The Noble Lie of Government HealthcareJames E. Miller
Nov. 04, 2013
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"If you like your health care plan, you can keep your health care plan."
These words, spoken by U.S. President Barack Obama in various forms and iterations, have become a running joke amidst the rollout of the Affordable Care Act. All across the country, hundreds of thousands of citizens are receiving cancellation notices in the mail. The stringent requirements for insurance plans under the new edict are curtailing many individual policies. A simpleton can grasp the economics: you prohibit something, it goes away. And yet, for years prior, the White House ignored the oncoming train and is now slowly inching away from the wreckage.
This was not the unforeseen consequence of good-intentioned legislation. According to an investigative report from NBC, the Obama Administration was fully aware of the result its health care bill would have on the marketplace for insurance. A provision written in the original version of the law would have allowed for the grandfathering of existing plans that did not meet the new standards. However, the Department of Health and Human Services rewrote the stipulation to radically narrow the rule, so that an estimated "40 to 67 percent of customers will not be able to keep their policy." Not one to be a wet blanket, President Obama continued to assuage the public and reassure everyone that their preferred insurance policy would not being going away.
This was a lie. And not one kept close-to-the-chest by a few high-level officials. House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer admitted that many in his party knew "there would be some policies that would not qualify and therefore people would be required to get more extensive coverage." A presidential election and a litany of Senate seats were won based on the falsehood that America's health insurance market would not be totally disturbed.
The admission of guilt may have ramifications for supporters of big government. In the short term, it undermines the President and the promises he makes going into the future. But voters are fickle and have a memory prone to lapses. When the subsidies start flowing, they will begin to smile again. The balancing act will be whether the boost in tax benefits outweighs being forced to pay a higher cost for what was once a cheaper product. Those who are net beneficiaries will be content while the losers may sulk but will ultimately accept the "new normal."
The deceit behind ObamaCare is nothing new in the practice of governing. The state's monopoly power makes it a natural target of suspicion. Even the most ardent worshiper of socialism is still wary that his nation's controllers will turn on him. He keeps an ear out for fiction spun by his rulers but will not question larger injustice as long as he is fed well enough. Even with the preponderance of lies, there is still the naive hope "good folks" will soon come along who have a deep aversion to dishonesty. The white knight never arrives, but optimism prevails.
The happy voter is the one who refuses to grasp the obvious point that government serves as a vehicle for the worst in society to play out their violent fantasies. As Hayek put it, "the unscrupulous and uninhibited are likely to be more successful" in operating the machinery of total intimidation. It is always from the throne of authority that the worst deeds are accomplished. This includes mass aggression against property as well as the truth. The productive capacity of society is decimated enough by government's necessarily parasitical operation; the public's concept of verity is challenged by the various ministries of agitprop that disguise their actions as beneficial rather than schemes of plunder.
The false characterization needed to sustain Obama's signature piece of legislation was another variation of Plato's noble lie. In his widely heralded Republic, the classical philosopher wrote on the necessity of the few lording over the many to achieve harmonious social relationships. These "philosopher-kings" could govern best by spreading falsities that would have the "good effect" of making the underlings "more inclined to care for the state and one another." One could call this a textbook lesson in the art of ruling over a dim and detached populace.
Perhaps the best exponent of the noble lie was the late, neoconservative king Irving Kristol, who held political theorist Leo Strauss as a strong intellectual influence. Kristol affirmed what many thinkers before him found when it comes to truth:
"There are different kinds of truths for different kinds of people. There are truths appropriate for children; truths that are appropriate for students; truths that are appropriate for educated adults; and truths that are appropriate for highly educated adults, and the notion that there should be one set of truths available to everyone is a modern democratic fallacy. It doesn’t work."In many ways, this statement is completely accurate. In a democracy, the people must be corralled. They must get behind measures that ordinarily wouldn't receive a lick of support outside of a few special interests. The naked, unvarnished truth is a dangerous weapon against tyranny. So it must be distorted to fit the agenda of collectivists, statists, dictators, and despots. Anything will do to assure for maximum support with minimum resistance.
Had President Obama been upfront about the full ramifications of his health care edict, the public may have turned. It's one thing to apply for and receive a subsidy. It's another to disrupt lives and force people to take action they otherwise wouldn't. Outside disturbances are a nuisance to common folks trying to make the best go at their lives. Like a dog with its tail between its legs, the Administration is now backtracking on its own selling point. In a recent press hearing, White House spokesman Jay Carney, the quivering apparatchik of social democracy, was quick to ignore past statements and highlight the benefits of the health care bill. He told Fox News correspondent Ed Henry,
Well, let's just be clear, what the President said and what everybody said all along was that there were going to be changes under brought about by the Affordable Care Act that create minimum standards of coverage -- minimum services that every insurance plan has to provide.So goes the guarantee of "if you like it, you can keep it." As progressive columnist Clarence Page admitted to radio host Hugh Hewitt, it was "one of those political lies, you know." The promise will eventually find itself lodged somewhere in the memory hole along with the guarantee of liberty in a security state. The state itself is a great lie. It purports to be the great savior of mankind. The political class likens itself to the great deliverance from struggle and despair. The reality ends up not as rosy.
Kristol was right on one thing: not everyone accepts the truth. They will self-deceive to feel comfortable in their own skin. It is this weakness the politician will manipulate for his own aggrandizement. Honesty and truth are always a virtue. And that's why they are wholly absent from the halls of power.
James E. Miller is editor-in-chief of the Ludwig von Mises Institute of Canada. Send him mail