The Passions and the Interests

Why do the conservative elderly believe in the government death board? It beats admitting self-interest.

Looking at the recent protests, and the astonishing progress of the “death panel” lie, I’ve been wondering why opponents of universal coverage are pushing this particular theme so hard–even those (unlike Michael Steele) well-enough informed to know that it’s utterly false, viciously slanderous, and so flagrant that even reporters may start saying so soon. (Remember the McCain ad accusing Obama of wanting lots of sex-ed for kindergarteners.)

I think it has to do with the dynamics of self-interest and self-deception. Some of the most virulent opponents of health reform are the elderly, who already have government-provided health insurance. While some may be too silly to know that that’s what they have, a great many assuredly do know it, and are happy to pull up the ladder behind them. Medicare is already very successful and very generous. Under universal coverage, it’s unlikely to get much better (except for prescription drug coverage, but not all the elderly take a huge number of pills). And it could, for all one knows, get worse. To avoid that risk, better that some youngsters go without.

This reasoning, though, is brutal–too brutal to acknowledge. While we’re a pretty selfish country, “I’m all right, Jack” is not an argument people comfortably make when others’ lives are at stake. But “if this passes, they’ll euthanize me and my friends” is another kind of argument altogether. It’s false, but easy to seize on as a morally comfortable pretext for opposing a bill that threatens one’s self-interest.

Unfortunately, it’s also the kind of emotionally resonant claim that many people will continue to think in the back of their minds is “kind of true” even when they come to know, intellectually, that it’s false. Lots of cognitive psychology shows that people will believe that two plus two equals “four, though some say five.”

By the way, while I’ve phrased this in terms of the elderly, something similar may be going on among people who have private rather than government insurance and would prefer not to acknowledge that they don’t care about those who can’t get insurance that covers exactly what ails their own family. Hypocrisy may be the tribute that vice pays to virtue–but so is self-deception.

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.