Obamacare, Socialism, and the Poverty of American Freedom

Hayek's Fatal Conceit

Star Parker’s inspiration.

The latest Star Parker column picked up by the Leesburg Daily Commercial, entitled “The Fatal Conceit of Obamacare,”  adds yet another Republican voice to the chorus denouncing Obamacare as a “socialist monstrosity” that “take[s] over and redesign[s] one sixth of a 16-trillion dollar economy.” Parker asserts that the unfolding failure of Obamacare was entirely predictable, given that it was a product of “arrogant, pretentious, and deeply confused bureaucrats and politicians in Washington.” Taking her title from free-market demigod and Nobel economics laureate, Friedrich Hayek, Parker claims that only individuals acting in free markets can produce “bounty as never has been produced anywhere under any other arrangement.” The “vast array of products” on display in stores is cited as proof of this bounty. Attempts to “control society” are dismissed as a “fatal conceit,” compounded by the would-be controllers’ alleged lack of experience in personally bringing consumer goods to market.

Since Star Parker’s own resume seems similarly lacking in entrepreneurial excellence – unless we are willing to characterize her attempts to sell Republican propaganda to African Americans as a legitimate business model and we also ignore the resemblance that her activities with CURE bear to community organizing – perhaps she would be well-advised to refrain from ad hominem attacks against alleged socialists. Unfortunately, however, her substantive arguments are even more glaringly defective, reeking of a far deadlier double-standard.

Obamacare is Corporatism, Not Socialism

One of the most pernicious aspects of the Obamacare fiasco is the extent to which it has been shamelessly misrepresented by a political system that thrives on the exploitation of ignorance. In an intellectually honest society, it would be clear to most Americans that Obamacare looks far more like corporatism than socialism. This is easily understood just by comparison with the rest of the health care sector.

VA Clinic in The Villages, Florida

VA clinic in The Villages, Florida.
The acceptable face of American socialism.

Every time a Republican rails against Obamacare as a socialistic threat to the American way of life, at least two groups of Americans ought to be gravely concerned. The first group – a group to which Republicans, with shocking insincerity, like to pander – is veterans. The Veterans’ Administration (VA) provides a fairly comprehensive health care system to those who have been used and abused by the greatest military empire the world has ever seen. VA hospitals and clinics are both paid for and run by the government directly; in other words, they are unabashedly socialistic. Curiously, neither Star Parker nor any other Republican propagandist of whom we are aware seems to have a problem with the “conceit” that must be involved in attempting to organize health care for a large group of Americans. And nor should they, since recent Republican decisions to launch unnecessary and immoral wars have added huge numbers to the VA medical system’s customer base – a form of budget-busting spending for which the right-wing consistently refuses to take any responsibility.

The other group of Americans who should pause to consider the implications of modern Republican rhetoric is even larger: seniors. While Medicare is not as socialistic as the VA, it is considerably more socialistic than Obamacare. Medicare is very similar conceptually to the single-payer, Canadian-style system that a large majority of Americans would like to have but were never offered. (Ralph Nader recently summarized the many reasons why Canada’s system is attractive.) Under Medicare, services are provided by the private sector, with the government acting as the primary payer. This is not a true single-payer system, since Medicare beneficiaries need to supplement the gaps in Medicare’s various parts with private insurance policies, the cost of which is non-trivial. In this case, the right-wing obviously does have a problem with the program, but their animosity is couched most often in the putatively conservative language of fiscal responsibility. Although the more radical propagandists – people like Russ Sloan – flirt with a denunciation of Medicare as un-American socialism, this is not (yet) a winning strategy when voter-participation rates are so high among the program’s most avid fans. Nonetheless, Paul Ryan’s voucher plan and Republican comments after the 2008 election to the effect that Americans voted for the most “free stuff” should leave non-Tea Party seniors under few illusions. The plutocracy’s hounds are baying for Medicare blood; the only question is which one will make the first kill – the loud, yapping one or the quiet black one.

Compared to the VA and Medicare, Obamacare – which forces Americans to pay for questionable products from for-profit insurers and leaves service provision itself essentially untouched – does not look particularly socialistic, especially after the Supreme Court’s severance of mandatory Medicaid expansion. Obamacare is not really about health care; it is about health insurance. It is not about protecting the health of American citizens; it is about protecting the profits of the insurance industry. (This proposition is accepted on both the libertarian right and the genuinely socialist left.) Thus, if Obamacare is socialism, it is socialism for big business, not socialism for Americans. Republicans decrying the tax credits offered to purchasers of insurance plans neglect to follow the money to its ultimate destination, just as they do when assailing the Food Stamps that deliver billions of dollars in dividend income to the heirs of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton.

