(This is the fourth in a series of four posts which discuss Tea Party “Political Fundamentalism”, comprised of the unholy trinity of “Constitutional Idolatry”, Liberty Idolatry, and Small Government Idolatry.)

To recap briefly, “Political Fundamentalism” is the mutation of christian fundamentalism that allows it to appeal more broadly to the highly secularized by equally dogma-reliant anti-intellectual populism that permeates our culture. Whereas there has long been cause for some concern about the fanaticism and cooptation by the Republican Party of right-wing evangelicals, I had always maintained that dogmatic ideology rather than merely religious fanaticism was the real problem, and that religious fanaticism in our highly secularized society could only go so far. This mutation into a secular fanaticism, equally rigid and dysfunctional, equally tyrannical, and equally anti-intellectual, is far greater cause for concern.

Political Fundamentalism is the continuation of the Inquisition, adapting to a changing world in an attempt to prevent the world itself from adapting to changing circumstances and insights, creating an obstruction to the continuation of the growth and application of the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment. Political Fundamentalism can be found all over the political ideological spectrum, just as religious fundamentalism can be found all over the religious spectrum, and, in both cases, the differences in ideological particulars are less compelling than the similarities in attitude. But the currently most dangerous form of Political Fundamentalism in America is the right-wing version, comprised of the three elements already named.

“Constitutional Idolatry,” the first element I wrote about, is the conversion of an historical document meant to provide a somewhat flexible legal doctrine and framework into a sacred text the caricature of which must be rigidly adhered to according to some non-existent and impossible literal interpretation. And “Liberty Idolatry,” the second element I wrote about, is the reduction of the concept of “liberty” to one divorced from consideration of interdependence and mutual responsibility, defending freedoms independently of consideration of the harm they may inflict on others or on all.

The third element in the unholy trinity of Political Fundamentalism is Small Government Idolatry. It is a fixed belief that smaller government is always better, that lower taxes and less spending are always better, that “government is the problem” (as Ronald Reagan famously proclaimed, ushering in a movement that will long be the bane of our attempts at designing and implementing reasonable proactive policies and public investments). Like its strongly intertwined fellow travelers, Constitutional Idolatry and Liberty Idolatry, it is a fixed belief, impervious to reason and evidence, insulated from compelling counterarguments or sensible attempts to achieve balance and moderation. It is a force for the contraction of the human mind, opposition to reason and knowledge, and obstruction of progress, at a very real and tragic cost in increased human suffering and decreased human welfare.

An argument against Small Government Idolatry is not an argument for big government (just as an argument against Constitutional Idolatry is not an argument against the Constitution, and an argument against Liberty Idolatry is not an argument against liberty). It is an argument in favor of doing the analysis, in favor of applying our principles knowledgeably and rationally in the context of a complex and subtle world, on a case-by-case basis. It is an argument for facing the responsibilities we have to one another and to future generations, utilizing authentic economic analyses rather than ideological pseudo-economic platitudes to balances the demands imposing themselves on government against the real economic and fiscal constraints that must discipline how these demands are met.

A blind commitment to “small government” is both humanly and fiscally irresponsible, for most economists, other social scientists, and lawyers recognize the inevitably large role that modern governments must play in modern economies, even independently of the demands that a commitment to social justice and improved equity impose on them. I’ve frequently referenced the role of information asymmetries in creating an absolute imperative that we continue to develop our regulatory infrastructure to keep pace with the opportunities to play the market system to individual advantage at sometimes catastrophic public expense. We’ve seen examples in the Enron-engineered California energy crisis of 2000-2001, and the financial sector collapse that nearly catalized a second Great Depression in 2008. Designing, implementing, and enforcing functional rules of the game for our complex market economy is an essential function of government, and one which already destroys the notion that a government too small too meet that need is preferable to one large enough to do so.

It is also fiscally, as well as humanly, irresponsible to let the problems of extreme poverty, child abuse and neglect, frequently unsuccessful public schools, high rates of violent crime, poor public health and inadequate healthcare for many, and other similar and related social problems, all of which form a mutually reinforcing matrix of dysfunctionality and growing problems that both undermine the safety and welfare of us all, and end up costing us far more to react to (with astronomical rates of very expensive incarceration, and other costs of dependency and predation) than it would have cost us to proactively address.

