The ObamaCare Opportunity For Conservatives to Champion the Poor and Working Americans

by Prof. Patrick Garry:

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) is historic in several ways.  It marks an unprecedented expansion of an over-indebted federal government into a huge part of the American economy.  It intrudes in unprecedented ways into the personal health care decisions of individuals.  And the implementation of the Act, even at this early stage, has been an unprecedented failure.

Champion Working AmericaBut perhaps ObamaCare will also be historic in a positive way.  Perhaps it will afford conservatives the opportunity to openly challenge the myth, entrenched since the 1930s, that liberalism is the political creed most concerned with the poor and average American, and that the liberal agenda of an increasingly expansive federal government best helps working Americans.

Ever since FDR’s New Deal program, American liberalism has espoused an expanded federal government as the best way of benefitting average Americans.  At the same time, liberals have portrayed conservatism as concerned only about the rich and powerful, even as the wealthiest segment of society increasingly supports liberal Democrats.  This portrayal has generally succeeded, despite facts to the contrary.  American cities, for instance, have never been as poverty-stricken and financially distressed as they have been since the 1960s under liberal policies.  And despite all the government “stimulus” spending of the past five years, incomes of middle-class and working Americans have fallen.  The rich, however, have seen their wealth skyrocket.

But this misrepresentation has also occurred with conservative acquiescence.  Conservatives have failed to aggressively dispute the myth that the liberal agenda is in the best interests of the poor and average American.  Conservatives have conceded this huge political turf to the Left, as if tacitly agreeing that liberal policies, even though hurting other aspects of society, best serve the poor.  Conservatives have retreated from the debate over how to help the struggling members of society, as if tacitly admitting that conservative policies are not aimed at the struggling, but only the successful.  This retreat could be seen in the way the Romney campaign opposed the Obama tax policies, arguing that those policies would hurt risk-taking entrepreneurs.  There was a strong conservative argument that those policies would also hurt the struggling employees of those entrepreneurs and the unemployed who had been left behind by the Obama economy, but the Romney campaign shied away from that argument.

The troubled roll-out of the ACA, however, affords conservatives the chance to engage in a debate they have for too long avoided.  It is becoming increasingly obvious that ObamaCare is not helping those it was advertised as helping.  It will end up supporting the big pharmaceutical companies, the big hospital chains, and big insurance companies.  (Indeed, as history demonstrates, big government inevitably caters to big power, as further reflected by ACA’s granting to the federal government the power to bail out insurance companies at taxpayer expense.)

But ObamaCare is quite another story when it comes to individuals.  It is a disaster for the individual who needs insurance, or whose existing insurance policy has been cancelled, or who has been denied a job by an employer who can’t afford the ACA mandates.

Big-government liberalism revolves around big promises, as well as big power.  But with ObamaCare, it is obvious that those promises cannot be kept.  And the blame cannot be diverted; the failure of the promises is due to the falseness of the promises themselves and the inadequacy of government to achieve what it promised.

This is what we already know about ObamaCare: healthcare costs and premiums are rising; individual insurance policies have been cancelled, despite the President’s promises to the contrary; the politically connected like big corporations, unions, and congressional staffs have received special exemptions that ordinary individuals have not; the law’s regulatory burdens have kept employers from hiring new employees; full-time jobs have been converted to part-time jobs, causing involuntary underemployment; individuals who have used the ACA website have unknowingly had their privacy violated; and estimates of how much ObamaCare will increase the federal deficit, and hence require new taxes, have continually risen.

At least ObamaCare is producing its own verdict.  Partisanship isn’t sinking ObamaCare, reality is.  It isn’t the rich and powerful who are being hurt by ObamaCare, it is the average American.  But the ACA is, without question, the epitome of big-government liberalism.  Therefore, its failures should motivate conservatives to take their case to a constituency they have for too long ceded to the Left.