While we have always deplored Barack Obama’s “pivot” to Obamacare in the wake of a financial calamity that cried out for a thorough house-cleaning on Wall Street, the ethos of Obamacare is entirely consistent with the bail-out of Wall Street and the Federal Reserve’s continuing printing of money (to purchase toxic assets from the banks while simultaneously goosing the financial markets and the executive bounty that flows therefrom). This kind of socialism is, of course, better described as corporatism, but neither political party is interested in expressing that level of candor. What we have here, as we have remarked before, is a nicely choreographed two-step, in which the most aggressive wing of the plutocracy’s political machine drags the “center” ever further to the right, providing cover for the deceptive donkeys to legislate in the interests of big business while pretending to protect the people from the rapacity of the Republicans. The real miracle is not the tendency of Americans to surrender their freedom to socialists, as Star Parker would have us believe, but the ability of the plutocracy to comprehensively delude the American people into believing that socialism is only evil when it benefits citizens instead of corporations.

Elizabeth Fowler behind Senator Max Baucus

Elizabeth Fowler behind Senator Max Baucus

If neither the genesis of the individual mandate in the policy laboratory of the Heritage Foundation some twenty years ago, nor its implementation in Massachusetts by an unrepentant corporate vulture, was enough to defuse the argument against socialism, then we should not be surprised that few Americans have heard the swoosh of the revolving door that ushered Obamacare into existence. The plan’s chief architect – a fact freely conceded by Senator Max Baucus (D-Mont.), the bill’s official chief legislator – was one Elizabeth Fowler. In a story that is all-too familiar across multiple sectors of the economy, Fowler has been in and out of “public service” and private profit-making. Before this particular exercise, Fowler was Vice President for Public Policy and External Affairs (i.e. lobbying) at WellPoint, the largest health-insurance company in the United States. After the bill passed, this same insurance-industry executive was chosen by the Obama Administration to oversee its implementation. (Did this Washington bureaucrat learn her incompetence in the private sector, or was she infected by contact with government?) Fowler subsequently left the executive branch and ran toward the loving embrace of pharmaceutical giant, Johnson & Johnson, which lobbied vigorously for the bill’s passage and stands to benefit massively from the scheme.

This is the reality of policy-making in the United States. The “conceit of socialism” is blamed for the greed of capitalism expressing itself through the instrumentalities of a thoroughly corrupted political system and a commensurately corrupted fourth estate. Forget the hammers and sickles; follow the dollars and cents.

Fatal Conceits and Non-Apologies

Star Parker’s denunciation of Obamacare as the product of socialism’s conceit is not just fundamentally misleading, it is emblematic of the hideous hypocrisy of the Christian right. For if one were sincere about identifying arrogance in politicians and bureaucrats, one would look first at the men who sought to control the unknowable before Barack Obama added his unique stain to American moral history. It is another miracle of American public life that Republican figureheads can assail the current president for a conceit that reached its apotheosis in his predecessor.

Bush Mission Accomplished

The Most Fatal Conceit

Star Parker objects to Barack Obama’s (but not Liz Fowler’s) attempts to organize the lives of American health-care consumers, but has nothing to say about George W. Bush’s attempts to organize the lives – and deaths – of entire countries in the Middle East. Beyond swelling the ranks of the VA’s customer base, Bush’s grotesquerie in Iraq has resulted in the death of over one million Iraqis, with countless more displaced and an entire society shattered almost beyond recognition and probably beyond repair. One might have thought that a right-to-life crusader would be troubled by such events, but one would be mistaken.

Evidently, the lives of brown people in Asia do not matter; they are ants to be crushed without a second thought. It makes no difference whether they are in Vietnam, Cambodia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, or other places that were not chosen by God to set an example for all the world. And, in an irony that Star Parker is probably incapable of understanding, this callous indifference to the consequences of American arrogance is shared by the alleged socialist against whom she rails. For while Barack Obama felt it politically necessary to apologize to the American people for making a promise he could not keep (about the ability of the already insured to keep their existing, rip-off plans if they wanted to), he has never felt any need to apologize to the people of Iraq (or others, equally deserving) for the devastation wrought by American action.

