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.
But 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.