Obama’s Flawed Case Against Single Payer

The liberal imagination has broadened the scope of what it wants to dismiss as unrealistic, utopian and unpragmatic, i.e. as for all practical purposes impossible. These claims have typically been accompanied by the assurance that “This is not something that Americans would go for – it’s not the American way.”  There are countless variations on this theme. Obama’s case against a single payer health care system  is a conspicuous case in point. What distinguishes Obama’s position on this issue is not merely the weakness of his “arguments”, but the straight-ahead factual falsehood of the some of the counterclaims he has put forward in order to turn the desirable into the impossible.

The Alleged Impossibility of Universal Health Care

In May and August, 2007 Obama stated his position on single payer:

“If you’re starting from scratch, then a single-payer system’-a government-managed system like Canada’s, which disconnects health insurance from employment-‘would probably make sense. But we’ve got all these legacy systems in place, and managing the transition, as well as adjusting the culture to a different system, would be difficult to pull off. So we may need a system that’s not so disruptive that people feel like suddenly what they’ve known for most of their lives is thrown by the wayside.” (May, 2007)

” [W]hen we had a healthcare forum before I set up my healthcare plan here in Iowa there was a lot of resistance to a single-payer system. So what I believe is we should set up a series of choices….Over time it may be that we end up transitioning to such a system. For now, I just want to make sure every American is covered…I don’t want to wait for that perfect system…” (August, 2007, at an Iowa roundtable)

Obama offers 5 reasons for not supporting single payer.

First: “..we’ve got all these legacy systems in place” simply means that our system is not single payer, and we’ve had it for a long time. Obama has turned himself into a bent sort of Burkean conservative: we have been marinating in a tradition which so permeates our way of being in the world that to do away with it would upset social life as we know it. This tradition includes…. insurance-industry-based health care! More mundanely: we haven’t got it, so we can’t have it.

Second: it would be hard to “manage the transition” from a deeply flawed system to a much better one. Harder than it was to effect the transition to Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, desegregation, etc.? In each of these cases, what many people had “known for most of their lives” [was] “thrown by the wayside”. It belongs to the nature of any move from one way of doing things to a very different one that the transition will take some doing. That fact alone settles nothing. What matters is how urgent is the need for change. The US’s irrationally costly system which leaves millions uninsured, a fate suffered by the citizens of no other developed capitalist country, is surely intolerable. We have been given no reason to think that the cost of a transition to universal coverage is so great as to outweigh the massive benefits of  this tried and tested arrangement. Obama’s excuses amount to a cleverly disguised a-priori argument against any consequential transformation of the status quo.

Third: the “difficulty” [i.e. costs] of  “adjusting the culture to a different system”, given that there is “a lot of resistance to a single-payer system” , outweigh the benefits of single-payer. But what matters is not what a few selected Iowans are alleged to have felt about universal coverage. The demonstrated preferences of the democratic majority can’t be irrelevant.

On this issue Obama clearly means to imply that “Americans” don’t support single-payer. This is factually false. It’s improbable that Obama is unaware of the results of many surveys on this issue, the most recent, to my knowledge, having been conducted between December 14-20, 2007. The results of this Associated Press-Yahoo poll are worth reproducing as they were reported:

Subjects were asked which of the following 2 views comes closest to their own view:

!. The United States should continue the current health insurance system in which most people get their health insurance from private insurers, but some people have no insurance.

2. The United States should adopt a universal health insurance program in which everyone is covered under a program like Medicare that is run by the government and financed by taxpayers.

A majority of 65% supported 2, 34% supported 1 and 2% did not respond.

Those polled were also asked “Do you consider yourself a supporter of a single-payer health care system, that is a national health plan financed by taxpayers in which all Americans would get their insurance from a single government plan, or not?”

