And were it not for government programs like Medicare and Medicaid taking over the most expensive populations, the political scientist Jacob Hacker pointed out to me recently, the system of private insurance would probably have destroyed itself long ago. That image we cherish of our ruggedly self-reliant selves, in other words, is only possible thanks to Lyndon Johnson and the statist views of our New Dealer ancestors.
One reason government got involved is that our ancestors understood something that escapes those who brag so loudly about their prudence at today’s town-hall meetings: That health care is not an individual commodity to be bought and enjoyed like other products. That the health of each of us depends on the health of the rest of us, as epidemics from the Middle Ages to this year’s flu have demonstrated. Health care is “a public good,” says the Chicago labor lawyer Tom Geoghegan. “You can’t capture health care just for yourself. You have to share it with others in order to protect your own health.”
Yes, Democrats can prove that America pays more for health care than other countries; yes, they have won the dispute that private health insurance is needlessly expensive. But what they’ve lost is the argument that we are a society.