Putting Health in Perspective
The conservation of health … is without doubt the primary good and the foundation of all other goods of this life.
—René Descartes (1637)
If government’s purpose isn’t to improve the health and longevity of its citizens, I don’t know what its purpose is.
—Michael Bloomberg (2012)
On its surface, the political life of the United States cannot help but strike us as impossibly complicated. At any given time, we confront an astonishingly diverse array of public policy problems. Each of these “issues,” as we have come to call them, seems almost impenetrably convoluted in itself and largely disconnected from all of the others. Who could simultaneously understand the intricacies of our tax code, the inefficiencies of our entitlement system, the inadequacies of our transportation system, the moral challenges presented by the abortion or marriage debates, and the ins and outs of the dozens of other prominent public questions demanding our attention all the time? And if we are not competent to think about all of these problems in detail, how can we expect to govern ourselves?
This sense of helplessness before the sheer density of our dilemmas leads many of our fellow citizens to resign themselves to leaving the task of governing to others. But it is rooted in a misimpression. Our public challenges are not arbitrary and unconnected technical problems. They did not fall upon us at random, like snowflakes on the prairie. Rather, they arose out of the ways in which we live and the ways in which we govern ourselves.
Our weaknesses and problems, no less than our strengths and advantages, are reflections of the sort of society we are, and so to understand them we would do well to reflect upon the question of just what sort of society that is. In other words, we must understand our challenges in the context of our history and of our social and political thought. In that context, they are far better connected than they seem on the surface. They are, to paraphrase James Madison, the diseases most incident to our kind of liberal democracy. Understanding our prominent public problems as symptoms of such deeper difficulties can help us to approach them from an unfamiliar angle, and so maybe to better grasp and address them.