The fiscal concerns that the Political Fundamentalists identify are not to be disregarded, or treated as irrelevant, but rather are one set of considerations among many, to be included in a complete analysis rather than treated as always and forever dispositive independently of any application of reason or knowledge to the question of whether it is actually dispositive or not. The challenge of self-governance requires utilizing our fully developed and focused cognitive capacities, applied to all available information, in pursuit of intelligent and well-conceived policies. It is undermined by the imposition of an a priori set of fixed certainties that are impervious to both knowledge and reason.

We need, in our political discourse, less fundamentalism and more analysis, less idolatry and more (and better) methodology, less false certainty and more foundational humility. We need less deference to fixed and static beliefs, and more to our process by which we test our beliefs and improve upon them. We need less commitment to ideologies, and more commitment to working together as reasonable people of goodwill, doing the best we can to confront the challenges and opportunities of a complex and subtle world.

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

Sometimes, the threads of your own narrative conspire to take you down unexpected avenues. Mental Health issues, both personally and as a matter of public policy, were never at the forefront of my concerns, though they should have been, on both fronts. And chance sprinkled bread crumbs along the path that led me to that realization.

First, as a (surprisingly recent) law school student more interested in public policy than litigation or transactional law, I sought out appropriate venues to do internships. During my 2L year (after having momentarily forgotten why I went to law school, and, while interviewing with big firms during the early fall “on-campus interview” process, remembering again), I heard about a small policy LLC called “Center for Systems Integration,” looking for one or two summer interns. I told the career counselor who mentioned it, “if they’re anything like their name, they’re perfect for me!” I interned with CSI that summer, researching legal and fiscal issues surrounding trying to implement mental health screening and services in and through the public schools. Almost instantly, I realized how logical that was, and how needed. After all, adolescence is a time when emotional and mental stability issues are heightened, and many, if not most, need far more assistance navigating those roiling currents than they currently receive. Like the shoulder strap on seat belts, back in the day when cars were equipped only with lap belts, the instant you hear the suggestion or independently think of the idea, you slap your forehead and say, “doh! Of course!” I’ve since done far more research on the subject.

This morning, a renewed reminder of the importance of mental health care appeared on the Today Show, as I was getting ready to leave for a legislative breakfast with Mental Health America of Colorado. The father of the girl with cerebral palsy who boarded her school bus to threaten the kids who had been bullying her was on, with his daughter, clearly a descent guy who loved his daughter and was just driven into a rage at what she was suffering. This story is laden with implications: The bullies, the father, and the daughter all needed their own mental health hygiene (what is sometimes called “behavioral health”) better attended to. And the failure to attend to it has a negative rippling effect throughout our social landscape, reinforcing the bad behaviors of the bullies, leaving the girl to suffer without learning how to cope, and letting the understandable frustration of the father percolate into rage. Unattended mental health issues are seeds of destruction and despair, germinating in the soil of our individual and shared existence, and forming the root of many of our individual and social systemic woes.

Mental health is implicated in virtually all aspects of our lives, in how well we do in school, in how well we address the normal challenges and tragedies of life, in how well we choose our course and pursue our ambitions, in how well we contribute to the production of material and immaterial wealth upon which we all depend, in how well we avoid being sucked into predatory and destructive behaviors. Mental health is the foundation of social health, of prosperity and domestic tranquility, of human happiness.

Public investment in the provision of extensive, universal mental health services is a cost-effective one, paying proactively to nip problems in the bud, problems that, unaddressed, fester into bigger problems, requiring less effective reactive “solutions”, imposing costs that are far, far greater, both materially and immaterially, than the relatively modest costs of addressing these issues early and affirmatively. Our failure to make mental health care more of a priority, a more normal aspect of our routine maintenance of our own well-being, results in poorer academic performance by more children, more juvenile delinquency and subsequent adult criminality, more people incarcerated (we have the largest absolute and per capita rate of incarceration of any nation on Earth, bar none, costing society while producing nothing in return, and screaming of a social failure that we insist on denying), more drug abuse and homelessness and domestic violence and child abuse and neglect, all creating ever-more fertile soil for ever-more profound and widespread mental health problems, escalating in a feedback loop of spiritually and materially costly dysfunctionality. Investing in mental health services, from birth to death, is just about the biggest bang for the buck we can get.

