Yesterday, on Twitter, Peter King of Sports Illustrated indicated his agreement with the idea that health care should be guaranteed for everyone in the United States.
For this position, which in pretty much every post-industrial corner of planet Earth outside of this country is considered completely uncontroversial nonpartisan conventional wisdom—the exact sort of stuff Peter King traffics in re: football—King was called a socialist, by too many people to count. (To King’s immense credit, his response amounted to, “Okay, I guess I’m a socialist.”) I hope you were not one of them. It’s really dumb.
This behavior is a sign and an artifact of our stupid times. The Paranoid Style in American politics is becoming the rubric for pretty much all discussion of civic ideas, now; for many tens of millions of Americans all even vaguely political-ish positions, even ones as immediately and universally relevant to daily life as access to health care, are taken not at face value, but as abstractions, as coded advocacy for deeper tribal affiliations. When you say that you think the government—which is to say society, or just people, collectively—should ensure that everybody can go to the doctor when they’re sick without fear that the cost will break them, what you are saying is not, “I think the government should ensure that everybody can go to the doctor when they’re sick without fear that the cost will break them,” but “I’m one of The Socialists.” The reason to oppose this is not that you think it is a bad idea, but that you don’t consider yourself one of The Socialists and don’t want to be confused with one.
(Liberals have their own sorta converse versions of this. If you say, for instance, that you are a Christian—not merely a spiritual person, but an actual believer in redemption through Christ—this broadly scans to liberals as though what you are saying is not “I believe in redemption through Christ,” but “I donate money to the Family Research Council.”)
My friends, first of all, this is a really dumb way to have a society, which after all really is just an ongoing set of conversations between a bunch of people. Sometimes, possibly even most of the time, people just think stuff; the most credit you can give them for some governing program of thought is maybe, maybe, a consistent and coherent set of moral beliefs. More often, what they have are sentiments and sympathies: They see stuff, and it makes them feel a certain way, and somebody proposes a political response to that stuff, and that response strikes them as either good or bad.
So, like, for example, maybe you look around and see a society in which regular hard-working people, good-faith participants in society, can go into crushing, livelihood-destroying debt and penury because their children get stricken with awful childhood illnesses; maybe you imagine that happening to your own family, and that strikes you as unfair or cruel or just really awful and sad. Or maybe you look at it in more coldly rational terms and it strikes you as a wasteful inefficiency and a drag on the economy. In any case, maybe you think, “Hey, that sucks. What the hell do we have a government for if it can’t make sure that doesn’t happen?” That thought does not have to proceed from socialism. A sane and decent person with otherwise scattershot politics—one who has never even heard of “socialism”—can have that thought. Maybe you have had that thought! It doesn’t mean you are one of The Socialists, now. It isn’t a symbol of some other thing. It is entirely itself: A thought you arrived at with your own brain.
(It maybe marks a path of thought that could lead to socialism, but hey, maybe it doesn’t! Anyway that’s not the point.)
More importantly, claiming that universal health care equals socialism is really silly. The idea that the government should take care of paying for health care is not a radical socialist idea any more than the idea that the government should take care of spraying water at burning buildings, or finding and prosecuting the guy who dumps a million tons of poisonous industrial waste into the food chain, or maintaining a system of national defense so that the country is not conquered by an invading army. It is generally compatible with most socialist ideas, but so is bathing, and nobody calls you a socialist for taking a shower.
If you believe in having the apparatus of a state, if you believe in having a government at all, then its job is to provide at least some foundational basis for people to have the freedom to do stuff—to work and raise families and make money and form communities and build lives, to exercise whatever rights they’re held to have. It’s perfectly reasonable and not particularly “socialist” to include guaranteed health care in that foundational basis, along with stuff we already take for granted the state should do or pay for, like repairing bridges and maintaining national security and spraying water at burning buildings.
(Needless to say, if you do not believe the state should provide any kind of basis for, like, an economy and a peaceful society, then your political ideas are a hell of a lot more radical and extreme than “the government should pay for health care.”)
Accordingly, all types of people, with all different types of professed political programs, are down with this. Socialists, sure, yes, but many others, too. There are libertarians—many libertarians!—whose idea of a minimalist “night watchman” government includes a universal health care system, for the same dweebishly rational reasons as inform all their other positions. You can’t get a whole lot less socialist than the frickin’ libertarians, man! There are religious people—again, not merely spiritual people who, like, think Jesus probably was a groovy dude, but actual churchgoing Christians and Jewish people and Muslims and so on—who discern in their faith’s teachings a moral imperative not to leave the care of the sick to insurance and pharmaceutical industries first and foremost concerned with maximizing their profits. And in the middle, all across the vast middle, between the libertarians and the socialists and all the other professed identities, there are many, many tens of millions of completely regular, moderate, non-crazy-eyed people with no particular overarching political programs who have wondered why exactly it has to be the case that universal health care must be some kind of spooky anti-American boogeyman; whether it might not be at the very least a worthy goal to pursue, even if they haven’t fully figured out every conceivable drawback that might come with it.
Maybe you’re skeptical of universal health care because you fear it will be too expensive for the economy to bear. Maybe you’re informed about the failings of our current system but you like some other solution better than the government paying for health care. Maybe you’re opposed to it because you despise poor people and figure they deserve a lower standard of care. Maybe you don’t despise poor people, but have the tremendous luxury of simply not knowing how catastrophically incapable our current system is of providing them with reasonable access to health care. Maybe your shaman told you that if the United States adopted universal health care, you would be struck by lightning and killed. Not all of those are good reasons to disagree with a famous football reporter when he expresses agreement with a call for universal health care, but at least they are reasons.
“It’s socialist” is not a reason. It isn’t anything. It means nothing. It doesn’t even mean “I’m an idiot.” But people will think so, anyway.