The health care debacle reflects a truth America’s founders realized more than two centuries ago — that the federal government was limited in its capabilities, even if it is given unlimited powers.  Indeed, the failure of an army of computer programmers to get the ACA website operational, despite years of preparation, proves that the federal government, though unlimited in promises, is limited in reality.  But when government fails, it is the most vulnerable who bear the brunt of that failure.

This harsh reality can be seen from other liberal programs that have failed.  Take, for instance, the high-rise urban housing projects of the 1960s, which concentrated together drug dealers and gang leaders with young families.  This failed policy had widespread destructive effects on those vulnerable children and elderly who lived next door to violent criminals.  Of course, it took years to discover those destructive effects, just as it took years to discover the harmful effects of the old welfare system, prior to its reform in the 1990s.  But with ObamaCare, the failures are being seen right away.

For this reason, the ObamaCare debacle gives conservatives an historic opportunity to challenge the New Deal legacy.  Under this legacy, liberals have used government spending as a proxy for addressing social problems – using increases in government spending as a definitive sign that the underlying social problem is being remedied.  Government education spending, for instance, has increased many times over since the 1970s, and yet student test scores haven’t improved.  Indeed, no one would claim that children are being better educated today than they were forty years ago.  But who suffers from an inadequate public education system?   Certainly not the rich, who can afford private schooling.

Government action can even make the problem worse, which is what appears to be happening with ObamaCare.  According to the Congressional Budget Office, the costs of ObamaCare will escalate so much in future years that substantial tax increases will be necessary.  And even though the super wealthy like Warren Buffett voice their support for big government programs and tax increases, they will never bear the real burden of tax hikes.  They will retain their corps of lawyers and accountants, as they have always done, to figure out ways to avoid those taxes.  And in the end, it will be the employees of the Warren Buffetts of the world, not the Warren Buffetts themselves, who will pay the costs of big government.

Just as an unprecedented economic failure gave rise to the New Deal legacy of big government, the unprecedented failure of an unprecedented government program, along with unprecedented government debt, may give rise to a conservative New Deal of governance in an era of unsustainable deficits.  The ACA debacle gives conservatives the opportunity to first pierce the myth that liberal big-government programs are the best way to help the poor and working person.

Evidence abounds as to the falsity of that myth.  The Dodd-Frank bill, for instance, is a hand-out to the “too big to fail” banks, while at the same time imposing regulations that hurt low-income communities and those small banks that did nothing to contribute to the 2008 financial crisis.  While government spending has exploded during the Obama presidency, median incomes have fallen.  The largest income declines have occurred among the most vulnerable – e.g., people with a high school education or less, black heads of households, and people under the age of 25.  And the share of the adult population that has dropped out of the labor market recently hit a 35-year high.  For the most struggling Americans, there has been no economic recovery; on the other hand, for the wealthiest Americans, the Obama years have been fabulous.

After piercing the myth that big-government liberalism is the best was to serve average Americans, conservatives must then pierce the myth that conservatism is concerned only with the rich and powerful.  As I have previously argued on this site, the conservative creed centers on the interests of the common person and is geared to helping the struggling find their own paths to prosperity.  But this is a message conservatives have not asserted enough.  Perhaps after eight decades of retreat from this debate, conservatives have lost sight of how to wage the debate.

To take advantage of the ObamaCare opportunity, conservatives have to propose their own program, based on conservative principles.  And more generally, they must be more proactive in addressing problems faced by the struggling members of society – problems like health care, wage stagnation, economic immobility among the poor, and the cost of higher education.  These are problems that conservatives must address, and can address, with conservative policies.

The primary focus of conservatism must be on the plight of those wishing to achieve the American dream.  Big government liberalism reinforces the status quo, which is why the Warren Buffetts and the Hollywood elite line up in support – they are more than happy with their status.  But the struggling and striving don’t want the status quo; they want a chance to prosper and achieve their dreams.  And this quest should occupy conservative attentions.  So when the Obama administration enacts regulations during its first three years that were three and a half times as burdensome as those enacted during the first three years of the Clinton administration, conservatives should ask whether poor and working Americans are three and a half times better off, considering the added burden on the economy.

