Recent disputes over the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act go to the most basic of political issues, the proper goal of government.
The nature of the political good may seem a question for the seminar room, but the answer is what distinguishes libertarians, liberals, and conservatives. More specifically, it’s what accounts for the disputes over Obamacare.
According to libertarians, the basic political good is freedom, understood as a setting in which people make their choices and pay for them. What’s available for choice is what people can provide for themselves, together with whatever other people decide to make available. Such a view leads libertarians to oppose government-prescribed health care of any kind.
Liberals agree that the basic political good is freedom, but see it as a setting in which people make choices and receive social support for them. They note that a lack of options can limit freedom, and propose that goods everyone wants, or that facilitate choice in general, be made freely available. Thus, for example, they believe that government should provide for universal health care, since everyone wants to be healthy, and good health facilitates active autonomy. They also believe that personal choice should prevail over collective moral preferences, so Catholic employers should be required to make free birth control pills available to employees who want them.
Conservatives in contrast view the political good as maintenance of an overall way of life that has been found good through experience and reason. That way of life will generally include freedom, but it won’t put it first because freedom by itself doesn’t tell us what it’s for, and if we don’t know what it’s for we can’t resolve conflicts among claimed freedoms. So to make sense, freedom has to be part of a larger system of goods that gives it direction, setting, and meaning.