The feeling this summer was that the right was winning the health-care debate. With each week, it seemed, came damning new information about the Democrats’ various plans. A nation willing, even eager, to modify this crucial component of our economy grew increasingly skeptical that the ruling liberals knew what they were doing.
Now all that has supposedly changed. Budget crunchers estimated this week that the health plan pushed by Sen. Max Baucus would cost “only” $829 billion from 2010 to 2019. Most helpful to the left, though, was a projection that the Montana Democrat’s plan would trim the federal budget deficit by a cumulative $81 billion in the coming decade.
Yet if these projections alone spell the end of debate over government’s role in health care, conservatism is in more trouble than we thought.
There are of course significant holes in the estimates: The deficit would fall over 10 years chiefly because taxes would rise a few years before the new spending begins. There would be ample incentive for employers to tweak generous health benefits so that they don’t qualify as “Cadillac” plans subject to a new 40 percent tax. The Baucus plan depends on $404 billion in savings from Medicare and other federal health programs that probably won’t materialize; even if it did, future Congresses would spend the money elsewhere. New entitlement spending comes in over budget without fail.
There’s also the fact that the text of the Baucus bill still is not final. Once it is, the bill still must be merged with other, more costly Senate proposals and then mashed together with a House version that is sure to be even more liberal. The Baucus bill’s fiscal score merely represents the bottom of the range for any new health spending. This is shell-game politics at its worst.
But set all that aside for now. There is something fundamentally amiss for conservatism if its case against government expansion into private life hinges on a cost estimate for this or any bill.
Fiscal responsibility is everything to conservatism (if not always to the Republican Party) but it’s not the only thing.
In other words, even if an $829 billion government program could be “budget neutral,” it would still be an $829 billion shift from the productive sector to the public sector. It would still be outside the scope of the Constitution and a practically irreversible decision affecting Americans yet unborn. This kind of action, not any inaction, is how we violate the intergenerational compact.
More broadly, conservatives often explain that it’s counterproductive to take property from one group of citizens — even if it’s just “the rich,” which it’s not. But we’ve made less of a case that this taking is immoral, that two injustices don’t make justice, that there’s no liberty in transferring people from the chains of insecurity to the yoke of government.
Republican politicians in particular have too often failed to distinguish between what’s good for certain businesses and what liberates the broader marketplace. Health care is but one example of this myopia.
Particularly galling is that conservatives risk losing such an old argument, one that by our opponents’ own admission has been circulating more than 70 years.
Writing in last Sunday’s Washington Post, Steven F. Hayward called for conservatives to rededicate ourselves to the intellectualism of men like Milton Friedman and William F. Buckley.
Whatever the result of the health debate — and it’s not time to fold yet — Hayward’s advice is sound. Liberalism has built its resurgence on conservatives’ failure at times not only to act on what we say, but to understand fully why we say it. The latter is the greater danger.