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April 13 2010

IWF in the News: President Obama said the health-care debate was "about the character of our country."

Heather R. Higgins

In Character asks IWF Chairman Heather Higgins,"Will the implementation of the health-care bill passed by Congress improve the character of our country?"

No... says, Heather Higgins:

One of collectivism's many false promises is that somehow it improves the character of a people.  If this were true, Eastern Bloc countries would have been the most virtuous of all. The fact that this was manifestly not the case - indeed that the inverse seems to hold, at least when judging by metrics such as personal charity -- should cause us pause.  As we move to create a system wherein people think that "everyone can live at everyone else's expense" (to quote Bastiat), we are likely to witness the erosion of the country's character.  

The recently-passed health care legislation is arguably the most significant example: not only will it fail to improve the national character (as proponents have promised), it in no way reflects our current character.  If implemented this law will undermine that character as surely as it will  the quality of our heath care.

There is a distinctive American national character, well described in the Pew global surveys. It emphasizes personal freedom, a willingness to tolerate large differences in personal wealth, a strong religious base, a larger number of voluntary associations, and certain key virtues: a high level of charitable contributions, a more intense work ethic than one finds in Europe, a higher level of patriotism, and a faith that views hard work and individual responsibility as key to success.

In contrast, the health bill is premised on the idea that people should expect to be taken care of.  This law is more aligned with the sentiments of a European social democracy where hard work is devalued and income inequalities condemned.  In the health bill, personal freedom and individual choice are replaced with bureaucratic dictates, one-size-fits-all parameters, and the removal of responsibility and consequence from individuals.  Citizens are infantilized as wards of the state. But that's only the beginning of the adverse consequence that this travesty will have on our national character.

Some damage has already been done.  The process of the law's passage was itself sordid and contrary to basic principles of integrity and good government.  Not only was it replete with self-serving deals, it employed deliberately misleading accounting gimmicks to feign fiscal probity. Selfishly self-serving, immediate gains will be paid for by future taxpayers.  In whose estimation, outside of thuggish dictators who also share the "by any means necessary" vice, is such corruption and short-sightedness admirable?

Proponents of the law sold it as virtue.  Yet what virtue is there in being charitable with someone else's money? The law further presumes that those who work in government are somehow more virtuous (and wiser) than the rest of us: that they are better positioned to make life and death decisions about care and to decide how much of our income we must allocate to insurance, regardless of our specific circumstance. 

Yet in fact, human failings are just as inevitable and predictable, maybe more so, among those endowed with government's power.  Just in the last weeks we have learned of self-serving bureaucrats at the Veterans Administration, a political patronage system controlling access to Chicago's schools, and that government workers have granted themselves significantly higher salaries than those holding comparable private sector jobs.  Our founders wanted to keep government from becoming our master precisely because they understood power's ability to corrupt.

Specific provisions of the law will clearly encourage vice:  guaranteed issue, for example, is certain to induce many who otherwise would have responsibly bought insurance to abstain until care is needed. Yet most profoundly, the entire structure of government-run healthcare is designed to replace our current character -- personal responsibility, obligation, gifts and gratitude  -- with rights, claims, and a sense of entitlement.

For any readers who assume, condescendingly, that conservatives who object to government run programs are selfish, penurious, harsh, and uncaring, let me assure them that conservative concerns rest on the recognition that, as history has consistently shown,  they not only don't work, they make things worse. Instead of realizing the utopian promises that are used to sell them,  they eventually, invariably, create new, often more severe problems.  

We don't have to look to ex-Soviet states, South American dictators or to Europe's soft, ambition-robbing socialism, to learn this lesson.   You can look to our nation's own founding, which was run as an early version of "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need." Plymouth Colony's experience is typically taught as an economic parable of the tragedy of the commons.  Yet those economic effects were caused by the system's devaluing of virtue. Remove both positive and negative consequences for actions, and you diminish human spirit and ambition. You rob individuals of the capacity and inclination to act charitably, as well as to strive for excellence.  Plymouth was only saved when they returned to a character model that valued individual responsibility and voluntary personal, rather than mandatory collective, charity.

Today, Americans are the most charitable people in the world.  Yet what will happen to this instinct as we replace gratitude for a gift with a mentality of entitlement, and the obligation of the citizen to take care of his neighbor with the expectation that government will protect all?  We should expect people to curtail giving, and more to look for handouts.  And as charity suffers, the government burden will grow. 

The ethic of individual responsibility has made America exceptional.  We don't think that we are better than anyone else, but ever since our Declaration of Independence , we've understood that essential to maximizing each individuals potential is limiting government's duties to securing our rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  And because we see rights as being eternal (not created by government), and a birthright of each person, we value the individual life--from the most premature baby to the most senior citizen--embracing the belief that if you wish to fight to preserve your precious and valuable life, that you have that inalienable right.  

The health care legislation contemplates panels deciding for you whether you have sufficient quality of life, and collective arbitrary decisions on what "society" can "afford".  That moves us to the utilitarian European model, where the elderly are pressured not to take up hospital beds and, really, to not be selfish but go die faster. And that makes sense: if you think that the government, not the patient, decides who gets treated, then government also gets to determine who should die.

Ironically, collectivism erodes the social fabric precisely to the extent that it enables people to evade both responsibilities and consequences. That's why ultimately, the great failing of this health care bill isn't that it will fail to control cost, erode the quality of care, and result in rationing, but that it will destroy the virtues that make America exceptional.

Heather R. Higgins is chairman of the board of the Independent Women's Forum and vice chairman of the board of the Philanthropy Roundtable.



Independent Women's Forum is an educational 501(c)(3) dedicated to developing and advancing policies that aren’t just well intended, but actually enhance people’s freedom, choices, and opportunities. IWF is the sister organization of the Independent Women’s Voice.​
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