“Two Sides Of One Bad Coin”

Nov 1 2013 @ 1:24pm

Yuval Levin reflects on last month’s two big political stories, the populist-fueled government shutdown and the technocrat-led Obamacare roll-out:

If abject populism or gross technocracy were our only options for governing ourselves, the experience of this past month would be enough to leave us in despair. And it does sometimes seem as though we imagine those are our options. But I think the past month should actually be cause for hope that we might see beyond these two dead ends. Not only are technocracy and populism not the only choices we have, they are not really quite alternatives at all: They are in a sense two sides of one bad coin.

In their extreme forms, the forms we have seen this month, both populism and technocracy assume that the answers to our most profound public problems are simple, and are readily available. One assumes that the people possess these answers, and that they are denied the power to put them into effect by some elite that wants to oppress them; the other assumes the experts possess these answers, and they are denied the power to put them into effect by a system that empowers heedless and prejudiced majorities or the venal economic interests of the wealthy over the attainment of the objectively obvious good of the people.

That’s an interesting take, and I largely agree with it. The conservative alternative to today’s Republicanism would be a) never to risk the US and global economy just to make a point – let alone be reckless enough to wait until the very final minutes before possible default to concede, and b) to craft policies that only reform what can practically be done, without any grand scheme of progressive general improvement.

Where I’d differ with Yuval is in his excessive critique of the ACA. Our current healthcare and health insurance market is dreadful. The private sector is grotesquely inefficient and often inhumane. Insurance that can be canceled when you really need it, that screens any sick people out, that costs a fortune compared with other countries, that burdens the economy in ways not seen in our competitors – is not something conservatives should want to conserve.

And any serious reform of it will have to be technocratic.

The ACA, moreover, was not a technocratic dream invented out of the blue. It’s actually a product of federalism in the best sense – it models a successful and existing system in one state, Massachusetts, and attempts to replicate it on a bigger scale. If I had my druthers, I’d favor the states taking the lead on this, rather than the feds. I’d end the employer subsidy and create HSAs and a marketplace not unlike Obamacare’s to empower individual insurance policies. But if I am asked to pick between Obama’s vision and nothing (which is effectively the GOP’s position), I’ll go with Obama’s and aim to amend it as time goes by.

My difference with the GOP is that I do not question the sincerity or legitimacy of this president or the importance of upholding the law. I also favor universal coverage. The president won two elections with this policy out in the open. We should give him the chance to make it work, instead of hurling spitballs, egging on sabotage, and mindlessly piling on. And we should acknowledge that being bankrupted because you are sick is not a good thing. It’s inhumane; it’s cruel; and it’s not like other products that people can do without. “Amend it, not end it” would be my preference. That’s neither technocratic in any overweening sense, nor populist pabulum.