Personally, and not at all uniquely, I’ve always struggled with my own inner-demons, my own internal emotional turmoil (for which I unfortunately never sought help), manifested, as it often is, as character flaws. For a person who takes pride in his accomplishments, in his sincere commitment to our shared enterprise, these failings have always been a source of deep shame. But they shouldn’t be. They are not extraordinary failings, nor extraordinary character flaws, but they are gravel in the gears of both my own personal efforts in life, and the social interactions necessary to our collective efforts. And it is their very normalcy, their very commonness, which is so poignant, because they are not inevitable, they are not mere functions of the cards we are dealt over which we have no control. Nor do they have to be purely individual burdens, borne well or poorly but with only that informal assistance that those same cards we were dealt happen to bestow.

Not only do I as an individual have a responsibility, and the ability, to confront those challenges and address them, but so do we as a people. Because the successes and failures of each of us are the successes and failures of us all. The relative inability of numerous individuals to most effectively and cooperatively participate in our shared enterprise as a society is an integral aspect of the shared challenge we face, of how we collectively play the cards we are dealt, when we face the challenge of improving the quality of our lives by being responsible, rational, and compassionate members of a society. Just as the gods help those who help themselves, society should as well. We should be in a partnership, the individual doing his or her part, and the rest of us offering our support.

Instead of the anger and rejection we indulge in when we confront someone who has problems that manifest in unattractive ways, we should strive to offer a helping hand. What we perceive as character flaws in others are often, if not always, unaddressed mental health issues. That may sound like an exaggeration, or an excuse, but it is neither. What are character flaws but internal problems, imbalances, sometimes even biochemical in nature, that have not been diagnosed and addressed? To those who insist that some people are just “bad” and some are just “good”, why is it that the numbers vary from culture to culture, that some cultures have far less or far more violent crime, or far less or far more “friendliness,” or far less or far more “humility,” or far less or far more “arrogance”? And, even if conceptualizing character flaws as mental health problems is unpalatable to some, the realization that we can help one another to be better people should not be so hard to swallow.

Of course, we are still all each responsible for our own actions and choices, but that does not mean that our actions and choices have no causes, and can’t be collectively improved upon through better understanding and better intervention. And, of course, it is impossible for us to “cure” all such problems merely through improved mental health care services, but, like many such problems, we can do better at addressing and mitigating them, and can benefit enormously by doing so. 

Mental Health America of Colorado, along with many other organizations and agencies, has made enormous strides in improving our ability to provide mental health services to those who need them. Throughout the human services community, a movement called “systems of care” is increasing both efficiency and quality of services provided, by creating more integration among different agencies and organizations providing complementary, supplementary, and overlapping services, so that individuals receiving these various services, receive them in a coordinated way, that reduces costly redundancy, reduces the fracturing of interrelated services into mutually isolated compartments, and increases the synthesis of services into more effective packages designed to best meet the needs of those being served.

Research is improving our knowledge, such as the importance of using peers in mental health care regimens, and that those who have been sufferers of specific mental health problems are often the most useful counselors to others who are suffering them as well. Our knowledge of the unity of physical and mental health issues, each affecting the other, both being aspects of a single whole, improves our ability to address the systemic needs of individuals and society as a whole.

But the political challenge of working on how, rather than whether, to best address these very real needs, is just one more incarnation of the deeper political challenge in which we are embroiled: The dogmatic commitment to extreme individualism on the one hand, leaving each to fend for himself (which costs us all, because we are in fact interdependent whether we want to realize it or not); and, on the other, a commitment to working together as reasonable people of goodwill to do the best we can to address the challenges and opportunities of a complex and subtle world. It’s a no-brainer. But, unfortunately, sometimes even no-brainers are not no-brainers enough for reason to prevail. Not surprisingly, Colorado, the land of rugged individualism, has the 18th highest rate of depression in the country, the sixth highest rate of suicide, and the second highest rate of juvenile suicide. On the flip side, Denmark, one of the countries most committed to the collective welfare of its people, has the highest rating of self-reported happiness of any nation on Earth.

