Column: The Dumb Debate: Big vs. Small

One of the dumbest points of contention in modern politics is the Big Government vs. Small Government one. It’s a fake debate, only meaningful to the privileged: investors, business executives and their cronies. To everyday Americans it’s a lofty, largely academic concept. Yet we’ve been duped into caring about it.

Do the Iraqi people note the difference between a U.S. marine and a mercenary? No. All they see an American with an M-16.

To regular Americans, an hour wasted in line at the DMV is the same as an hour wasted in line at Time Warner. To its victims, privately-owned, dehumanizing bureaucracy is the same as the publicly-owned variety. A private prison is still a prison. Yet somehow we’ve been tricked into believing one giant entity wielding unimaginable influence and grief in our lives is better than the other giant entity wielding unimaginable influence and grief in our lives.

This is most acutely stupid in the “debate” over the health care reform law, also known as Obamacare. It was not a “massive government takeover of health care” as the right cautioned. It was a massive boon to private health insurance companies. It was the market-based way to get universal health care coverage. Market-based isn’t the best when you look at other countries with higher ranked systems, but we’re married to this bogus frame, so we went with market-based.

Quick quiz: Which enormous body was denying people health care coverage because they got sick? The government or insurance companies? There had to be some law that forced insurance companies to insure people who actually needed health insurance. Before ACA they got to pick and choose the cheapest customers while American citizens got to gaze into an impending financial abyss marked by illness. The government didn’t have death panels—that was Blue Cross.

But because we’re so caught up in the big vs. small question—we reject savings and scoff at sound ideas. As taxpayers we spend more per capita on health care than any other nation. And as patients we get some of the worst care—ranking 38th according to WHO. We barely beat out Slovenia at 39th place and we spend nearly three times per capita than they do. Our arbitrary obsession with Big Government v. Big Corporations has lead to really dim-witted (read: expensive) public policy.

But speaking of death panels, Governor Bobby Jindal has some of the poorest and sickest constituents in the nation. Louisiana has a mortality rate due to HIV that’s twice the national average. Yet in spite of those facts, he’s refusing $16 billion for health care for the poor over the next decade. His reason? “As a general principle, we should not move people from private insurance onto government-run programs,” he wrote in an op-ed. How brave of him to have selected the principle that allows poor people to suffer needlessly in the richest nation on Earth.

There are 22 Republican governors presiding over the other poorest states in the union taking the same subjective stance against Americans’ basic right to health care. Harvard and CUNY researchers say these politicians’ op-outs could result in as many as 17,000 deaths a year. This because they’re afraid of “big government.”

This week libertarian Senator Rand Paul tweeted an op/ed calling Net Neutrality  “government controlling the Internet.” Corporations want to create slow lanes and censor content enabling them to charge for premium service. The argument against Net Neutrality is there won’t be any shenanigans among ISPs because the market will take care of it. Please. When left to its own devices the market takes care of itself not individual rights. And as far as ISPs go, there’s not market competition for the majority of Americans; there are monopolies.

Libertarian apparently means corporate liberty. (And legal weed.)

Government is not the opposite of liberty. Personal liberty is in our government’s framing. Government is not the opposite of freedom. In 18th century terms, freedom meant participating in self-governance. It wasn’t until after the Industrial Revolution that it became “the right to be left alone.” Now the word tyranny is used to stand for, “I don’t like the vaguely ethnic looking guy in the Oval Office regardless of what he says or does.” And what tyrant really means is a cruel and absolute ruler. Like Apple.

We’re concerned about the wrong thing. Size really doesn’t matter. We should be questioning whether a policy is best for the most, and at minimum, fair to the least. We’ve painted ourselves into an illogical and asinine corner with a “principle” that only benefits the super-affluent.



Photo by Patrick Hoesley