Controlling the world – the ultimate conceit, one would have thought – is perfectly fine; just don’t ask American employers to provide health insurance (however bad it may be) for their wage slaves. Death panels for Pakistanis are no problem: Sarah Palin does not show her lovely face on Fox News (or appear in local bookstores) to deplore Obama’s “Terror Tuesdays,” in which the week’s kill-list is decided. Massive spending on deadly military adventures is always affordable even if health care at home is not. And troops – government employees, lest we forget – are heroes, while civil servants are lazy parasites whose pay should be frozen and retirement benefits slashed. Conceit? Confusion? Standard features of the big-sellers in the American political marketplace – all two of them.

The Poverty of American Freedom

Star Parker is tremendously useful to those of us who seek to understand the agenda of the American plutocracy, for she lacks the artifice to conceal the message she is paid to dispense. Clearly, her clients perceive Obamacare as a first step toward a more authentically socialistic health care system, with all that implies for the nature of the “social contract” in America. The people who have been most aggressive in opposing Obamacare – the Kochs and others in the extractive industries – prefer the kind of social contract suggested by Margaret Thatcher’s ridiculous comment that there is no such thing as society. In a war of all against all, they are sitting pretty, and this is what all the rhetoric about freedom really amounts to.

As an aside, we have noted before (in our examination of Florida Governor Rick Scott’s Obamacare adventure) that the divisions we should be noting in this arena are not so much those between the allegedly different political parties but those within the plutocracy itself. Obamacare was written by, and on behalf of, the medical insurance companies and big pharma. It was, in effect, their turn at the trough. (Well, okay, it was their second turn, after that famous socialist George W. Bush gave them Medicare Part D – which was no better funded than his wars.) And who can blame them? Lord knows, the military-industrial complex has been living in exceptionally high clover for decades. The banks practically own the country. Agribusiness was given the boondoggle of corn ethanol – a massive interference in the market that the GOP, eager for votes in the Midwest, seems to like – and its attempts to control the world’s food supply are being willingly abetted by the state, regardless of party control. The oil industry has been raking in massive profits ever since its scions’ wars drove oil prices to a permanently higher plateau. So why can’t the stupid Kochs understand that the insurance industry’s gains do not really come at their expense because – as always – the real losers are the American people who didn’t get what they actually needed? Apparently, large bank balances are not necessarily indicative of high intelligence. While the noise from the Kochs could be seen as masterful opportunism (Obamacare truly is the gift that keeps on giving, and will be a marvelous scapegoat for all manner of economic ailments) it really does appear that they have failed to perceive the successful cordoning-off of a single-payer system, and failed to appreciate that Barack Obama should be judged by what he has done, not by what he said while he was building his image among gullible Democrats. For Americans who would like their country back, this plutocratic confusion might present an opportunity to divide and conquer the masters of our universe, but the body politic has entered a rigor mortis that such wedges cannot penetrate. All we can do now is watch them fight over the carcass.

That said, the nature of the “bounty” that Star Parker attributes to the mythical free market is not just a lop-sided bounty for the plutocrats who own America, but a tawdry, superficial bounty that should not satisfy the rest of us. In Parker’s America, the ability of ordinary Americans to choose from countless varieties of Chinese-made widgets at Wal-Mart is the measure of our freedom and success as a nation. But, as Noam Chomsky pointed out recently, echoing a trenchant observation made long ago by the ever-perspicacious George Carlin, the form of choice on offer here is limited to private, consumer goods. If the people of America wish to choose a collective good – like real health care for Shopping Choicesall, a clean environment, or a foreign policy that does not involve carpet-bombing peasants with napalm – then they can’t buy those goods at Wal-Mart or anywhere else. And they certainly can’t “buy” them at the ballot box, for only the owners of America can afford to shop in that particular store. It is the prerogative of these VIP shoppers – no conceit whatsoever involved – to make these vital choices for the nation. Through their ownership of the best government money can buy, they will decide for us what sort of health care we may have, how many carcinogens we will inhale and imbibe, and how many foreigners will be slaughtered by the sons and daughters of poor Americans in causes that bear little connection to the real needs or moral concerns of the people.

Thus, in Star Parker’s America, the freedom with which we are bought off is a hollow freedom –  a freedom that doesn’t really matter. America would be a far freer country, and a far greater one, if its citizens could choose Medicare for all, food that is not genetically modified, and an expanded Peace Corps instead of a bloated war machine. But such meaningful choices are not on the menu. Just be happy that Burger King now offers another type of fries to go with your Whopper. As an American, that is the most important choice you are allowed to make.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *