I’ve been reading the New Republic for decades, even though (or perhaps because) it’s a wildly uneven publication. It can publish as thoughtful and intellectually rigorous a figure as William Galston, whose every word is worth serious attention. And it can publish some real garbage. In the second category (I think) falls what the website calls “Our New Columnist’s Rational Plan for Redistributing Babies.” The “new columnist,” Rachel Gurstein, writes, “how about redistributing babies at birth, a kind of big baby lottery? Since it is a matter of sheer luck whether one is born into a rich family and then, as a birth-right, is entitled to first-class housing, top-flight health insurance, excellent schools, and, if need be, the best attorneys money can buy, or whether one is born into a poor or middle-class family and not be assured of getting any of these amenities, why not give rational order to what has been a wildly haphazard and obviously unjust state of affairs? A public program implementing the big baby lottery would at last make official what has in truth been the unspoken ethos of our government policy for decades and is in accord with the casino way of life--the stock market, the housing market, the state lotteries--to which so many Americans are wholeheartedly committed.”
It turns out (I think) that she’s kidding; her citation of Jonathan Swift’s essay “A Modest Proposal” is one tipoff. But her proposal has some roots, as she notes, with the famed and in some liberal quarters revered political philosopher John Rawls. He argued that all public policy proposals should be assessed from the perspective of one who does not know into what station of life he or she is born. It turns out that when you do this you end up opting for a cradle-to-grave welfare state (or at least Rawls did). The problem with this, I have long thought, is that we aren’t born this way, we are born into families (or some other child care situation), we are raised in a particular milieu which is only part of a larger society and at a particular point in history. Yes, “life is unfair,” as President Kennedy noted when asked why he had called up some military reservists, and those born in the United States in 1946 (as Bill Clinton and George W. Bush were) turn out to have better prospects than people born in Russia or Poland or Germany in 1920 (hundreds of thousands of whom died in World War II). So while Rachel Gurstein isn’t really suggesting that babies should be redistributed at birth, it seems that the idea is in some way appealing to her—even while she presumably understands that it will sound appalling to the very large majority of Americans. There are clues here to why the Democrats’ health care policies are so unpopular with the American people.