03 December 2013

Is Obamacare Iraq for liberals?

Jonah Goldberg proposes a provocative analogy in a recent column:

In the aftermath of Iraq and Afghanistan, many Republicans are growing more skeptical about the national security state and foreign interventions. If Obamacare continues to unravel, it will be interesting to see if Democrats undergo a similar readjustment, and stop overpromising and underdelivering. 

A decade ago, Goldberg reminds us, George W. Bush promised more than he delivered in invading Iraq. As a result, he claims, many Republicans are disillusioned about "neoconservative" foreign policy. On his proposed analogy, Democrats, not to mention liberals and progressives in general, should be disillusioned by the clumsy launch of the Obamacare website to the point that they "downgrade their expectations of what government can do."

The analogy doesn't follow for a number of reasons. Foremostly, despite the assumptions of Republicans, the obvious failure of many individuals involved with Obamacare doesn't prove that the goals set by Obama can never be realized. It doesn't follow that the website was fubar because it was initiated by liberals. Secondly, there is, to my knowledge, no dynamic within the Democratic party similar to what has happened among Republicans since 2001. If Republicans have grown more skeptical about interventionism, that didn't happen in a vacuum filled only by Bush's failures. Those failures appeared to vindicate a minority within the GOP that had argued since 2001 that Bush's "freedom agenda" in Afghanistan and the Middle East not only couldn't be done, but shouldn't be done. That is, people like Ron Paul and his followers weren't arguing that the invasions were overreaching, but that they were wrong on principle. Regarding health insurance, the only people on the "left" arguing that Obamacare is wrong on principle are those who, against Goldberg's expectations, want a larger government role in health care as a whole. Once Republicans saw Bush's bubble burst, they were ready to listen, to an extent, to erstwhile Cassandras like the elder Paul.

Amid Obamacare's continuing trouble, a constituency among Democrats opposing government involvement in health insurance, either on principle or for practical reasons, has yet to emerge. Instead, as more critics on the left blame the new system's shortcomings on its compromised, hybrid nature, progressives are more likely to double down on their demands for "single-payer" and similar statist reforms. That has a lot to do with a further failure of Goldberg's analogy. He hopes that the Obamacare debacle will wake liberals up to the limitations of "what government can do." But Obamacare has been driven by a belief in what government should do. A conservative might argue that our belief in what should be done should be conditioned by our understanding of what can be done. It's not unreasonable to argue that we sometimes make unreasonable demands because of a irreconcilable discrepancy between should and can. Obamacare's problems don't prove such an irreconcilable discrepancy, just as the Bush administration's incompetence doesn't in itself prove the impossibility of Bush's objectives. Goldberg may be on to something, however, when he implicitly links a decline in Republican enthusiasm for war to the American people's current low tolerance for mass casualties, intrusive security measures, etc. There remains a good possibility that the public will repudiate Obamacare on the assumption that it causes more trouble than it's worth. "Culturally, Americans want all the upside and none of the downside," Goldberg observes. If Americans do repudiate Obamacare without demanding something better from the state, it may prove less about what government can or should do than it proves about American democracy's will to do anything difficult.

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