55% answered Yes, 44% No and 2% did not respond. Single-payer still has a majority here, but a smaller one, probably due to the pollsters’ use of (what is to some) the red-flag term ‘single payer’. [View the full poll results at http://news.yahoo.com/]

Taxpayer funded, government-run health care insurance for all is a public, not a private, good, and it is the only political project that most Americans are on record as willing to pay higher taxes to achieve. There is in fact not “a lot of resistance” to a rational health care system. Obama knows this. But the interests of those who have heavily invested (literally) in him carry more weight than do the most pressing interests of the rest.

The Ideology of Individual Choice and the Logic of Solidarity

Fourth: Obama claims that a health care plan based on “a series of choices” is superior to one that leaves no choice but instead saddles everyone with the burden of full and affordable coverage. Pity those poor Europeans, deprived of their right to liberty by forced access to first-rate health care. In the City on the Hill, few things are more important than the right to choose: which health care system gives us the most choice? This way of thinking is saturated with the ideology of individualism and its private goods, and functions to obliterate solidarity, as opposed to self-interest, as a political and moral value. This is especially pernicious since, as we shall see, it is only concerted action motivated by solidarity that can bring about a health care system from which no one is excluded because they can’t afford it.

When Obama contradistinguishes choice from universal coverage he unwittingly underscores the irrelevance of individual, self-interested choice to political goals motivated by a commitment to solidarity. Preoccupation with the choice between one doctor and another, one plan or another, conceals a crucial assumption, namely that the fundamental issue underlying the health care debate is one about choice and liberty. An individualist ontology implies that our collective fate is a function of whether or not each individual member of society is savvy enough to make the free choices most likely to promote his or her self-interest. But are people who worry about access to health care really concerned with choice? What weighs upon them is that they can’t afford health care. No individual can make on her own the choice to turn the US into a country that makes health care affordable, available to all. Such a choice is not a choice by an individual about her own well being. It is not even a choice about the aggregate sum of each and every individual’s well being. It is a choice we make together about the kind of society we want to live in. To worry about health care because one cannot afford it is, on reflection, to lament the non-existence of a  public good, universally accessible health care, one that can’t be reduced to the sum of all individual goods. The survey discussed above indicates that most Americans implicitly know this. The majority endorse a universally applicable measure, taxation, as a means to institute a universally available, i.e. public, good, access to health care. A universal tax, as for education, roadways, health care, is not an individual cost; it is a social cost. Correspondingly, universally accessible health care is not an individual good, it is a public good. The majority would prefer to live in the kind of society that features that public good. It’s a different kind of society from the one we’re currently stuck with.

That kind of society, and the public goods it prioritizes, can be achieved only if it is pursued as a goal by people acting in concert. That’s where solidarity is on display: in collective action motivated by the desire to achieve a public good.

The kinds of goals/goods in question typically involve bringing about a certain kind of society. For example: the kind of society that provides all with affordable health care, the kind of society that makes access to the means of life  -e.g. a living wage-  available to all, the kind of society that makes the meeting of human needs the principal motivator of economic production, the kind of society that assigns sufficient resources to the reduction of pollution and the preservation of nature,… Prattling on about individual choice creates a conceptual space within which considerations of solidarity and public goods cannot arise. Talking about solidarity in the language of individualism is like trying to score a field goal in baseball.

Obama references affordability in spite of himself when he  claims (falsely) that he wants to “make sure that every American is covered”. The fundamental virtue of single payer is that it detaches insurance from employment and thereby from one’s level of income, so that everyone can afford health care. The question of choice doesn’t even arise if you can’t afford to keep yourself healthy. And come to think of it, were health care universally available, the question of affordability would not arise. Talk of being able to “afford” access to health care would be as misplaced as talk of being able to afford access to elementary education.

Solidarity As a Familiar Phenomenon

The issue is worth dwelling on. In everyday life we are all familiar with the pursuit of irreducibly social goods. Think of a family with kids. A rare and highly desirable work opportunity, but far from home, arises for spouse #1. Spouse #2 has come upon a comparable golden opportunity, also far from home. The family wants to stay together. A decision based on the good of either individual spouse would break up the family. What to do? It’s not uncommon in such a situation for the adults to look to determine what would be good for the family. And what’s good for the family is not the sum of spouse #1’s good plus spouse #2’s good, plus the goods of each individual child.  We cannot commensurate and then sum up these different and sometimes incompatible goods. The good of the family is irreducibly social, just like universally accessible health care. Families and households act in solidarity all the time.

