Wednesday, March 24, 2010

How to slay the hobgoblins of health care

The debate over the new U.S. government health-care monolith all came down to something H.L. Mencken wrote quite a few years ago now. How individuals proceed from here depends on recognizing that ultimately, our lives depend on ourselves.

The political arguments of the past few years have been a perfect illustration of what Mencken meant when he wrote:
The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.
What are the supposed hobgoblins that have menaced America of late? Hard-hearted insurance companies. Greedy drug companies. Cold-blooded hospitals. Ambulance-chasing lawyers. Doctors more devoted to earning a Beemer than saving lives. Lest we forget, the rampaging hobgoblins include power-hungry big-government Democrats and heartless corporate-serving Republicans. The most frightening hobgoblins of them all: On the one hand, the prospect of a catastrophic medical event with no safety net. On the other, the specter of a totalitarian, brutally intrusive government.

I don't purport that these hobgoblins are wholly imaginary. The players of the political game have marched out far too many anecdotes for anyone to deny that sick people are thrown roadblocks by insurance carriers, that prescription medicine costs can be unreasonable, and that politicians have goals that do not involve the good of the folks who elected them.

However, I do suggest that there is an important question to ask whenever someone appeals to your darkest fears, a question that must be answered before you willingly relinquish your freedom:

Why does this person want me to be afraid?

What possible gain could this politician, this advertiser, this seeming friend achieve by making me alarmed and clamorous to be led to safety? More often than not, the fear-maker offers a way out of your anxiety that not coincidentally involves a personal profit to himself. A politician offers a bill. An advertiser offers a product. (And in the interests of full disclosure, even I offer you something: I am writing a book called Refuse to Be Afraid that I hope to sell you someday soon.)

The person who wants you scared proposes to lead you to safety. The politician asks only that you surrender a bit of your liberty. The advertiser asks only for a bit of your cash — but keep in mind that money misspent deprives you of the liberty to spend it wisely.

And here's the most important underlying fact in Mencken's words, the fact that's hard to remember when you are sufficiently alarmed: You have the power to lead yourself to safety.

No one can deprive you of your freedom without your permission.

For years the U.S. government has been moving to replace the unwieldy and unresponsive private-sector bureaucracy that is the health insurance industry with an unwieldy and unresponsive public-sector bureaucracy like those of many federal government agencies. Politicians have matched insurance-claim or hospital horror for Medicare or Veterans Affairs horror. Now the power grab has been passed and signed into law, but one essential hasn't changed.

Whoever controls the unwieldy and unresponsive bureaucracy, you have always had control of your health decisions. No one cares more about your health than you do. That was true 10 minutes before this abominable law was signed, and it's true today. So take control. Take the steps you are still free to take — you'll find that most of the hobgoblins holding you back were imaginary. It's a scary thing, assuming control of your life. But if you refuse to be afraid, the benefits are enormous.

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