Ben Parker Was Right

Bill Murchison

7/3/2012 12:01:00 AM - Bill Murchison
It wasn't Tocqueville or Hamilton who said it. Actually, it was Ben Parker in "Spiderman." "With great power comes great responsibility;" it's common sense advice for adaptation in the ongoing war over Obamacare and why Chief Justice John Roberts conspired in upholding that political and economic blunder.

Whatever one's view of Roberts' reasoning, one sentence in the majority opinion rightly affirms and sustains Ben Parker: to wit, "It is not our" -- that is, the Supreme Court's -- "job to protect the people from the consequences of their political choices."

That's putting the matter a little curtly. What a lesson, all the same, in the uses and abuses of the greatest worldly power there is -- the power of people living in a democracy to spread the sails of the ship of state or, sometimes, drive the ship on a rock. One may wish the court had knocked down this potentially ruinous law, then stomped on it, lighting Cuban cigars with its pages and scattering the fragments around the chamber. The law is awful. Are we straight on that? Who passed and signed it, nonetheless? The duly elected legislature of the sovereign people and their duly elected chief magistrate.

My brothers, my sisters -- we did this to ourselves, with eyes wide open or else willfully shut. We thought turning over a sixth of the American economy to the tender mercies of big brother was a pretty cool idea. We chose to slough off the great responsibility said to accompany great power. We ignored Ben Parker and common sense alike.

Then, having done so, we wanted nine judges -- five would have done the job -- to get us off the hook? The aspiration, though fitting in certain practical respects, was a little ambitious. We need to get ourselves off the hook, not least for the sake of better understanding the pain that comes of doing stupid things by democratic consent.

Everyone knows Winston Churchill's bon mot about the inferiority of democracy, save when it's compared with the alternatives. We know as guidance for public policy that the ballot box beats a decree from the Central Committee or an improvised explosive device planted in a busy marketplace.

For all that, democratic theory puts the pressure on demos -- the people themselves -- to perform wisely and with justice. It often gets dicey here. Demos can fall asleep at the switch or find itself routed in catastrophic directions by cynical or ambitions agitators (called -- again borrowing the Greek root word -- "demagogues").

A popular vote isn't automatically a sensible one. What if the people, or their elected representatives, vote to spend more money than they can ever raise? What if, well, they vote to take over the health care industry? When that happens, we get where we are now, saddled with an economically unsustainable model for health care. We pine for a "god from the machine," as in the days of the great Greek playwrights, to come down and save us. But that doesn't happen. This brings us back to democratic theory.

An election looms. The authors of the bad joke known as Obamacare are asking demos -- us -- to confirm their handiwork by returning them to office. Democratic theory permits us to clap the guys on the back, crowning them with laurel wreaths and oodles of votes. On the other hand, democratic theory affords the opportunity -- the only meaningful opportunity, in fact -- of saying, getouddahere, you bums, and don't let the door interfere with your seat pants.

If these options sound extreme, they nevertheless frame the question in its essence: Do we the people of the United States want Obamacare, or don't we? A majority thought so at one time or anyway defaulted in the obligation to examine the pig-in-the-poke that was on offer from the Democrats and especially, the president who promised to remake our country. Do we like what we bought? The polls say most of us don't. We know what that should mean: The great power of democracy awakens to the responsibility it shunned once -- and now finds itself unable to evade.