Obama’s repeated insistence on the market as the primary agent in distributing resources precludes consideration of questions of solidarity from the outset. He is the instrument of domestic advisors benighted by preposterous economic theories hailing the efficiency and liberty-promoting virtues of the market. For these wags the pursuit of individual self-interest, plus competition, makes the world go round and secures for us all the freedom we (are allowed to) want. As we have seen above, the restriction of human-welfare-enhancing political choices to the realm of competition and self-interest deprives us of the freedom collectively to choose to live in the kind of society that provides copious public goods. That’s a big freedom lost.

The Political Psychology of Solidarity

A sense of solidarity is far more prevalent in much of Europe than it is in the Land of the Free. In a New York Times article titled “For the French, Solidarity Still Counts”  (by Youseff M. Ibrahim, Dec. 20, 1995), the author describes public reaction in France to a three-week strike by public workers supported by “hundreds of thousands of demonstrators who filled the streets of every major city in France.” Workers were protesting then Prime Minister Juppe’s proposal to slash medical, social welfare and benefit payments. According to the Times:

“Polls showed an astonishing amount of sympathy on the part of those who did not participate in the strike and who suffered the paralysis of mass transit and essential services. Many people explained that they supported the strike because the Government’s austerity programs are stripping layer after layer of subsidies that permitted French families of even the most modest means to sample the cultural and culinary treasures that only the rich can afford.”

One recipient of the social wage was a woman receiving the standard subsidy extended to pregnant women. The subsidy will continue, for each child, until the child reaches 18. Said the woman: “This is the foundation of our Republican system… Equality and fraternity are not mere slogans here. For me the engagement by the state is an expression of solidarity that gives us values… I think most French people want France’s values to be decided by this spirit, not by cold, remote, economic summits that speak of deficits and competition. That was the message of the strikes.”

This past March one million demonstrated across France in protest of proposed cutbacks in the wake of the financial crisis. I am currently living in France for a stretch of time and have witnessed frequent strikes and other expressions of resistance to neoliberal austerity measures. A sad and stark contrast to the sitting-duck posture of so many US workers.

The Times article provides an implicit explanation of why it is that in France and other European countries there is no general resentment of social benefits available, for example, to single mothers, while in the US more than a few working people oppose this kind of support. The Times reports that the subsidy offered to the woman quoted above “is extended to every mother in France regardless of economic or marital status.” In France benefits to single mothers are not regarded as “special treatment” denied to the responsible and hard-working. There is neither social nor psychological soil in which to plant the seeds of resentment, since the single mother is the recipient of a public good available to all mothers.

Fifth and finally: “I just want to make sure every American is covered…I don’t want to wait for that perfect system…” If the president truly wanted to guarantee universal coverage he would not have taken single-payer off the table before discussions began. Whatever is finally settled upon, government will neither negotiate drug prices nor regulate premiums, so we know now that millions will remain uninsured. Obama has known that all along.

Obama rigs the game by characterizing single-payer as “that perfect system”. One of the major weapons in the party-liners’ arsenal is to portray those who believe in greater possibilities as naïve utopians blind to the truism that a “perfect world” is impossible in what William F. Buckley liked to call “this veil of tears”. The logic is fine: since there are no finite limits to the greater possibilities of goodness, and perfection is conceived, as Anselm reminds us, as that greater than which none can be conceived, it follows that perfection is impossile down here. But whoever introduced mumbo-jumbo about perfection in the first place? Isn’t the elimination of a great deal of unnecessary suffering enough? Last I recall, single-payer advocates claim merely (sic) that it is way better than what we are offered. That’s pretty good.