Some argue that such talk is an assault on individual liberty. But individual liberty is a function of being members of a society, based on the material, cultural, and spiritual wealth we create together. We are each free to think and say what we want, using a language and concepts that we have collectively produced over generations. We are each free to pursue our fortunes, within an economy in which we collectively participate, and relying on a material and immaterial infrastructure publicly provided. We are free to explore the wonders of the world, traveling on vehicles, reading books, engaging in entertainments, all produced through a collective enterprise, an enterprise which both requires and benefits from intelligently designed public policies. The question we face is not how much government we should have, but rather how best to use our government to provide the most opportunity to the most people to exercise and enjoy our individual liberty, to celebrate our freedom by living healthy and productive lives. We all benefit by addressing that challenge as wisely as possible. It’s time to stop shirking that challenge. Investing in the mental health care of our citizens is one important component of “getting it right.”

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

Many of the most pressing social problems we face are embedded in the loss of community, in dysfunctional families, in unaddressed behavioral and situational problems of children. Some consider these spheres of life to be beyond the purview of public policy, and too expensive to address even if government could or should be used to address them. I think this is mistaken on all counts, and more profoundly than immediately apparent.

First, the unaddressed (or under addressed) behavioral and mental health problems of children, and the unstable or unsafe family environments in which many find themselves, end up being extremely costly to society in the long run, both monetarily and socially. These under addressed problems are implicated in poor educational performance, delinquent and future criminal behavior, and a myriad of related problems that reduce individual productivity, increase economic and social burdens on society, and reproduce themselves generationally.

Second, our current programs tend to be piecemeal, reactive, and both fiscally inefficient and of more limited effectiveness than necessary. This is not a set of defects that we cannot substantially improve upon, and, in fact, there are many advances taking place right now which are doing just that. By placing ever-increasing emphasis on coordination among services and agencies that perform interrelated services for children and families in need, we reduce the costs of fractured and redundant services performed by seperate agencies with unconsolidated administrative costs. Those costs are far greater than providing oversight boards which help to coordinate and consolidate these overlapping services. By doing so, not only is the fiscal efficiency of providing services greatly increased, but also the outcome efficacy of these services, for when schools and juvenile justice agencies and mental health providers and child welfare counselors and others involved in addressing individual children’s needs are engaged in those efforts in better coordinated ways, all do their jobs more effectively, and contribute to a more effective regime of service provision.

Providing such proactive services more effectively, addressing the behavioral health challenges that so many of our youth face, helping to ensure that each child has a safe and nurturing permanent family environment in which to grow up in, and coordinating these efforts with both juvenile justice agencies and public schools, not only increases the present and future welfare of those children, but also reduces both the costs of reactive solutions to the problems thus avoided, and the costs to society of the problems themselves.

The costs of the relative failure of our educational system, for instance, are enormous, on many levels, costs that can be dramatically reduced through improvements in the effectiveness of our schools. And the enormnous costs of having the dubious distinction of being the nation, of all nations on Earth, with both the highest absolute number, and highest percentage of our population incarcerated, are perhaps directly tracable to our failure to address the childhood problems that lay the foundation for that unfortunate statistic.

Improving our proactive services to children and families is an up-front investment in our future, cultivating productive and well-adjusted members of society who contribute more to our collective welfare and less to our collective suffering. And even marginal gains on that dimension promise enormous future fiscal savings. It’s an investment we can’t afford not to make.

But the potential to improve the quality of our lives, and the prospects for our children, do not stop there. Increased community involvement provides one more pillar to the structure of improved support to children and families, increasing the vigilance with which problems are identified, the informal neighborly assistance and interventions with which they are avoided or mitigated, and the positive human capital with which child development is cultivated. Implementing robust community volunteer tutoring and mentoring programs is one easy step we can take to increase the strength of our communities, improve the quality of education our children receive, and provide our youth with a greater number of positive role models to emulate. In addition to such benefits are the benefits of increased informal mutual support in times of need, and just as an ordinary part of life, each of us helping one another out just a little bit more, because we have spent more time working together as members of a cohesive community.

There are no panaceas, and I do not mean to imply that the policy agenda I am outlining would solve all of our problems, would magically make all children well-behaved and studious, and all neighbors helpful. I am suggesting that, as always, we can do better or worse, we can improve on our current social institutional framework or not, and we can strive to increase the opportunities available to our children for their future success, and our improved shared quality of life.

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards