04/19/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Doing the Right Thing

When he signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act into law, President Lyndon Johnson famously stated to an aide "I fear that we have lost the South for a generation." He was afraid -- and history has borne out his fears -- that the Democrats support of civil rights would alienate the southern states. Guess what? The law passed Congress and Johnson signed it anyway. Why? Because sometimes leading means putting politics aside and doing the right thing.

I don't see health care reform as any less important. The simple fact of the matter is that people die every day in this country who wouldn't have to given a different set of circumstances, and it is within our power to provide those circumstances to them. People want to argue that the market will take care of the problem, to which I must point out: It hasn't done so yet. It hasn't even taken steps in that direction. In fact, we're seeing just the opposite. The problem's getting worse every year, while the health care system builds a fatter and fatter bankroll at the expense of the people it is supposed to serve.

Other people will readily acknowledge that the market per se is less than ideal, but they are adamantly opposed to any form of government intervention. They know that a lot of people out there need help, but they still want to pursue an individualized approach to helping them. They say things like "There is a big difference between charity and redistributive taxation. I am happy to give of my resources as I freely choose to help my fellow Americans, but I do not want the government forcing me to contribute against my will." To those people, I would say: Your argument is awfully convenient. It allows you to ignore the reality of the uninsured, health disparities, and the like. Consequently, you say you'd be charitable, but how much have you actually given to support the uninsured? I'm guessing not much, because as long as the problem exists "out there" you can pretend that it doesn't exist at all. Most of you probably don't realize how many hard-working uninsured people you actually know.

Besides, the net effect to you of giving to charity or of being taxed is the same -- it's just a philosophical difference you cling to -- and the reason is clear: you don't really want to part ways with your money, and taxation robs you of that option, while pretending to be charitable does not. It's not necessarily wrong, it's just selfish.

My point in all of this is that, like it or not, sometimes there simply is a right thing to do. In this case, I believe that society should ensure a minimum acceptable existence for its people. Right now, we don't. We also don't consider ourselves a society. Americans laugh at the notion that no man is an island. We think we all are, and we are seriously wrong. When one of us suffers, the rest of us do, too. It's just that we don't often see the connection.

In the end, I would urge our elected officials to set aside partisan politics -- and worries over re-election -- and simply do that which is right and decent. To do otherwise is to look into the face of thousands of dying people each year and tell them "I'm sorry, but you just don't matter enough to do anything about your situation." I really hope we're not to that point as a country, but until I see some evidence to the contrary, I'm afraid I'm left little choice but to believe it.

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