Obama’s case against single-payer frames health-care priorities in the language of atomic individualism. Hence, the range of possible outcomes is determined for the worse before discussion begins. I am suggesting that a good part of our resistance and organizing should consist in reminders that an alternative way of thinking and acting is already on display in some of our common practices, and in already existing benefits won for other populations by aiming at public goods to be achieved by concerted action in solidarity.

Hope that helps.

ALAN NASSER is professor emeritus of Political Economy and Philosophy at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. He can be reached at nassera@evergreen.edu


More articles by:

Alan Nasser is professor emeritus of Political Economy and Philosophy at The Evergreen State College. His website is: www.alannasser.org.  His latest book is Overripe Economy: American Capitalism and the Crisis of Democracy. He can be reached at: nassera@evergreen.edu

Weekend Edition
June 22, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Karl Grossman
Star Wars Redux: Trump’s Space Force
Andrew Levine
Strange Bedfellows
Jeffrey St. Clair
Intolerable Opinions in an Intolerant Time
Paul Street
None of Us are Free, One of Us is Chained
Edward Curtin
Slow Suicide and the Abandonment of the World
Celina Stien-della Croce
The ‘Soft Coup’ and the Attack on the Brazilian People 
James Bovard
Pro-War Media Deserve Slamming, Not Sainthood
Louisa Willcox
My Friend Margot Kidder: Sharing a Love of Dogs, the Wild, and Speaking Truth to Power
David Rosen
Trump’s War on Sex
Mir Alikhan
Trump, North Korea, and the Death of IR Theory
Christopher Jones
Neoliberalism, Pipelines, and Canadian Political Economy
Barbara Nimri Aziz
Why is Tariq Ramadan Imprisoned?
Robert Fantina
MAGA, Trump Style
Linn Washington Jr.
Justice System Abuses Mothers with No Apologies
Martha Rosenberg
Questions About a Popular Antibiotic Class
Ida Audeh
A Watershed Moment in Palestinian History: Interview with Jamal Juma’
Edward Hunt
The Afghan War is Killing More People Than Ever
Geoff Dutton
Electrocuting Oral Tradition
Don Fitz
When Cuban Polyclinics Were Born
Ramzy Baroud
End the Wars to Halt the Refugee Crisis
Ralph Nader
The Unsurpassed Power trip by an Insuperable Control Freak
Lara Merling
The Pain of Puerto Ricans is a Profit Source for Creditors
James Jordan
Struggle and Defiance at Colombia’s Feast of Pestilence
Tamara Pearson
Indifference to a Hellish World
Kathy Kelly
Hungering for Nuclear Disarmament
Jessicah Pierre
Celebrating the End of Slavery, With One Big Asterisk
Rohullah Naderi
The Ever-Shrinking Space for Hazara Ethnic Group
Binoy Kampmark
Leaving the UN Human Rights Council
Nomi Prins 
How Trump’s Trade Wars Could Lead to a Great Depression
Robert Fisk
Can Former Lebanese MP Mustafa Alloush Turn Even the Coldest of Middle Eastern Sceptics into an Optimist?
Franklin Lamb
Could “Tough Love” Salvage Lebanon?
George Ochenski
Why Wild Horse Island is Still Wild
Ann Garrison
Nikki Haley: Damn the UNHRC and the Rest of You Too
Jonah Raskin
What’s Hippie Food? A Culinary Quest for the Real Deal
Raouf Halaby
Give It Up, Ya Mahmoud
Brian Wakamo
We Subsidize the Wrong Kind of Agriculture
Patrick Higgins
Children in Cages Create Glimmers of the Moral Reserve
Patrick Bobilin
What Does Optimism Look Like Now?
Don Qaswa
A Reduction of Economic Warfare and Bombing Might Help 
Robin Carver
Why We Still Need Pride Parades
Jill Richardson
Immigrant Kids are Suffering From Trauma That Will Last for Years
Thomas Mountain
USA’s “Soft” Coup in Ethiopia?
Jim Hightower
Big Oil’s Man in Foreign Policy
Louis Proyect
Civilization and Its Absence
David Yearsley
Midsummer Music Even the Nazis Couldn’t Stamp Out