Conservatism addresses the causes of poverty, whereas liberalism offers redistributive programs that simply address the symptoms.  The War on Poverty is nearly a half-century old and costs $1 trillion annually, and yet the poverty rate is nearly a third higher than it was in the economically stagnant 1970s.  And the number of food stamp recipients in 2013 is twenty-five percent higher than when the 2008 recession ended.

Conservatism best helps the strugglers and strivers because it focuses on the individual, not just on expanding the powers of government bureaucracies.  In its education policies, conservatism looks to whether families have the opportunity to receive the type of education they desire, not just to whether teachers’ salaries have increased.  In their anti-poverty programs, conservatives look to the determinative causes of poverty – e.g., family breakdown, delinquency, problematic behaviors, out-of-wedlock births – rather than simply the budgets of government agencies.

 

Patrick Garry is a professor of law at the University of South Dakota, and Director of the Hagemann Center for Legal & Public Policy Research.

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  1. “The primary focus of conservatism must be on the plight of those wishing to achieve the American dream.”

    At this point can we please consign “The American Dream” to the same dustbin as the “War on Poverty”? Please? It’s a platitude that doesn’t explain anything and, at any rate, does not describe what happened (and certainly not what is right now happening) in reality.

    “And more generally, they must be more proactive in addressing problems faced by the struggling members of society – problems like health care, wage stagnation, economic immobility among the poor, and the cost of higher education. These are problems that conservatives must address, and can address, with conservative policies.”

    By doing what? The business leaders in this country, who are absolutely not doctrinaire socialists (though aren’t opposed to socialist-like policies that benefit themselves), have created this situation, either outright through their business practices or by influencing government at the federal and local level. If the government is huge, it’s because of corporate desire for it to be so. So eliminating the government does nothing, since the corporate world (which conservatives implicitly if not explicitly support) will simply build it back up again.

    The political left (the real political left, not the Democrats who are essentially on the same team as conservatives (real conservatives, not the fascist right)) have actual alternative ideas about what to do about these matters. What concrete proposals do you have that don’t amount to letting the “free market” decide? Anything that relies on a “free market” (which doesn’t recognize individuals at any rate) is going to resemble the situation we have today. So what exactly are you proposing that would in fact be different from the status quo?

    “In their anti-poverty programs, conservatives look to the determinative causes of poverty – e.g., family breakdown, delinquency, problematic behaviors, out-of-wedlock births – rather than simply the budgets of government agencies.”

    These aren’t the causes of poverty. Factories do not move to China because workers are having too many out-of-wedlock babies. Resources do not deplete because people are watching trashy TV. Businesses do not refuse to hire people or pay them reasonable wages because they come from single-parent households. The things you listed come AFTER poverty settles in, if historical trends are anything to go by (and history is pretty consistent on this point).

    “So when the Obama administration enacts regulations during its first three years that were three and a half times as burdensome as those enacted during the first three years of the Clinton administration, conservatives should ask whether poor and working Americans are three and a half times better off, considering the added burden on the economy.”

    The liberal response is, of course, going to be predictable: “The economy crashed during the deregulated Bush years, it’s your fault we’re in this mess.” You can’t skate past this point.

    “For this reason, the ObamaCare debacle gives conservatives an historic opportunity to challenge the New Deal legacy.”

    Why would you even think of doing this. First of all, you can’t even get a majority of conservative voters to agree to part with their social security and Medicare checks, and you think this is a message that’s going to sell to everyone else? Why would you even think of doing this in an age where there are more than 300 million American mouths to feed, as opposed to the pre-New Deal circumstances? Do you not get that the world has changed over the 80 years you lament as wasted? We have different issues to solve on top of the persistent issue of poverty, and you want the message to be “Fend for yourself. Trust me, you’re better off”?

