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Thursday, July 30, 2009

Govern the Least

“Why be afraid of government?” a Princeton professor writing for CNN recently asked. Touting the need for Obama’s healthcare plan, disappointingly the professor added that, “Democrats are still scared about defending the value of government.”

As an example of “the value of government,” the good professor went into significant details about the massive government program known as Medicare. Declaring Medicare a resounding success, the professor concluded that, “The program succeeded. Government worked.”

It is true that governments do many things well. I’m no anarchist. I certainly believe there is a role for good government in our country.

Consider some of the many areas of our lives that government currently occupies: healthcare (Medicare/Medicaid), retirement (Social Security), mail service (USPS), education, transportation, recreation (state parks), public utilities (power, water, sewer), and so on. As does the Princeton professor, many folks, liberal and conservative, see the government’s current role in these various institutions as a positive thing.

Of course, recently government got even more of a boost. With its foray into the automobile, insurance, and banking industries, there seems to be no institution into which the government (at least the current one) will not interject its mighty self.

Also, as there supposedly would be with Obamacare, some of those in support of big government will note, there is successful “competition” with government and private industry in many of the aforementioned institutions. FedEx and UPS compete with the U.S. Postal Service, private schools compete with public ones, private transportation competes with public transportation, and so on.

However, government, even when it has competition, never plays fair. For example, consider the mail. By law, UPS and FedEx are prohibited from offering to deliver First Class mail. Therefore, the government has a legal monopoly on a significant part of mail delivery.

When it comes to transportation and recreation, the government has the right to eminent domain. And, of course, the government has the power to tax to support everything from education to transportation. Also, the government can print money, make law, and has the power of the police and the military to enforce the law.

In addition, government programs don’t have to turn a profit, nor do they have to pay taxes. In other words, private industry competing with government is like a local high school football b-team heading down to Athens to take on the Bulldogs. It is simply no contest and it is ludicrous to think otherwise.

Furthermore, once the government gets involved, to end its participation is like finding an NFL team that wants Michael Vick. Entitlement programs, such as Social Security, are the classic example of this. These programs are massive: As of 2008, Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid make up 42% of the federal budget. Medicare alone has $36 trillion in unfunded liabilities. As president Bush found out, it is practically impossible to reign in and reform these beasts.

Once the government gets itself established in an additional part of our lives, another piece of our liberty goes out the window—perhaps never to return. This is the real danger. Even the folks over at CNN have recently (see here) pointed out five significant freedoms that would be lost under Obamacare: 1.) Freedom to choose what’s in your plan 2.) Freedom to be rewarded for healthy living, or pay your real costs 3.) Freedom to choose high-deductible coverage 4.) Freedom to keep your existing plan 5.) Freedom to choose your doctors.

Undoubtedly, there are real problems with our healthcare industry—or more appropriately with the health insurance industry. (One of the great myths in this debate comes from confusing the word “care” with the word “insurance.”) Most of these problems are a result of the role that government already plays in the matter.

For example, currently many state governments mandate that insurance companies cover all sorts of services—from chiropractic care to hair transplants—that many people don’t want or need and that should be paid for out of pocket. This practice alone is a major cause for increased health insurance costs. The current version of Obamacare in both houses would impose such “standard benefits packages” on every plan offered.

Whatever the shortcomings of our current healthcare industry, more government is not the solution. “That government is best which governs least,” said Thomas Paine. In this succinct, but profound proverb, lies the heart of the solution to the healthcare debate. Congress and the president would do well to begin and end with this in mind.

Copyright 2009, Trevor Grant Thomas
At the Intersection of Politics, Science, Faith, and Reason.
Trevor and his wife Michelle are the authors of: Debt Free Living in a Debt Filled World

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