The Magazine

The Silence of the Liberals

Obamacare is inimical to their values, too

Dec 23, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 15 • By CHRISTOPHER DEMUTH SR.
Widget tooltip
Audio version Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

The other arresting response to Obamacare’s troubles is a nonresponse​—​the silence of the liberals. Serious liberals are those for whom the primary purpose of politics is to protect personal liberty and advance social equality. Their liberalism has been the motive force of America’s political history​—​which is the saga of extending legal and political rights, social status, and realized liberty to ever-wider groups, and legislating “welfare state” protections against the social and economic vicissitudes of life. They have been eclipsed in recent decades by those who call themselves “progressives”​—​who borrow the language of liberalism but are in practice devoted to enlarging and valorizing government itself rather than the liberty and equality of citizens. Critically, progressives predominate among Democratic party and interest-group activists whose careers consist of acquiring and deploying state power. But serious liberals are still prominent in intellectual and university life and in the party itself; they may be said to be the party’s conscience.

The media, in their fascination with disputes between the Republican establishment and Tea Party radicals, have mostly overlooked this more fundamental fissure in our politics. (Indeed, the GOP disputes are mainly tactical disagreements over how to respond to the triumph of statist progressives among Democrats.) But the Obamacare debacle could bring that fissure to the forefront. It certainly should.

Serious liberals were silent or supportive during the Affordable Care Act’s legislative debates, bitter enactment, and initial implementation. That was understandable, for the effort promised to dramatically expand health care availability and to correct several evident injustices, such as the unavailability of insurance to those who have developed serious maladies; and Republicans were working hard to stop it and might well have succeeded. Then, when the troubles first appeared earlier this year, it seemed natural to many liberals to attribute them to fixable technical glitches and executive incompetence. But now that the program’s true nature and future course have come into sharp relief, it is time for serious liberals to find their voice. For Obamacare’s two central features are as inimical to liberal values as to conservative values. The first is monopoly and the suppression of diversity and competition. The second is extreme concentration of power, exercised continuously in monitoring and directing the activities of millions of citizens.

Friedrich Hayek explained more than 50 years ago (in The Constitution of Liberty) that the welfare state does not require, and should renounce, exclusive monopoly provision by the government itself. Hayek was a classical liberal​—​he rejected both “libertarian” and “conservative”​—​but his approach to health care for the poor, retirees, and those in chronic ill health was strikingly like that of today’s conservative reformers. Guarantee equal, continuous access through financial support and legal rules (and if necessary even an individual insurance mandate!)​—​but avoid the stultifying effects of government monopoly, and let recipients reap the same benefits of competitive supply, variety, and freedom of entry and experimentation that prevail in the rest of the economy.

Obamacare is not an outright government monopoly, but it achieves the same dreary results through standardization and regimentation. It establishes a profusion of regulatory controls over prices, entry, and services in insurance and medical care, policies whose systematic anticonsumer perversities have been documented by generations of economists of all political persuasions. (Not long ago, the elimination of entry and price controls in competitive markets was a bipartisan project, championed by Edward Kennedy as well as Ronald Reagan.) That some states operating their own Obamacare insurance “marketplaces” are already moving to ban the private sale of individual and small-business insurance is one example of the program’s tendency toward explicit monopoly.

Recent Blog Posts

The Weekly Standard Archives

Browse 20 Years of the Weekly Standard

Old covers