Government programs never prosper—what’s the reason?

Some people irrationally hate the Affordable Care Act because they irrationally think that government programs that they like don’t count as government. But time solves that problem.

Steve Benen notes a story about a Dallas woman with cancer who owes her life to an array of government programs—unemployment insurance, COBRA—yet still opposes the Affordable Care Act because she’s anti-government.  This leads Steve to lament the success of unhinged Beckian rhetoric: “many of those who stand to benefit from a stronger safety net have been led to believe they want a weaker one.”

The story is actually half as worrying as Steve portrays it, but twice as strange.  Scroll down in the original story and you get this:

When the severance benefits and other subsidies are gone, Amy said, the family might have to look – reluctantly – at some of the options contained in the new health care law.

“If I get to the point where we couldn’t afford to pay [for health insurance] maybe that would be a safety net,” she said. “But if they force you to pay and you can’t afford it, then you are back where you were.”

Note two things:

(1) This person is talking about a bill that’s mostly about subsidizing health insurance for working- to middle-class people so they can afford it (and avoid emergency-room induced bankruptcy), and blaming it for making her buy insurance she couldn’t afford.  Fox News has sold a fair number people on the idea that the law contains mandates but no subsidies.  But this is surely something that can be solved through education.  Even the mainstream media can’t ignore this forever.  It’s big, it isn’t subtle, and aside from pre-existing conditions, it’s the main point of the bill.  If you’re unemployed* and uninsured, the government will pay for your insurance. If your income is up to 133 percent of the poverty level, you’ll get Medicaid.  If it’s at 150 percent of the poverty level (roughly $33,000 a year for a family of four), your insurance premiums won’t be more than 3-4 percent of your income.  If it’s as high as $88,000, four times poverty level, they’ll be no more than 9.5 percent.  All this won’t kick in for a few years (nor will the mandate to buy insurance).  But is that a reason to oppose it now?

I’m amazed that the point I’ve just put in bold hasn’t been made a selling point so far.  But that won’t last forever.  I’ll keep flogging it in this space if no one else will.  (That’s a threat.)

(2) The woman in the story hates government programs, doesn’t think she’s using any government programs, yet would accept a government program if she had to.  This merely confirms Arthur Schlesinger’s old dictum that Americans are ideological conservatives but operational liberals [Update: he was citing Lloyd Free and Hadley Cantril: see comments by Derek below]—except that things have become more radical.  As Mnemosyne, one of Kevin’s commenters, notes, “most of these people seem to have convinced themselves that the government programs they’re taking advantage of are somehow not actually government programs.”

But this is a problem that solves itself, though in a way that will make liberals gnash our teeth in frustration.  Once ACA becomes familiar, it will be popular, irrevocable—and unlikely to be perceived as the product of government.  It will be added to the long list of government programs—public schools and universities, interstate highways, Social Security, Medicare, the military—that are politically impregnable because they no longer scan as government programs but rather as the background noise of everyday life.  Government initiatives become popular in America not when people consciously value and affirm them but when people stop noticing them.

Denial is not the highest road to an adequate welfare state.  But it’s a road.  I’ll take it.

*or employed by a company that doesn’t provide health coverage—but that makes the slogan too long.  Perhaps regrettably, I think security is a much better selling point than universal coverage.  Most people think—insanely, but given our customs, very durably— that health insurance ought to be employer-based, and don’t like the idea that they’ll have jobs while government pays their insurance.  But they’ll get used to the latter state too, once they have it.

Update: I guess I disagree with Jonathan (who was writing his post at the same time I was writing mine) on this.  Maybe government support for the middle class is very popular—though I think it’s double-edged and must be sold deftly, since the U.S. middle class bristles at the idea that it needs government support.  (Taking a subsidy is one thing.  Admitting that one needs to is another.)   But I’m willing to be persuaded.  And if I am, I’ll strike “unemployed and” from the slogan above.

