The Road Just Taken: What the right doesn't get about health care reform

The health care reform bill that passed the House of Representatives last night is flawed and adulterated; but for millions of Americans who aren’t stockholders of insurance companies, failure to pass it would have been disastrous. That failure would have led to the continued spiraling out of control of health-care costs (and perhaps, ten or 15 years from now, a better solution, a single-payer system). But the bill is a start on the right road, not the wrong road.

Many Americans are troubled by the profound ideological divisions in the country that led to unanimous Republican opposition of this legislation.  It’s hard to say exactly why we are so deeply polarized – and no doubt there are many causes, some reaching deep into our history and others more recent. It is something worth reflecting upon for all of us. We have become two almost irreconcilable cultures, and that is bad. But whatever the causes, the fact is, despite President Obama’s rhetoric of bipartisanship, there are certain issues on which partisanship (a derogatory byword for honest philosophical division) is unavoidable and dignified. This is one of them.

I say this despite my revulsion at the extreme, virtually apocalyptic polemics with which the Republicans fought this bill. It doesn’t mean the end of the world, even for them. Although the stakes and the moral framework are different, the debate reminds me in some ways of the arguments that led to the Civil War, and after another century, to an America without slavery or Jim Crow (but not without racism).  A few decades from now all Americans will have decent health care – and some will still wish it were otherwise.

The continual refrain of “socialism” by politicians who couldn’t define the word, except crudely as a “government takeover” (which this bill emphatically is not – and wouldn’t be even with the absent “public option”) is discouraging. It means that words don’t matter much, that fear-mongering works.

The facts, in the end – that the bill would pare the deficit by $138 billion near-term and eventually by much more – carried the day, but just barely, and without a single assenting Republican. But don’t think for a minute that the facts were what divided us.

Here’s what the right doesn’t get. First, all government is socialistic in principle – even small government. Only anarchy is non-socialistic. Second, in a democracy, socialism – a larger public sphere or greater economic equality – is not all-or-nothing but a matter of degree.

Nor is it a threat to democracy. We decide as a democracy – and continually re-decide -- how much “socialism” we want and of what kinds: that’s what democracies do! Public transportation is socialistic. So are public libraries and hospitals. Did I mention roads? And public schools are socialist institutions, except to the (considerable) extent that, being funded by highly unequal property taxes, they reflect capitalist inequalities.  

Third, and this is the crux of our difference: far from tearing down the “free market,” a little “socialism” can go a long way toward building a better, stronger capitalist system. This is what the right just doesn’t get, because their ideas and values are too partitional. They mostly opposed the TARP stimulus because it represented an embarrassing defeat for the principle of unfettered free enterprise; but like the New Deal, those subsidies and bail-outs (however flawed in some of their applications) almost certainly saved capitalism from itself, and saved the country from another depression or at least a much more severe recession and greater job-losses.

The right just doesn’t get the idea that what some of us hate can be good for us. That making it easier for people to be educated and healthy is good for everyone, not just for the immediate beneficiaries. Life is more complicated and interconnected than they insist it is.

The actual “road to serfdom” in our time is not socialism, as darkly forecast by Hayek a generation ago during the Cold War, but the very market orthodoxy he espoused. The road to a robust economy, a high-functioning democracy, and a vibrant culture, lies in a different direction.  It leads to a synergistic balance, not the pure application of an ideal like “free enterprise” or “socialism.”

It’s not about big government – or the anarchy some on the right long for – but strong catalytic government. It’s more complicated than laissez-faire, but it isn’t all that complicated: protect the environment, encourage investment in alternative energy, respect science, protect consumers, and give everyone a baseline of health and learning – and then get out of the way. All we owe one another – all we really need to become one America again – is health and education. With faltering first steps in the right direction, that’s the road just taken.

Originally posted on…alth-care-reform/