So, the President of the United States wants critics of his plans to socialize American health care to “get out of the way.” His operatives urge you to turn in your friends and neighbors if they say “something fishy” about the administration. Confronted with spreading grassroots outrage, President Obama instructs his supporters “to punch back twice as hard.” Kenneth Gladney, the 38-year-old black conservative who was hospitalized by union goons, can testify that they are doing just that. (It’s what Obama once called “the Chicago way”: “If they bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun,” he said.)
Why all the Sturm und Drang? What is it about the issue of health care, or, rather, the prospect of a government takeover of health care, that arouses such passions on both sides of the debate? Sure, there are important issues at stake. It is legitimate to ask whether the Democratic plan will lead to rationing of health care, especially for senior citizens. It is legitimate to ask whether it will limit choice, impede innovation, and lead to longer waiting times for various procedures. It is legitimate to ask about how the new system will be paid for.
But these concerns, while legitimate, do not really explain the level of passion that the prospect of government run health arouses. The real issue, I believe, concerns freedom. Back in March, the President warned in a televised forum that if “if we don’t tackle health care, then we’re going to break the bank.” At the time, I noted in this space, that his warning about the need for instant action on health care was reminiscent of his warning a few weeks earlier that if we didn’t give him $800,000,000,000 instantly, right now, today, forget about bothering to read the bill, then the result would be “catastrophe.” We gave him the dough. What happened? Let me repeat what I said in March:
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.
I doubt whether most of the people turning up at town hall meetings to express their dismay about the President’s plans to revolutionize American health care have Robespierre in mind. But the people that White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs disparagingly referred to as the “Brooks Brothers Brigade” sense that a lot is at stake in the controversy over the future of health care. It’s not just a question of what doctors you can see when, or even what sort of doctors will be available to be seen in a government-run health care system. No, it’s a question of what Ronald Reagan called “imposing statism” in the name of pursuing a humanitarian project. More and more people are waking up to the fact that statism is what lurks behind (and not very far behind) the Democratic plans for health care. They sense it, and they don’t like it. And that is why, Mr. President, they are not going to “get out of the way,” no matter how hard your “Chicago-way” supporters “punch back.”