Commentary Magazine


Contentions

Don’t Let Technocrats Set the Terms of the ObamaCare Debate

Now that the utterly disastrous rollout of ObamaCare has outlasted the government shutdown, it’s the Democrats’ turn for some unflattering time in the media spotlight. But the conservative reaction to the ObamaCare belly flop risks letting Democrats shift the conversation onto more favorable terrain, and demonstrates the extent to which some big-government victories cannot be completely rolled back.

Conservatives have noted that ObamaCare’s early failures are indicative of a broader failure of the technocratic approach to governing. This is undoubtedly true, but I don’t expect this argument to lead where many conservatives think it leads. The federal government has failed in the past and will fail again–the latter point being key. The government will at some point get the chance to attempt a massive top-down reform that centralizes power in the hands of well-meaning but completely incompetent technocrats because of the simple reality of modern American politics.

The inadvisability of the expansion of the welfare state was clear before ObamaCare became law. But it was enacted anyway because Democrats had enough votes in Congress to approve it, and because Democrats held the White House, thus preventing a veto. Give the technocrats some credit: they may not be able to build a website (in 2013!), but they can do basic math. They also know that voters don’t like to give up entitlements, no matter the condition of the federal budget or the efficacy of the programs.

Medicaid is a perfect example of the latter, because studies show its beneficiaries are better off without it, health-wise. Medicaid also has some relevance to the ObamaCare debate because that failed program is a key component of this new one: ObamaCare expands insurance in part by expanding Medicaid. We have the data on Medicaid, yet we also got ObamaCare. Why? Because the people to whom it is possible to discredit big-government technocracy are not elected Democrats.

Now, it’s true that the discrediting of left-liberal technocrats can prevent a recurrence of federal power grabs in the near term, not least by capitalizing on the initial voter opposition to the expansion of the welfare state before it’s too late to kick the habit of the latest entitlement and thus turn Democrats out of office in favor of non-Democrats. But how is that working for the GOP these days? ObamaCare has been unpopular all along, yet its namesake president was reelected and the Democrats held the Senate.

Ross Douthat gets at this reality in his insightful Sunday column, but only hints at the underlying dynamic. He writes that if the ObamaCare web portal doesn’t get fixed and the individual mandate must be delayed, the much-feared “death spiral,” in which only the least healthy–and thus most expensive–sign up for insurance, causing the system’s financial collapse, could ensue. If that happens, Douthat writes, “there will be a lot of schadenfreude on the right at the spectacle of technocratic failure. But the wreck of the exchanges may actually be worse for conservative policy objectives than a more successful rollout would have been.” The reason for that is:

In that scenario, the Democratic Party would probably end up pushing, not for the pipe dream of true single payer, but for a further bottom-up/top-down socialization, in which Medicare is offered to 55- to 65-year-olds and Medicaid is eventually expanded even more.

Meanwhile, the task for serious conservative reformers — already not the most politically effective bunch — might actually become harder, because they would have to explain how their plan to build an effective, exchange-based marketplace differed from the Obama White House’s exchange fiasco.

Implicit in this explanation is the partisan divide. Douthat, a conservative reformer himself, worries that health-care technocrats will be discredited–on the right. This goes back to my earlier point: big-government technocracy can only be discredited among one of the country’s two major political parties today. That doesn’t mean it will be discredited completely on the right. Mitt Romney was, after all, the party’s presidential nominee a year ago.

So Douthat is left with what strikes me as an unbelievably depressing conclusion:

So while Republican politicians may be salivating over a potential Obamacare crisis, the conservative policy thinkers I know are not. They’re hoping, as I’m hoping, that this isn’t as bad as it looks. The chance to say “I told you so” is always nice, but not if the price is a potentially irrecoverable disaster.

That boils down to: the Democrats are in the process of at least partially ruining a major American industry; if the project goes off the rails, the Democrats will in all likelihood completely destroy the industry.

And herein lies the admittedly modest victory of ObamaCare, and the left more generally. The core argument against ObamaCare was not that it would fail, but that it was unconstitutional. Even John Roberts seemed to agree, otherwise he would have had no reason to take the objectionable step of rewriting the law from the bench in order to uphold its legality.

And what did Americans discover about ObamaCare long before the fact that its web design seemed to be sketched by crayon on a placemat? They found out that it mandated contraception coverage, yet another violation of Americans’ constitutional rights. Is the argument against the birth-control mandate that it is too expensive? Perhaps that argument can be made, but it is obviously not the real issue. The real issue is that it is a brazen violation of the First Amendment.

To be sure, ObamaCare is also unlikely to be a success, though that of course depends on the metric used make such a judgment. But the birth-control mandate is quite likely to be “successful,” in that it will do exactly what Democrats designed it to do and put the government in the bedroom of every American so that it can pay for what transpires therein. And in that case, its very success is the reason to argue against it: the law tramples on basic American rights.

There is, certainly, something attractive about arguing against technocracy based on numbers instead of principles. The media doesn’t take seriously the principled arguments because the American left thinks the basis for the Bill of Rights is inoperable and inherently ridiculous. When Breitbart’s Ben Shapiro debated CNN’s Piers Morgan on gun control, Shapiro posited that the Founders believed the individual right to bear arms was a guard against tyranny. CNN’s website offers this recounting of part of the exchange:

“They need them for the prospective possibility of resistance to tyranny,” he explained.

“Where do you expect the tyranny to come from?” wondered Morgan.

“It could come from the United States,” came Shapiro’s answer.

“Do you understand how absurd you sound?” asked the host.

It is quite true that the Founders envisioned constitutional rights as a bulwark against the rise of a tyrannical government. But the left seems to believe that those rights don’t go into force until tyranny is imminent; therefore, any suggestion that we do something because the Constitution advises it is itself an accusation that the government is already casting the shadow of tyranny over the republic.

Conservatives can and should argue that the technocratic impulses of the left lead to bad policy. They plainly do. And the right’s options may be limited now that ObamaCare has survived the individual mandate’s Supreme Court challenge. But conservatives will be making a mistake if they decry technocrats yet allow them to set the boundaries of political debate.