    We’re facing unprecedented environmental and resource-management problems, we’re facing an economy undergoing severe deindustrialization, we have a geopolitical empire to run. What makes you think that people would be able to survive without the kinds of assistance you insist are necessary? Keep in mind that people frequently died in poverty BEFORE the New Deal, you think that situation would be improved today? Why? Who’s going to feed those people if not the government? You’re going to slag it off on the church or something? Three hundred million people.

    How is destroying Medicare and social security even a “pro individual” policy, anyway? What’s individualistic about being 75, unable to work and having to beg for money from your family? That’s individualistic, being a parasite on your local community instead of the federal government? And what exactly are we talking about? At leas the 1800s version of you could reason that once you hit retirement age you’re probably dead meat anyway, so unless you’re advocating for a reduction in lifespans then you look really silly (and vile) suggesting that this is the way things ought to be.

    If you’re going to make this pitch you better bring an army because nobody is voting to voluntarily lose healthcare and a quasi-paycheck when they’re beyond their working years. Who would be stupid enough to do that? Do you not get that people, whatever their level of intelligence, have a realistic appraisal of their lives and recognize that they’re not going to be rich and thus have to get what they can when they can? Why would they turn down money to help them live? To prove your point that being an individual and freezing to death under a bridge is just the coolest? Why does everyone have to conform to your poorly defined point and risk their lives and the lives of their families to do so?

    Let’s take an example of your kind of society (or as close a proximation as we can find). Let’s take Thailand or Indonesia or Bangladesh. If they have social safety nets they’re nowhere near as comprehensive or good as America’s, right? Yet what do we find? Poverty, crime, in many cases families destroyed due to prostitution, drug use and early death. So what’s the excuse there? I guess Bangladeshis working in sweat shops are still too delinquent to have nice things. So do you want to point to an Indian farmer who just commited suicide because he lost all his money due to one bad harvest as being the role model, because he was an individual who didn’t have food stamps dragging him down?

    Now let’s look at counter-examples. European countries have far better (although not as expensive) social-spending programs, and most of them, despite being morassed in a crappier economy than ours, still see less poverty. But I guess they’re not individualistic enough to see the benefits?

    So anyway, what’s the campaign gonna look like here: “Do you want to be like those Europeans with their clothes and their houses and their basic level of healthcare, or do you want to be like the Chinese working 18 hours a day and dying at medieval rates?” Damn, who DOESN’T want to be the suicidal Chinese factory guy.

    Shit, philosophically speaking what you’re proposing is the opposite of freedom and individualism, anyway. How are people supposed to take risks regarding employment and entrepreneurship when they know that failure likely means they’ll be wiped out totally? You’d think that if someone knew they’d have a safety net of some kind backing them up, they’d be more inclined to take a risk and start a business or pursue a new technology or take a job that’s more demanding. I mean, that’s how businesses supposedly regard risk. Yet you want to increase the risk for everyone in society that if they run out of pocket money, they’re screwed. So they stick fearfully to doing what they know generates money even if it’s a dead end. Wow that sounds incredibly awesome, living like a serf, tied to the land forever and ever. That’s how progress happens. That’s how we got iPads and airplanes and Xanax today.

    And we still haven’t addressed how you would make this happen. The only way you could achieve this is to not only destroy the federal (and state) bureaucracy, you’d also have to destroy the corporate bureaucracies too, because they’d be the most powerful entities left standing otherwise. So unless you propose hitting the reset button on America’s economy, which in itself would lead to horrific dislocations, your plan is impossible. Corporate America is simply going to fill the government’s void (even moreso than it does now), and they don’t care about individualism either.

    Does the ACA represent a glaring weak point in Democratic politics? Yes. Are Democrats actually good defenders of the poor? Of course not. But unless conservatives figure out a way to extricate themselves from the pockets of America’s corporate overlords, you’ll be no different than Democrats. This fixation on the tools of how oppression in this country work instead of the people and the reasoning behind that oppression is fatal to any kind of progress regardless of ideology, and this vague, platitude-infested essay is just another demonstration of that.