What about freedom?

What’s missing from the health care debate

By Andy Matthews
  • Tuesday, August 11, 2009

There's something noticeably absent from the debate over health care reform. It's something you ought to hear, clearly and constantly, from those who are lining up to oppose President Obama's plan to hand our health care system over to the government. But you don't hear it — at least, not nearly as often as you should.

What you hear from the Right, primarily, is a series of arguments about how a government-run health care system would decrease quality and competition. About how it would increase costs and lead to rationing. Accurate points, every one. But they are arguments for opposing government-run health care on grounds of prudence and practicality. And they miss the more crucial point.

What's missing — what you seldom hear — is the far more fundamental and important reason for opposing government-run health care: that such a system would be, inherently, bad on principle. It is an unfortunate omission.

"To take from one," wrote Thomas Jefferson, "because it is thought his own industry and that of his fathers has acquired too much, in order to spare to others, who, or whose fathers, have not exercised equal industry and skill, is to violate arbitrarily the first principle of association, the guarantee to everyone the free exercise of his industry and the fruits acquired by it."

Put more succinctly: When the government takes money you have earned, for the purpose of giving it to someone else, it has violated the fundamental social contract and the freedom it guarantees.

Yet this is exactly what government health care would do: confiscate money, via taxation, from one group of people and redistribute it to another in the form of health care. Such a program would do obvious injury to a core principle of America's founding — a fact that should be enough on its own to derail the effort.

The substance of the current debate, however, suggests that not only is it not enough, it's not even all that relevant. Most arguments against the Obama plan are made on the accurate grounds that it would be too inefficient or too expensive — but not that it would violate a basic American principle. From the chosen line of argument, one could reasonably infer an additional point: that a government takeover of health care would be just fine, as long as we were to get an acceptable bang for our buck.

How refreshing it would be to hear a politician say something akin to, "Yes, government-run health care would be inefficient. Yes, it would increase costs and would result in lower quality and longer waits to get care. But you know what? Even if it did none of these things, I would still oppose it. That's because I believe in freedom."

But this, for the most part, is not what we hear. Instead, we hear the practical arguments — the summary of which is that government-run health care is a bad idea only because it won't work.

What explains this?

Perhaps it is because those who oppose government-run health care — even those whose opposition is rooted in principle — have calculated that the freedom-based argument isn't a winner.

There was no doubt a time when a vast majority of Americans, upon learning of an effort to give government control over something as personal as health care, would immediately and instinctively recoil. That's not at all the government's place, they'd say.

But today? It is far less clear. Americans, in general, still seem to believe in freedom, at least in the abstract. A Rasmussen poll from February found that 72 percent of voters said they prefer a free-market economy to one managed by the government. But Rasmussen also found in June that a full 50 percent of voters supported the Obama health care plan. It was only when details about the plan's practical effects began to come out that public opinion shifted against it. And let's not forget that Americans have, in recent decades, been more than willing to accept a whole slew of other government programs — Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security — that clearly trample upon individual freedom.

So in theory, Americans still want freedom. But it appears that they'll gladly trade it in for the right price. It is as though the Gadsden flag now comes with a parenthetical adscript: Don't tread on me (unless, of course, you think doing so will improve the quality of my health care, in which case, hey, tread away!).

This most likely explains why the case against Obamacare is being made primarily on practical grounds. It is also truly regrettable.

To be clear, this is not to say that practical arguments should be off limits. Congressional Budget Office figures and horror stories of long lines in Canada and Great Britain certainly deserve an important role in the debate. And, as we've seen, they can be highly persuasive.

But let's not lose sight of the bigger picture. Let's not forget that the practical arguments should be used in support of, not instead of, the arguments from principle. Let's not forget that as we win or lose particular debates on the points, the main reason we're right stems from something much more fundamental, something that is at the heart of what it means to be an American — even if many of our fellow citizens forget it and need to be reminded.

Let us remember: The fight for freedom is still the most worthwhile fight of all.

Andy Matthews is vice president for communications at the Nevada Policy Research Institute.

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