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ObamaCare: The Devil Is Not in the Details

Opponents of socialized medicine would be wise to focus on the big picture, rather than the specifics of individual bills.

by
George Leef

Bio

August 31, 2009 - 12:00 am

This has been the long, hot summer of ObamaCare. The president’s plan to change our health care system has led to ugly confrontations between ardent supporters and those who want no part of it. Repeatedly, arguments have broken out where opponents object to some provision and the president’s zealots retort that they’re lying or have been duped.

I would like to suggest that such arguments are beside the point. The specifics of the legislation are shifting and liable to change. What’s really important is the overall concept. We’re used to hearing that “the devil is in the details,” but in this instance, we should instead concentrate on the big picture.

Here is the big picture: Do we want a health care system that’s overwhelmingly political in nature? President Obama believes we need a system mainly directed by federal mandates and prohibitions. If he has his way, our already somewhat politicized system would become heavily politicized. Supposedly that would be in the public interest.

There are many Americans, however, who think that a heavily politicized health care system would be much worse. I’m among them. We believe, fundamentally, that systems of any kind that are dominated by politics do not do a good job of satisfying human needs. Whether it’s health care, food, housing, or anything else, government intrusion leads to increasing costs, declining quality, and the loss of freedom.

We get far better results from systems based on freedom and voluntary exchange. When individuals make decisions, they know their own circumstances and will either benefit from good choices or suffer the consequences of bad ones. That creates a strong incentive to make good choices and quickly change when you realize you’ve made a mistake.

When government officials make decisions, things are different. That’s mainly because there is only a weak feedback loop. Politicians may say they “feel our pain,” but they really don’t. They know almost nothing about individuals they represent and when they make bad decisions, they aren’t the ones who are harmed.

Even if a lot of voters complain, rarely is a politician voted out of office over some bill he supported. Besides, voting out a politician doesn’t repeal the damaging law.

To make matters worse, politicians tend to think short term (popularity at the next election) and are heavily influenced by special interest groups that know how to play the political system for favors. Therefore, the more politics intrudes, the more likely that average people will suffer from mistakes that are never corrected.

Here are some examples.

Public education. Our public education system is highly politicized. It’s very costly and yet produces remarkably poor results, with many students never graduating from high school; of those who do graduate, many have dismal basic skills in reading, writing, and math.

Housing market. Our housing market used to be free of politics, but within the last several decades politicians have intervened repeatedly to push their idea that home ownership is necessarily good and to undermine longstanding lending standards to accomplish that. The resulting housing bubble did enormous economic damage to the nation, thanks to political intrusion.

The Post Office. Since 1845, the Post Office has enjoyed a monopoly in delivering first-class mail, courtesy of politicians who didn’t like it losing money when it had competition. Prices keep rising rapidly and still the taxpayers have to make up huge annual deficits. Service can be slow and unreliable.

Communist nations. We can also see the effects of politicization by looking at whole nations. Under communism, which left little outside the realm of political control, most people experienced miserable goods and services across the board. Government officials constantly proclaimed that they worked only for the public good, not profit, but the results were so bad that people risked their lives to escape.

Now let’s look at some examples where politics plays little or no role.

Grocery shopping. Stores decide what items to offer and consumers buy what they want. The profit-and-loss system leads to variety, innovation, high-quality merchandise, and good service.

Personal education. When people want to learn about anything from home repairs to the history of the Byzantine Empire, they have available a wide array of books, recorded lecture sets, the internet, private tutors (e.g., music lessons, perhaps the freest market we still have), and more. Prices are low and consumer satisfaction is high.

I could go on and on, but I think the point is clear: the more anything is politicized, the less well it serves people. That’s why I dread ObamaCare. It will make something very important much more politicized. Whatever the details, it’s a move in the wrong direction.

Don’t misunderstand. I have no doubt that there are many devils lurking in the heavy stacks of paper that comprise the legislation. If people choose to dig into the pages and expose them, good.

But instead of trying to decide whether you’re for or against this on the basis of what some bill may or may not say on page 852, the easier way is just to ask if you believe that a highly politicized health care system will work better than other highly politicized systems we know about. I can see no reason to think it will.

George Leef, a writer in Raleigh, N.C., is the author of Free Choice for Workers: A History of the Right to Work Movement.
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