By John Cassidy
March 24, 2017
Let the recriminations begin! Actually, the health-care-failure finger-pointing got under way well before Friday, when Donald Trump and Paul Ryan cancelled a House vote on the American Health Care Act. A day earlier, aides to the President let it be known that he had come to regret going along with Ryan’s idea of making health care his first legislative priority.
In the coming days and weeks, there will be more of this blame shifting, and, in truth, there is plenty of blame to go around. Ryan failed to unify the House Republican caucus. Trump’s staff allowed him to endorse a bill that made a mockery of his campaign pledge to provide health insurance for everybody. And Trump himself blundered into a political fiasco, apparently believing he could win over recalcitrant Republican members of Congress simply by popping over to Capitol Hill.
But this is just politics. The larger lesson here is that conservatism failed and social democracy won. After seven years of fulminating against the Affordable Care Act and promising to replace it with a more free-market-oriented alternative, the House Republicans—who are in the vanguard of the modern conservative movement—failed to come up with a workable and politically viable proposal. Obamacare survived, and that shouldn’t be so surprising. When it comes to health-care policy, there is no workable or politically viable conservative alternative.
Of course, that isn’t how conservative lawmakers, pundits, and policy wonks will spin this. They will argue that Trump and Ryan betrayed free-market principles: if only they had proposed the outright repeal of Obamacare, and put forward a bill that genuinely liberated the health-care industry from federal intervention, everything would have worked out well. That will be the story—and it is a fairy tale.
The fact is that the health-care industry, which makes up about a sixth of the American economy, isn’t like the market for apples or iPhones. For a number of reasons (which economists understand pretty well), it is riven with problems. Serious illnesses can be enormously costly to treat; people don’t know when they will get ill; the buyers of health insurance know more about their health than the sellers; and insurers have a strong incentive to avoid providing their product to the sick people who need it the most.
Since the days of Otto von Bismarck, most developed countries have dealt with these problems by setting up a system in which the state provides medical insurance directly, or else mandates and subsidizes the purchase of private insurance, setting strict rules for what sorts of policies can be sold. Obamacare amounts to a hybrid model. It supplements employer-provided insurance, the traditional American way of obtaining health care, with a heavily regulated (and subsidized) individual insurance market and an expanded Medicaid system.
It is far from perfect. But, in combining mandates with subsidies, regulation, and access to a state-administered system for the poverty-stricken and low-paid, it is intellectually coherent. (Many of the problems it has encountered arose because the mandate to purchase insurance hasn’t been effectively enforced, and not enough young and healthy individuals have signed up.) Since it leaves in place the basic structure of private insurance and private provision, Obamacare is also conservative. As is well known, parts of it resemble a proposal that the Heritage Foundation put forward in 1992.