Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Where the Bureaucrats Are

Hal Pepinsky
August 11, 2009
At one pole in the current U.S. health care debate is the assertion that a “public option” would take away our health care choices and instead have bureaucrats decide the care we get. So what’s a bureaucrat?
The term “bureaucracy” was coined by a German lawyer/economist/sociologist, Max Weber, at the turn of the last century. One way of legitimizing decisions was traditional: this is how things have been done. Another was charismatic, like the “yes we can” spirit that swept Barack Obama into the White House. The third way allowed that people could deliberately choose new rules to go by: setting down written rules which the true bureaucrat would literally, mechanically apply…kind of like the sentencing judge who tells a defendant, “This hurts me more than it hurts you, but the law requires…”
“Bureaucratic” is an attitude. Whenever we fall back on doing what we have to do, implicitly on what “society” or anything or anyone else tells us to do, we adopt a bureaucratic attitude. We tend to have such a short sense of history that there is virtually no difference these days between a traditionalist and a bureaucratic mindset.
Then there is the charismatic attitude. We all have both attitudes inside ourselves competing for our attention. Will we do what “society” tells us to do, or what our conscience or sense of compassion—our heart—dictates? All religious and political traditions recognize this dialectic between being driven by fear (doing what we have to do), and being driven by compassion (giving way to empathy). The charismatic attitude is literally one of moving where your spirit tells you to go, on the premise that all rules are meant to have exceptions based on the circumstances at hand. To me, the art and science of transforming personal and structural violence into a peacemaking process is one of introducing choice into situations where people are doing what they think they have to do.
Bureaucratism happens in every private and public human relationship. The most basic bureaucratism I encounter is parents acting on their duty to teach their children right from wrong, by reward and by chastisement, as against nurturing compassion by focusing on giving and openly appreciating empathy. It constantly amazes me how bureaucratically we generally relate in my militarized country in our daily lives.
Horrifying tales of health insurance rescission are one example among many of heartless denials of coverage by private bureaucrats. I think being for profit makes health care more bureaucratic than being not-for-profit as in a health care collective or governmental. It offends my common intelligence to have a public option to private insurance so branded.
Alas, I have become used to encountering political disinformation, public and private, in my national life. My reflex in public pronouncements is that if a spokesperson has to say it, it is probably blaming someone else for one’s own issues.
In victim-offender mediation especially, I have learned that framing issues is fundamental to whether discourse becomes locked in positions, or as Roger Fisher put it, we move from position to negotiating real interests. I fault all protagonists in the health care debate for using slogans like “government bureaucrat” and invectives against evil insurance companies and news media, for framing the debate in debaters’ terms, for getting us to a place where honest and open negotiation of our collective welfare is suppressed.
One further irony on resistance to the government’s offering its own health insurance alternative beyond Medicare: the claim that competition with a public insurance option would drive private competitors out of business. Wrap your mind around this defense of keeping the market for health insurance free folks! Love and peace--hal

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