Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Songs That Saved My Life

PostBourgie takes on Andrew Sullivan's "gated community conservatism". But I'm not sure they pick the best example. This is the passage that they highlight:
I value the private healthcare system in the US, that, for all its faults, has innovated medicines that have saved my life.

And in response?
Almost everything Sullivan turns his attention to is filtered through the lens of “what is best for Andrew Sullivan?” More often than not, especially in the case of his writing on conservatism, that makes for some fairly interesting reading. With regards to policy though, this approach is terrible. The measure of a health care system isn’t whether or not it generates innovations which benefit Andrew Sullivan, it is whether or not it adequately serves the majority of health care consumers. And at this point, it’s virtually incontestable that that’s the case. Sullivan might understand this on an intellectual level but it has yet to pierce through his elitism, which at times makes for very frustrating reading.

It's not that this is technically wrong, but I think it loses a lot of its potency when it's directed against Sullivan's belief that he owes his life to current health care policies. I think you'd be hard pressed to find anyone who would say "I'd be dead if X policy wasn't in place, nonetheless, we should abandon X." That's asking a lot out of people.

"Gated community conservatism" is not always or even largely limited to cases like these. Mostly, "what's best for me" isn't "what keeps me alive" but rather is "what makes me marginally more comfortable while foisting huge costs on everyone else." PB's citation to the Ross Douthat/Ta-Nehisi Coates debate over whether our draconian crackdown on crime has been "vindicated by events" is a far better example: the persons behind the gates feel a little safer and a little more secure, and that's enough to justify massive intrusions on the safety, security, and liberty of poor and dark American citizens. But just as we might step more lightly when the speaker is someone who had been a crime victim themselves, I think we also might put on soft shoes when dealing with someone for whom the health care system status quo is not just mildly more convenient but literally life-saving.


PG said...

Agreed, and I'm particularly surprised that PostBourgie is making fun of Sullivan when what Sullivan is talking about is being HIV+, not having the gout or some other condition stereotypically the province of the privileged. The medicines saving Sullivan's life also are saving the lives of many people who are poor, of color and otherwise underprivileged.

Is PB willing to come out -- as Charles Krauthammer has! -- to say HIV/AIDS is such a minority disease that we ought to devote the money that currently goes to it instead to conditions that affect more people? After all, HIV/AIDS is irrelevant to "the majority of health care consumers" who are American. I only know have one friend or family member who's HIV+, and he's in India. Let those developing countries sort their marginal diseases out.

Anonymous said...

You're right, using Sullivan as my first example probably wasn't the best idea, since his views on health care directly shaped by his experience as an HIV+ gay man. In my defense though, I completely forgot about that aspect of Sullivan's identity, so I think it's a little harsh to say that I'm "making fun" of Sullivan.

Thanks for the comments though.

PG said...


"Making fun" might be a slight overstatement, but you are calling Sullivan selfish and obtuse* for saying that an innovation-oriented health system is the one that saved his life. What did you think he was referring to in saying his life had been saved? Would you feel like he's a more appropriate example if he'd had leukemia as a kid and American medical innovation had cured him of that?

This comes back to David's point in the post: is it wrong for someone whose life has been saved by the existence of cutting-edge, expensive, not-achieving-maximum-utility medicine to say he thinks there's value in a system that saved his life?

I probably don't agree with Sullivan about health care reform, but I'm not going to criticize him for being grateful to a health care system that puts millions of dollars into a disease that doesn't affect "the majority of health care consumers." At least for those of us who are not strict utilitarians, there's nothing morally wrong with appreciating that which saves your life or the lives of people you love.

* 'Almost everything Sullivan turns his attention to is filtered through the lens of “what is best for Andrew Sullivan?” ... it has yet to pierce through his elitism'

Anonymous said...


Point taken, and really, I'm not even contesting your criticism. I really should have given far more thought to the reasons for Sullivan's view on the health care system. That I didn't is an oversight on my part, and one of the many hazards of blogging. Again though, thanks for the comment.