Trust and Choice

Posted Feb. 28, 2010, at 6:58 p.m.

If conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats seem to be talking past each other on issues such as health care, it may be because their arguments proceed from two very different premises or core values.

At the heart of the health care debate is the belief by Republicans that government is not to be trusted with managing, or even more closely regulating, this large segment of the economy. This belief that government is inherently incompetent and inefficient was best articulated by President Ronald Reagan, who said in his 1981 inaugural address, “Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.”

There is no shortage of empirical data to support that premise. The federal government does not have to face a balance sheet; if revenues are low, it can raise taxes or borrow. Try that approach in a small business year after year, and you’d likely face bankruptcy or jail. Government workers often are well compensated compared to their private sector counterparts, and are not summarily laid off when times are bad. Government also is active in regulating business; entrepreneurs often suspect bureaucrats of sitting around inventing new rules and standards to be met.

In the health care debate, those who repeat such catchphrases as “government takeover” and “socialism” are essentially saying they trust large corporations, including health insurers, more than the government. The government, they should be reminded, is us. Corporations exist to earn profits, and they answer to boards of directors and shareholders.

Furthermore, the notion that government regulating the economy is akin to spitting on the Constitution is absurd. There is no constitutional guarantee of an unfettered marketplace. Government has always had its hand on the scales, through labor laws, environmental rules, tax policy and dozens of other avenues of oversight.

People are angry about the federal government’s bold, even unprecedented steps to pull the economy back from the edge of the cliff. Banks were given big fat bailout checks; car manufacturers, the same. But would the Tea Party faithful and other limited government adherents have rallied around a McCain administration that watched as the recession — which began in December 2007 — morphed into a depression? The bailouts benefited those companies and their executives and shareholders. But they also benefited, and probably saved, the U.S. economy.

The choice doesn’t always come down to government or corporate sway. But in many of the big debates of our time — health care, economic stimulus, campaign finance, banking — our elected officials stand between us and private, narrow interests. If we must choose, shouldn’t it be that which we have some power to influence, and if not influence, to replace?

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