At Liberty by Adam Sullivan

Local letter deserves attention

A 107-word commentary in an Iowa newspaper sparked an international conversation this week.

A Dubuque woman wrote to the Telegraph Herald newspaper in response to Rep. Rod Blum’s comments on health care at a recent town hall meeting. She was upset after Blum reportedly asked, “Why should a 62-year-old man have to pay for maternity care?”

Author Barbara Rank lists several public services we pay for, even though we might not directly benefit, like transportation infrastructure and library books. She concludes, “It’s called democracy, a civil society, the greater good. That’s what we pay for.”

The commentary went viral, bigly. One Facebook post with a photo of the letter on the Telegraph Herald opinion page was shared over 125,000 times as of Thursday morning. Dozens of similar posts by left-leaning social media pages gathered thousands more shares.

The short opinion piece has been mentioned hundreds of times in the media over the past week, including in the Washington Post, Upworty, Newsmax and Huffington Post. At least two foreign-language publications covered the story — Diário de Notícias in Portuguese and Die Zeit in German.

The underlying ideas are much larger than either the author or her congressman, as the response demonstrates.

Debates over the “greater good” and how to achieve it are older than our very republic, yet our present political atmosphere seems to have reignited them. In each party, there is an increasingly influential faction questioning the traditional wisdom about the legitimate role of government.

The Republicans have libertarian-leaning movements like the House Freedom Caucus, which Blum is a member of, calling for lower taxes and less federal spending. The Democrats have followers of Sen. Bernie Sanders and their offshoot organizations, calling to increase tax revenue and expand government services.


Even for those who conclude government’s legitimate functions are many, it’s difficult to see how the government we have today serves many of those purposes well. In reality, budgets for popular services like bridges and libraries are dwarfed by budgets for unpopular and dysfunctional programs.

Health care programs and Social Security consume about half of the federal budget, yet hardly anyone thinks those programs are sustainable. Numerous studies have shown we have higher per capita health care costs and worse outcomes than other developed nations.

After those, defense is a distant third-place as a portion of federal spending at 16 percent. We spend more than twice as much on defense as we did 20 years ago, yet the world does not seem to have grown twice as stable, peaceful, or prosperous.

For state budgets, K-12 and higher education accounted for 38 percent of all tax revenues nationally in 2015, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (compared to 17 percent for health care, 5 percent for transportation, and just 1 percent for public assistance). Yet several metrics show high school seniors’ test scores have either dropped, stagnated, or barely inched up over the past 40 years.

How dysfunctional must a government program be before it is no longer pursuant to the greater good? And if our government isn’t supporting the greater good, how can we make it?

Rank’s letter shared ‘round the world started a conversation. Here’s hoping it continues.

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