Subtitle: In which ammunition is provided to defenders of the NHS who want to challenge conservatives on their own turf
The truth is that, after a certain measure of tangible material success or reward has been achieved, the question of increasing it becomes of constantly less importance compared to other things that can be done in life.
– Theodore Roosevelt, “Citizenship in a Republic”, April 23 1910
Teddy Roosevelt was one of the great Presidents of the United States of America. A Republican, he was the physical embodiment of what some might call the conservative ideal: hard working, physically courageous, outspoken advocate of family, fiercely self-sufficient – almost a force of nature. Yet when you read the quote above, you realise that one of the great tragedies of the 20th century was America losing its way as a torch-bearer for conservative philosophy.
The quote is taken from a speech delivered to the Sorbonne, the University of Paris. It is often refered to as The Man in the Arena, because it argues strongly in favour of blood-and-guts self-sufficiency. As he puts it, “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face in marred by dust and sweat and blood”.
Roosevelt was a statesman and a soldier, and there is a deep truth in his words. For my own part, not being a fighter, the lesson is easily translated to the arts: the credit belongs to the musician who gets on stage and performs, or the painter who puts their art on display. It’s a business lesson, too. I first heard of it from an American entrepreneur.
The failure of conservatism is to have taken this truth and perverted it. The man in the arena is a popular image amongst free marketeers, but they tend to forget that in the same passage, that man is one “who spends himself in a worthy cause”. As with most lessons, it is not a simple ode to competition but a balanced lesson in values. Later in the speech comes the other side of equation:
Nevertheless, while laying all stress on this point, while not merely acknowledging but insisting upon the fact that there must be a basis of material well-being for the individual as for the nation, let us with equal emphasis insist that this material well-being represents nothing but the foundation, and that the foundation, though indispensable, is worthless unless upon it is raised the superstructure of a higher life.
That is why I decline to recognize the mere multimillionaire, the man of mere wealth, as an asset of value to any country; and especially as not an asset to my own country. If he has earned or uses his wealth in a way that makes him of real benefit, of real use—and such is often the case—why, then he does become an asset of worth. But it is the way in which it has been earned or used, and not the mere fact of wealth, that entitles him to the credit.
There is need in business, as in most other forms of human activity, of the great guiding intelligences. Their places can not be supplied by any number of lesser intelligences. It is a good thing that they should have ample recognition, ample reward. But we must not transfer our admiration to the reward instead of to the deed rewarded; and if what should be the reward exists without the service having been rendered, then admiration will come only from those who are mean of soul.
The truth is that, after a certain measure of tangible material success or reward has been achieved, the question of increasing it becomes of constantly less importance compared to other things that can be done in life. It is a bad thing for a nation to raise and to admire a false standard of success; and there can be no falser standard than that set by the deification of material well-being in and for itself.
There may be equal, but there are no better, descriptions of the failure of modern day conservatism than its appeal to those who are “mean of soul”, with a “false standard of success”. This is the great risk of the Health and Social Care Bill 2011. Yes, the NHS requires a more flexible structure. Experience has taught us, however, that reliance on markets is to give too much power to those who choose to deify material well-being in and for itself. Even the hardy frontiersman recognises such limits:
I am a strong individualist by personal habit, inheritance, and conviction; but it is a mere matter of common sense to recognize that the State, the community, the citizens acting together, can do a number of things better than if they were left to individual action.
Along with national defence, health care is one of those things that must be managed by the State and the community. The common theme of Lib Dem criticism of Andrew Lansley’s Bill is not the re-structuring but the abdication of government responsibility. When asked why we should be concerned about this, the conservative wisdom of a hundred and one years ago isn’t a bad place to start.
(the full text of the speech is in my previous post)