in New York doesn't necessarily work in Mississippi or Montana.") I didn't realize that the Bill of Rights had state-by-state applicability. Perhaps as far as the Second Amendment goes, what works in New York doesn't really apply to Texas.

How far government should go in controlling gun ownership is one flame. Another is the limitation that universities struggle with when dealing with students who have serious psychiatric problems. A welter of legislation, that includes the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act Health, and even the Americans with Disabilities Act, protects the health status of students, even from their parents.

With the goal of guaranteeing privacy, these regulatory structures represent a transfer of power from the government to the individual. Cho himself, not Virginia Tech, not the local psychiatric hospital nor its physicians, was largely in control of his own treatment, and fully in control what his family was, or was not, informed of. (The question of when he might have been threat to himself, or others, and how that point is determined and managed, points us to ambiguous territory).

By contrast, the decision of the Supreme Court on partial-birth abortion represented a transfer of power in the other direction: from the individual, in this case the pregnant woman, to the state. By a vote for 5-4, the Court - guided by the majority's belief that the state has an interest in protecting the fetus.

We oscillate wildly from confidence in individuals to pushing the government into their decision calculus. When it came to Cho's personal heath situation, Congress vested in him the ability to determine who has access to his status and information, even though that choice could, and did, endanger the lives of others. By contrast, the Court disempowered women by no longer permitting them to make their own health and reproductive decisions, even though the outcome to the fetus is the same whether it's terminated via dilation and evacuation (the permissible approach) or intact dilation and evacuation, the now impermissible method.

The need for an intelligent and spirited debate about the role of government and its regulatory apparatus has never been more important. And it has never been less likely. That's because our positions have become so hardened that neither side is able to see a continuum as opposed to polarities. It's true of the high-passion issues like gun control and abortion. But last week was also swirling with news about less classically inflammatory subjects like the current college loan scandal.

Whether it's best for students to deal directly with the government, or through a for-profit entity, is not just a privatization debate, it's an argument over regulation. Similarly, should the sub-prime industry, with its aggressive product and marketing techniques have been controlled more intensively? Is Mayor Bloomberg - the Nanny-in-Chief who eliminated smoking in bars and trans-fats in restaurant meals - going too far with his congestion pricing scheme?

Imagine if this presidential election cycle, rather than trading in gauzy platitudes on one hand, and restatements of indurated positions on the other, could actually rise to the level of debating the philosophical issues that derive from legitimate questions about the role of government in our lives. The health care crisis, for example, cannot really be addressed outside of this framework.

To be inspiring and constructive, this conversation would need to transcend the simplistic Reagan formulation that "the government is best that governs least." Americans aren't usually given credit for the complexity of our national character; a definitive libertarian strain often collides with a post-New Deal (and now post-Katrina) conviction that government is not the enemy. (Only incompetent, self-serving and corrupt government is.) Out of those often competing forces comes national wisdom, but only if they are allowed to breathe freely.

I recognize that there are powerful forces standing in the way of a real conversation. Special interests, schooled by consultants, believe their battles can be won by distillation; boil it down to a powerful phrase like "partial-birth abortion" and no further discussion is required. It's not easy to amplify a conversation that's been progressively narrowed, but the alternative just gets uglier and uglier.