Welcome to TP Ideas‘ weekly roundup of the best conservative writing! Every Friday, we take a look at three pieces by right-leaning writers that constructively articulate core elements of their worldview. The goal isn’t to find conservatives telling us how right liberals are, but rather to pick out writing that helps liberals understand where their ideological foes are coming from.
So let’s get started.
1. “There Is Nothing Modern About Euthanasia” — Helen Andrews, The Center for Independent Studies
The argument over legalizing suicide doesn’t break down precisely on liberal vs conservative grounds, but the Venn diagrams do overlap a lot. And one point many liberals and other supporters put forward is that longer lifespans and the technological ability to almost indefinitely extend life, no matter how miserable in quality, have changed the moral facts on the ground.
But this assumes that attempts to legalize suicide were not made before those technological advancements, and that prior to them prolonged suffering by a patient was not a major medical concern. According to Helen Andrews — a policy analyst at The Centre for Independent Studies — neither of these assumptions are true. Euthanasia advocacy, she argues, “has waxed and waned according to changes in politics and culture, not medicine.”
The first time that a legislator in an English-speaking country introduced a bill to legalise physician-assisted suicide was in 1906, when a member of the Ohio state legislature in the US tabled such a bill on behalf of a woman whose mother died from cancer. The British Parliament saw its first euthanasia bill introduced in 1936. The Euthanasia Society of America was founded in 1938.
None of these landmark pushes occurred in response to advances in medical technology. Certainly they predated the explosion in life-prolonging technologies like artificial respiration that occurred in the 1960s.
Early euthanasia advocates were moved by the same problem we face today: the existence of incurable diseases that leave patients hopeless and suffering. Whatever your opinion on the morality of assisted suicide, no one can claim that this tragedy is unique to the modern era.
Indeed, earlier debates on euthanasia are almost identical to those conducted in the press and in parliaments today. One reason for this is that 20th century proponents of assisted suicide proposed the same safeguards as their modern heirs: verification that the patient truly wills his or her own death voluntarily; confirmation that the patient is of sound mind; and professional consensus that the case is truly hopeless. […]
These precautions were nevertheless found to be insufficient. There was felt to be too much potential for abuse and error — by unscrupulous relatives, by doctors with imperfect judgment, and by others. These concerns apply with equal force to modern bills that rely on similar safeguards.
Andrews goes on to make a few other points about popular assumptions concerning the opponents of legalization. But for our purposes here, the historical lesson is the real value. Andrews’ argument doesn’t directly address the moral questions involved, but for supporters of legalization, the honest fact that the same questions have been debated before — and democratic bodies have provided answers — is an important and educational bit of information to acknowledge.
2. “Paul Ryan’s Anti-Poverty Plan: Welfare on a Human Scale?” — Amber Lapp, Family Studies
Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) released his proposal for reforming how the U.S. federal government addresses poverty last week. And while it has some aspects liberals can get behind, its centerpiece is a scheme to consolidate a host of poverty programs into one lump sum of money that would be given to states to experiment with — with the requirement that they rely on local charities and community groups for caseworkers, who would help poor families and individuals construct a life plan of sorts. If the beneficiaries fail to meet the plan, sanctions and the possible loss of benefits would result.
Liberals have understandably objected to the proposal as the worst kind of aristocratic micromanagement of poor people’s lives. But over at the Family Studies blog this week, Amber Lapp decided to ask a few low-income Americans what they themselves thought of Ryan’s proposal. So she spoke to Scott and Emma, a young couple with three children, who must rely on a smorgasbord of different aid programs to stay afloat.
With two jobs and three kids and paperwork to keep up with in order to keep their benefits — “you’ve got to have a file folder and be organized,” Scott says — the idea of having one caseworker coordinate all of their benefits and alert them to other options is appealing. It’s better than talking to a different person every time or dealing with answering machines, Scott says. “Half the time when you call the office, no one answers anyway.”
