The debate about the constitutionality of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, otherwise known in polite circles as the 2010 Health Care Reform legislation, will slowly creep through the legal system until its eventual disposition by the United States Supreme Court. At the same time, it bears noting that the demagoguery and level of vitriol hurled against the legislation is no different from the same old “old” invective that the right wing has raised on every occasion where basic human rights have been the subject of congressional action.
For example, in 1961, Ronald Reagan claimed that Medicare was “socialized medicine” and if health care for the elderly became law “one of these days, you and I are going to spend our sunset years telling our children, and our children’s children, what it once was like in America when men were free.”
As David Leonhardt notes:
We’ve lived through a version of this story before, and not just with Medicare. Nearly every time this country has expanded its social safety net or tried to guarantee civil rights, passionate opposition has followed.
The opposition stems from the tension between two competing traditions in the American economy. One is the laissez-faire tradition that celebrates individuality and risk-taking. The other is the progressive tradition that says people have a right to a minimum standard of living – time off from work, education and the like.
Both traditions have been crucial to creating the most prosperous economy and the largest middle class the world has ever known. Laissez-faire conservatism has helped make the United States a nation of entrepreneurs, while progressivism has helped make prosperity a mass-market phenomenon.
Yet the two traditions have never quite reconciled themselves. In particular, conservatives have often viewed any expansion of government protections as a threat to capitalism.
Former President Grover Cleveland objected in 1905 to women’s suffrage. He noted:
Woman suffrage would give to the wives and daughters of the poor a new opportunity to gratify their envy and mistrust of the rich. Meantime these new voters would become either the purchased or cajoled victims of plausible political manipulators, or the intimidated and helpless voting vassals of imperious employers.
Child labor was also objected to because, among other nefarious reasons, children “will become a very dominant factor in the household and might refuse perhaps to do chores before six a.m. or after seven p.m. or to perform any labor.” A federal minimum wage and guaranteed overtime would be “a step in the direction of Communism, bolshevism, fascism, and Nazism.” In 1935, Social Security was deemed evil because:
it may end the progress of a great country and bring its people to the level of the average European. It will furnish delicious food and add great strength to the political demagogue. It will assist in driving worthy and courageous men from public life. It will discourage and defeat the American trait of thrift. It will go a long way toward destroying American initiative and courage.
Indeed, the integration of public schools was also objectionable according to Strom Thurmond:
It is destroying the amicable relations between the white and Negro races that have been created through 90 years of patient effort by the good people of both races. It has planted hatred and suspicion where there has been heretofore friendship and understanding.
And now, health care reform has joined the list of laws that will lead to the demise of Western civilization.
But the outlandish and apocalyptic arguments against health care reform are no more sensible today than the arguments against child labor were over a century ago. As David Leonhardt sees it:
It’s easy to look at the current debate and see an unavoidable trade-off between this country’s two economic traditions – risk-taking and security. But I don’t think that’s quite right. I think it is ultimately as misplaced as those worries about Social Security and Medicare equaling Bolshevism.
Guaranteeing people a decent retirement and decent health care does more than smooth out the rough edges of capitalism. Those guarantees give people the freedom to take risks. If you know that professional failure won’t leave you penniless and won’t prevent your child from receiving needed medical care, you can leave the comfort of a large corporation and take a chance on your own idea. You can take a shot at becoming the next great American entrepreneur.