Roger’s Rules

The two most frightening things Obama said yesterday

The second most frightening thing the President said at his televised “forum on heath care” yesterday was that “if we don’t tackle health care, then we’re going to break the bank.” That statement, reminiscent of his warning a few weeks ago that if we didn’t give him $800,000,000,000 right now, today, forget about bothering to read the bill, then the result would “catastrophe.” Well, we gave him the dough, and the result? Yesterday the Dow closed down another 280 points to about 6500.

Here’s how it works: the President tells you that we have a bad situation, which is true. He then says that spending huge sums of money–which he proposes to procure by extracting more money from (certain) citizens present and future–will solve the problem, which is false.

In the case of health care, the enthymeme is doubly painful, because not only will more government spending not be cure for government spending, but it will also do grave damage to what is still, despite the efforts of squadrons of government bureaucrats for decades, the greatest health care system in the world.

Obama has promised to change that, and judging by the warm fuzziness in evidence at his Potemkin forum on health care yesterday, I reckon he will succeed. What will we get instead? Obama talks about “universal” health care. He vowed to sign that into law before the end of his first term. If the Canadian experience–so much admired by the Left–is anything to go by, what that will mean is universal access to the government controlled waiting lists for health care. Not quite the same thing as universal health care.

Reflecting on the question of whether the Canadian economy should be a model for the American economy (the answer, by the way, is No), the Canadian journalist Mark Steyn observed that “if you have government health care, you not only annex a huge chunk of the economy, you also destroy a huge chunk of individual liberty. You fundamentally change the relationship between the citizen and the state into something closer to that of junkie and pusher, and you make it very difficult ever to change back.”

Those are the depressing bits: the loss of freedom and the difficulty of ever getting it back. On all these government expropriations, what we have is essentially a one-way ratchet. Once the government sinks its teeth into you, it is extremely difficult to wiggle free. The income tax and social security tax, we tend to forget, were both instituted as temporary, emergency measures.  That’s why 1895 is one of my favorite years in US history: in that banner year the Supreme Court ruled that the income tax was unconstitutional. Needless to say, the ruling didn’t last long.

Looking at the grinning rogues gallery of mountebanks yesterday–Ted “Chappaquiddick” Kennedy, Charlie “tax dodger” Rangel, and the rest–I thought of Ronald Reagan’s warning about how socialists so often use health care as a wedge to extract not only money but also freedom, including freedom of choice, from the citizenry. “One of the traditional methods of imposing statism or socialism on a people,” Reagan observed, “has been by way of medicine. It’s very easy to disguise a medical program as a humanitarian project. Most people are a little reluctant to oppose anything that suggests medical care for people who possibly can’t afford it.”

The name of that reluctance is compassion. Compassion is a noble human emotion. But it can be exploited by unscrupulous politicians and twisted into self-flagellating feelings of guilt, on one side, and the self-regarding emotion of virtue, on the other.

And this brings me to the even more frightening thing Obama said yesterday. There is, he said, “a moral imperative to health care.” Is there? What he meant was that if you agree with his proposal, you are an upstanding citizen who deserves the warm, self-regarding glow of moral infatuation. If you disagree with him, however, you are a greedy, selfish, unenlightened person who needs . . . well, the President hasn’t gotten around to that part of the scenario yet, except to note that anyone who is solvent can expect higher taxes.

Let me say a few words more about this. Why do I find it frightening when Obama starts talking about there being “a moral imperative to health care”? Is it not an expression of benevolence? Indeed it is. But that is far from reassuring. Why? The Australian philosopher David Stove got to the heart of the problem when he noted that the combination of universal benevolence fired by uncompromising moralism was a toxic brew. “Either element on its own,” Stove observed,

is almost always comparatively harmless. A person who is convinced that he has a moral obligation to be benevolent, but who in fact ranks morality below fame (say), or ease; or again, a person who puts morality first, but is also convinced that the supreme moral obligation is, not to be benevolent, but to be holy (say), or wise, or creative: either of these people might turn out to be a scourge of his fellow humans, though in most cases he will not. But even at the worst, the misery which such a person causes will fall incomparably short of the misery caused by Lenin, or Stalin, or Mao, or Ho-Chi-Minh, or Kim-Il-Sung, or Pol Pot, or Castro: persons convinced both of the supremacy of benevolence among moral obligations, and of the supremacy of morality among all things. It is this combination which is infallibly and enormously destructive of human happiness.

Of course, as Stove goes on to note, this “lethal combination” is by no means peculiar to Communists. It provides the emotional fuel for utopians from Robespierre on down. That is the really sobering thing about the emotional metabolism of abstract benevolence: that the capacity for evil so easily cohabits and feeds upon the emotion of virtue.

In The Social Contract, Rousseau warned that “Those who dare to undertake the institution of a people must feel themselves capable . . . of changing human nature, . . . of altering the constitution of man for the purpose of strengthening it.” Robespierre & Co. thought themselves just the chaps for the job. The fact that they measured the extent of their success by the frequency that the guillotines around Paris operated highlights the connection between the imperatives of political correctness and tyranny–between what Robespierre candidly described as “virtue and its emanation, terror.” That is the conjunction that should give us pause, especially when we contemplate the good intentions of the politically correct bureaucrats who preside over more and more of life in Western societies today.

They mean well. They seek to boost all mankind up to their own plane of enlightenment. Inequality outrages their sense of justice. They regard conventional habits of behavior as so many obstacles to be overcome on the path to perfection. They see tradition as the enemy of innovation, which they embrace as a lifeline to moral progress. They cannot encounter a wrong without seeking to right it. The idea that some evils may be ineradicable is anathema to them. Likewise the traditional notion that the best is the enemy of the good, that many choices we face are to some extent choices among evils–such proverbial wisdom outrages their sense of moral perfectibility.

Alas, the result is not paradise but a campaign to legislate virtue, to curtail eccentricity, to smother individuality, to barter truth for the current moral or political enthusiasm. For centuries, political philosophers have understood that the lust for equality is the enemy of freedom. That species of benevolence underwrote the tragedy of Communist tyranny. The rise of political correctness has redistributed that lust over a new roster of issues: not the proletariat, but the environment, not the struggling masses, but “reproductive freedom,” gay rights, the welfare state, the Third World, diversity training, an end to racism and xenophobia, and, last but note least, universal health care. It looks, in Marx’s famous mot, like history repeating itself not as tragedy but as farce. It would be a rash man, however, who made no provision for a reprise of tragedy.