With one caseworker that you would get to know over time, Scott thought a certain level of trust would develop, an important point given the general distrust of caseworkers among poor women that Judith Levine documents in her book, Ain’t No Trust. It might be easier to build trust if, as Ryan’s plan proposes, people have the option of working with case managers who are already on the ground, the types that see this kind of work as a calling and mission. […]
There is something important about this human connection — we all know how frustrating it is to call customer service only to wander through an automated maze. Scott and Emma’s neighbor, a single mom of two, said that that’s what sounded good about Ryan’s plan. “Now when you go to the office to get food stamps no one even talks to you. You just fill out the paperwork and then go home and wait for a phone call.”
She thought that working with a case manager to make an opportunity plan — which would assess her strengths and opportunities to grow, and help her set short-term, medium-term, and long-term goals — could help her towards her goal of getting out of public housing, preferably to a trailer on a big plot of land in the country.
When I showed Scott a sample “opportunity plan,” his eyes got big — he’s generally an expressive guy, full of dramatic gestures — and he exclaimed, “I think that could help us get to where we want. I want a house of our own way out in the boonies.” He flung his arm up in the air and behind his head, as if to show just how far off the boonies were.
To her credit, Lapp acknowledges these stories only buttress some aspects of Ryan’s proposal, such as the presence of the caseworker and the simplified stream of resources. Whether the life plans should be mandatory, or whether people should face the loss of benefits if they fail to meet the plans’ goals, is another matter. “I worry about the effect this would have on the children of adults who fail to meet their goals,” Lapp admits. “And in some cases, it seems like this would defeat the purpose of the safety net.” Nor does Ryan account for just how massive and well-funded the army of caseworkers would have to be for his scheme to work.
That said, democracy is the art of compromise. If Ryan’s proposal is viewed simply as an opening bid in a negotiation, liberals should think seriously about which parts of the plan they could live with as well as which parts they should insist on discarding.
3. “Marital Completionism: A Bad Model for Thruples and Couples Alike” — Leah Libresco, The American Conservative
A number of articles have popped recently defending non-monogamous relationships and other lifestyle alternatives to marriage. Over at the American Conservative this week, blogger Leah Libresco noticed that these defenses tend to share the common assumption that marriage should fulfill the “full smorgasbord” of the married couple’s emotional and sexual needs. It’s an assumption, Libresco points out, that’s actually quite popular amongst modern married people who are monogamous as well — and one, she argues, that’s both incorrect and destructive:
It’s natural for friends to fill the gaps in a marital relationship, indulging interests that aren’t shared with the spouse, providing emotional support, and simply varying our lens on the world. After all, C.S. Lewis’s observation in The Four Loves that “Lovers are normally face to face, absorbed in each other. Friends, side by side, absorbed in some common interest,” wasn’t meant as an aspirational image for spouses.
Spouses shouldn’t wind up completely sated by a relationship, able to retreat from the rest of the world. Married people, just like singles, have some needs that are best met by a friend or by a neighbor or by family. Our mutual, unsated needs draw us together in service to each other.
Few partners will be in danger of making a complete retreat, utterly emotionally self-sufficient as a dyad, but aiming at this goal is as destructive as achieving it. Spouses in this situation are likely to sell their friendships short, failing to rely on them… The spouse you pick shouldn’t be the one who makes you happiest, but the one who makes you more kind, prudent, and generous, and to whom you can give the same gift. You join to grow, not to accommodate the desires of your present self.
In short, the assumption of the perfect partner not only sets up impossible goals for marriages, but devalues and undermines friendships as well.
Things can get amusing, such as the moment in one of the articles Libresco cites when a woman in a non-monogamous marriage says she needs a second boyfriend to go to the theatre with her, since her husband isn’t a fan. As Libresco asks, why didn’t the woman “just book season tickets for herself and a friend?” Of course, the husband’s reason for taking on another partner was that his wife wasn’t interested in BDSM sexual practices — a problem that isn’t so easily solved by Libresco’s defense of a better understanding of the purpose of monogamous marriage.