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The Comeback of Paternalism?

By William Murchison

Mrs. Clinton wants us to be healthy -- depending, naturally, on how we define health.

Is it a matter just of knowing the federal government will get you in somewhere to do something for you when you need care of one sort or another? If so Mrs. Clinton may be your candidate. Her ideal is universal coverage: something for everybody, at an estimated cost of $110 billion a year.

John Edwards is in the same general vicinity, with his $90 billion to $120 billion plan. By comparison, Barack Obama is a piker, proposing to top out at $65 billion.

On one point the Democrats seem unanimous: America yearns for the comeback of paternalism.

Maybe it does, and maybe it doesn't. What fascinates is the spread of the perception, as relayed by the Democratic presidential field (and encouraged by the media), that government isn't the problem at all, never mind what Ronald Reagan might have assured us. The problem, we keep reading and hearing, is too little government. It could almost be the '70s again, or, worse, the '60s and the onset of the Great Society.

Pure unstained affection for small and limited government isn't precisely woven into the American character. What turned Americans off in the '70s, concerning their government, were the high taxes, bureaucracy and incompetence that resulted from attempts to run and regulate life. Thirty years later, memories seem to have faded. When the Democrats offer to oversee health care, many heads nod affirmatively.

The New York Times reassures us no Democrat "is proposing a 'single payer' [health care] system run by the government." Rather, "Their political goal is to head off opposition from those who fear that their own coverage might suffer in the course of covering some 47 million people."

The Democrats would mandate more or less universal coverage: everybody -- meaning everybody -- legally compelled to buy health insurance. No insurer could refuse anyone. For the insured there would be what the Times calls "a menu of options." To pay for such a banquet, Congress would raise taxes on "the rich" and cut unspecified "costs."

Are we ready? The Democrats appear to think so. They might just be in for a surprise.

If the Democrats' health care plans don't add up to full-fledged socialized medicine, still they compromise freedom and respectable economics in ways many Americans are unprepared to endorse. For instance:

1. Under the Democrats you couldn't choose not to have health insurance. Caesar says there'd be no such privilege.

2. There would be a menu of options, all right -- one designed by the government, rather than the marketplace; inevitably slower to recognize and respond to consumer needs, inasmuch as "expert" planners never need to ask what people want. The planners' mission is to save people the trouble of figuring out what they want.

3. What should be the overall cost of a health care system? That's something else the government would figure out, thanks. Though of course voters could depend on the paternalists of Washington, D.C., to let them know the answer eventually.

4. Along with the cost of answering, as expressed in tax collections. Never mind that bumping up tax rates crimps economic growth (not to mention the rights of producers).

5. Another good thing not to mind is the certainty of expanding programs and costs as the planners and paternalists encounter new opportunities and challenges. No government undertaking ever stays its original size.

A certain kind of mentality puts a higher premium on the plans of experts than on the decision-making capacity of citizens, which is why we can't escape completely the calculations of the health care gurus. You see, a guru knows. The Democratic presidential candidates are gurus. If we dumb members of mass society don't entirely understand our best interests, we may count on the likes of Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards to wise us up.

With growing titillation, Big Brother -- or Sister -- casts a watchful eye our way.

Copyright 2007 Creators Syndicate Inc.

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