Wednesday, August 19, 2009

A Question of Trust

Some people just don't trust the government.

That's not really too surprising. What interests me is that different people seem to trust or not trust the government to do certain things or to perform certain tasks. Conservatives, on one hand, seem to trust the executive branch to gather intelligence and to wage war. Liberals, on the other hand, sometimes do not, or at least not as much. When word leaked out that the government was listening in on international phone calls without a warrant (something that is not expressly prohibited by law, unlike domestic phone calls), many people screamed bloody murder about privacy violations. The government said that it was only listening in on known or suspected terrorists, but that wasn't good enough for many. As I said, some people just don't trust the government.

Interestingly, with a change in administration, the political sides' attitudes toward government snooping seem to have reversed. It was conservative Fox News that raised the alarm on the White House spamming people's email accounts, implementing tracking cookies on the White House web site for the first time and asking citizens to report "fishy" emails and other communications about healthcare reform. Liberal pundits couldn't understand what the fuss was about. If it had been the Bush administration doing the same in regards to, say, the Iraq War, things would of course have been different. Trust and distrust in the government seems to have a partisan element. Which is short-sighted. Because it is only a matter of time until the party you don't like is in charge of the government again.

Now the country is politically consumed with the topic of healthcare reform, and the political sides on government trust are reversed on this as well. One can debate the merits of the different voluminous bills working their way through Congress, but the simple fact is that, whatever bill emerges will only set in motion the new system. Many subsequent decisions will be taken up by functionaries and bureaucrats, as new agencies and mechanisms get set up. How it will all ultimately work out to the last detail is a great unknown. The most persuasive arguments by proponents of reform go something like this. A lot of people were scared about Social Security and Medicare when they were first being set up, but they turned okay and are quite popular. And this will turn out okay too, they say. Opponents of reform, at least as it currently seems to be proceeding, talk of spiralling costs, increased government debt, eroding personal choice in medical decisions and "death panels." There is absolutely no 100 percent certain way to know which vision will be closer to the truth. People who want reform are trusting the government to, at the least, not make things worse and, at the best, make things better. People showing up at town meetings and challenging their representatives do not have that trust in the government, at least as far as this particular task is concerned.

Proponents' trust in the worthiness of the undertaking clearly comes from a sincere desire to improve things. The country, they say, should at least try to solve the problems that many people encounter when dealing with the healthcare system. Opponents' distrust appears to stem from suspicions of the intent of the Democrats who control Congress and the White House. And they are correct that the ultimate goal of the strongest supporters of so-called ObamaCare is a single-payer system similar to what exists in Canada and various European countries. Skittish politicians may deny this, but activists are quite up front that this is what they want because, they believe, that would be much better than what we currently have. The president himself, albeit many months ago, has said that single-payer would be his preference.

And why do so many people oppose a single-payer system and, by extension, the bills working their way through Congress? Quite simply, they are afraid that it will make things worse and not better. They may have complaints about their insurance company or their HMO, but they think that, if they have to deal with the federal government, it will be even worse. And there is no way to prove whether they are right or wrong. A change like this involves a leap of faith.

Republicans may be thrilled by all of this because, at the moment, it is helping them politically. But they should be kicking themselves (or we should be kicking them) that they did not implement their own version of health care reform during all those years that they were in charge of Congress and the White House. But they didn't, and now the Democrats, having won big in last November's elections, are having their own go at it. As sure as Republicans are fighting against Democratic healthcare reform, Democrats would have derided Republican reform as inadequate. But a Republican version, if they had actually managed to get their act together, might have been closer to what most people actually want. People want something done about constantly rising medical costs. They want to be free of the fear of losing insurance coverage. And, I believe, most people would like to help people who do not have insurance. Now these are the very things that the president and other proponents of ObamaCare say their plan(s) would fix. But polls show that an increasing number of citizens think that Congress is currently on the road to do much more than just target these specific problems and perhaps bankrupt the country doing it.

In other words, a lot of people right now just don't trust the government.

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