Author: Andrew Sabl

I'm a political theorist and Visiting Professor (through 2017) in the Program on Ethics, Politics and Economics at Yale. My interests include the history of political thought, toleration, democratic theory, political ethics, problems of coordination and convention, the realist movement in political theory, and the thought of David Hume. My first book, Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics (Princeton, 2002) covered many of these topics, with a special focus on the varieties of democratic politics and the disparate qualities of mind and character appropriate to those who practice each of them. My second book Hume's Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England was published in 2012; I am currently finishing a book on toleration, with the working title The Virtues of Hypocrisy, under contract with Harvard University Press. A Los Angeles native, I got my B.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard. Before coming to Yale I taught at Vanderbilt and at UCLA, where I was an Assistant, Associate, and Full Professor; and held visiting positions at Williams, Harvard, and Princeton. I am married to Miriam Laugesen, who teaches health policy and the politics of health care at the Mailman School of public health at Columbia, and we have a twelve-year-old son.

10 thoughts on “Government programs never prosper—what’s the reason?”

  1. Unfortunately, the problem doesn't solve itself: Programs may become politically impregnable because they no longer scan as government programs, but they do so in part because people don't think they have to pay for them. And because Americans are so intensely opposed to paying taxes, the process is not just not the highest road but actually quite problematic for good government. How do we develop in our citizenry both an acceptance of government programs as such along with a willingness to pay for them?

  2. Andrew,

    believe the "ideologically conservative, operationally liberals" language is from Lloyd A. Free and Hadley Cantril, in their 1961 book The Political Beliefs of Americans, not by Arthur Schlesinger.

    Derek

  3. Derek,

    It's quite possible. I was quoting from memory from something by Schlesinger that I read in college (in the late 80s), but he could well have been citing (and endorsing) Free and Cantril. If you're just being polite and your "believe" means you have a specific citation, I'll correct it.

  4. I think the hope on the right is that middle-class people become sufficiently anxious to reduce other people’s benefits that they'll admit that they also receive some, & accept reductions in them, if that’s what it takes to eliminate others’. There's a fair amount of rhetoric in the air to the effect that, for "us" to have the political & moral authority to take away other people's sustenance, we have to repent of our own lesser sins. This is how grossly inequitable austerities are justified.

  5. many of those who stand to benefit from a stronger safety net have been led to believe they want a weaker one.”

    Many of those who stand to benefit from a stronger 'safety net', aka "more generous welfare benefits" would prefer to not NEED one. But that wouldn't advance the left's aim of buying constituents by forcing people into dependence on the government.

  6. Andrew,

    The following is from an The American Prospect article [URL: http://www.prospect.org/cs/articles?articleId=569… "Americans are ideological conservatives and operational liberals. That was the finding of social psychologists Lloyd A. Free and Hadley Cantril, who based much of The Political Beliefs of Americans, their classic work about public opinion, on a massive survey they conducted during the fall of 1964." I have always been told that the concept of "Ideologically conservative, operationally liberal" was coined by Free and Cantrill, but do not have a chapter and verse to offer to you as a citation from their book.

    Derek

  7. Andrew,

    I offer this passage from an article in the American Prospect of February 26, 2001 [URL: http://www.prospect.org/cs/articles?articleId=569… "Americans are ideological conservatives and operational liberals. That was the finding of social psychologists Lloyd A. Free and Hadley Cantril, who based much of The Political Beliefs of Americans, their classic work about public opinion, on a massive survey they conducted during the fall of 1964." I do not have a specific citation from their 1964 book but was always told in my poli-sci classes that Free and Cantril coined the concept of "ideologically conservative, operationally liberal".

    Derek

  8. Brett adds: Many of those who stand to benefit from a stronger ’safety net’, aka “more generous welfare benefits” would prefer to not NEED one. But that wouldn’t advance the left’s aim of buying constituents by forcing people into dependence on the government.

    To go along with your conservative bend… if you prefer not to 'need' one, then pull yourself up by your bootstraps and work hard in the realm of the Free Market where there is less regulation.

  9. I thought government was a non-profit entity; i.e. there should be NO profit. Services and staff must be funded, and all other proceeds folded back into the enterprise.

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