Thursday, November 26, 2009

Invoking Future "History"

Last week, peripatetic Gray Lady columnist Nicholas Kristof presented a rather stale essay arguing that opponents of ObamaCare are on the wrong side of "history." Evidence for such is that their rhetoric resembles that of Social Security's opponents in the 1930s and Medicare in the 1960s.

We leave aside the question whether with hindsight Americans would again design programs (we started to call them "systems" but realized the exaggeration involved) like these, given the reality that both are impossible to sustain financially. Instead, we ask, what does it mean that "history" is on a particular side? As an abstraction for the sum of human experience--that is, the past--how does "history" declare itself on the issues of the present and the future?

Well, Kristof might assert that it does so by showing how ideas in the past have proved successful in the view of many in the present. Hence, ideas resembling those ought to be assumed to be just as prospectively successful in the future. Well, is that indeed the case in every instance? Allowing the debatable proposition that Social Security and Medicare are successful, we ask whether that means all such social-welfare programs ought to be similarly endorsed. Say, Nixon's proposal of guaranteed income for all? Where do the analogies begin and end by which one can pronounce history's verdict on the future? Does history provide no cautionary tales about government initiatives to improve the quality of life?

Let's note another analogy, however. Marxism was (how sweet to use a past-tense predicate with that noxious subject) fond of describing the inevitable movement of history from capitalism to communism and ultimately socialism. To their destruction did individuals ignore the progress of history (note that "history" here means not the past but the coming utopian future, divined by brilliant intellectuals like Karl Marx). We do not accuse Kristof of being a Marxist, so if his publicist is reading this, don't bother accusing us. We simply note that his rhetoric belies the same sloppy thinking: that one can extrapolate a preferred direction of history and insist that everyone get on board with it. If ObamaCare's opponents are to be condemned because their rhetoric recalls that of recalcitrant conservatives of the 1930s and 1960s, Kristof's is to be condemned because it resembles that of Lenin's hordes in the 1910s and 1920s.

But let's take another point. Does "history" always turn out for the good? We are fond of observing that life is better for a lot of people than it once was, but is such movement inevitable? Simply because many governments have provided more social services to their citizens, is progress inevitably in that direction? Are the dystopian futures imagined by Wells, Huxley, Orwell and lesser lights in no way reminders that social welfare experiments may go terribly wrong?

Or let's take a different historical analogy altogether. Were those who opposed Lincoln's Homestead Act (the law whereby the federal government gave western settlers free land), which stressed individual initiative and responsibility, on the wrong side of history? Is that analogy at all instructive about the present debate?

Mr. Kristof, we can indeed imagine a better future after healthcare reform. The reform we imagine is different from Obama's, however. It involves individual insurance, not employer-provided insurance. It insures not the first dollar but the expense that can't be covered by savings or credit, the catastrophic dollar. It puts the economic decisions in the hands of the patient, restoring natural market forces that keep costs in check. It works more like the other stuff in life works. In that respect, it has oodles of history on its side.

Anecdote: friends with a new baby and without first-dollar health insurance coverage noted that in their delivery their obstetrician deliberately did not order tests that would otherwise be routine. The reason? He knew they'd pay out of pocket for them, and he didn't believe such tests were necessary given the costs. Had they carried insurance, he would have ordered the tests instantly. They thanked him profusely. They are all quite healthy, and less poor than they would be otherwise.

What does that historical incident tell us about history, Mr. Kristof?

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