Reforming the Reform
After the Hobby Lobby case, do liberals still want to put government in charge of everything?

Hope springs eternal? (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)


Kevin D. Williamson

So, liberal friends and neighbors, how’s everybody liking their one-size-fits-all, federally dominated model of health care this week? A wee bit less than you were liking it Monday morning, I’d wager. I understand, completely: Most of my problems are of my own making, too, so no judgment, no gloating, no schadenfreude (okay, maybe just a taste — dang, that felt good!), because I understand how these mistakes get made. You’re naturally inclined to want to put government in charge of everything because you forget — wishful thinking, maybe? — that there are a whole lot of us knuckle-dragging right-wingers in the world, and, every now and then, we’re going to win one.

I’m trying to be charitable, here, but I really can’t see how you keep failing to learn that lesson. I remember the presidency of George W. Bush, which wasn’t that long ago, and you people went macadamias-and-almonds over a few signing statements. But then — poof! — you decided that the president could unilaterally amend federal legislation on the fly, set aside great swaths of it, and effectively have Congress deputize him to fill in the blanks on a half-finished piece of legislation passed in a frenzy. Now that that precedent has been established, I invite you to think of a Republican president in 2017 named Rick; you can pick your own surname, but I guarantee that you will not think of one that’s going to make you happy.

In the wake of the Hobby Lobby case, suddenly liberals are wising up to the fact that it’s kind of stupid to have your health insurance tied to your employer who may — get this — have a whole different set of financial incentives and values than you yourself have. That’s not just obvious — it’s John McCain obvious. I myself like Sarah Palin, but I know how you guys feel about her, so sit down for a minute and quietly chew over the fact that the guy who put Sarah Palin on the 2008 Republican ticket figured out that employer-based health insurance was a bad idea a long time before it started dawning on you guys.

And even though it’s slightly salt-in-the-wound for me to point it out, we have employer-based health insurance because of you geniuses. Like a great deal of what’s wrong with American public policy, this largely goes back to the 1930s, the New Deal, and FDR’s update of Wilson’s “war socialism.” Short version: The federal government enacted wage controls, but employers still had to compete over the best employees, so they figured out ways to pay them that would get around the wage controls, and what they came up with was what used to be known as the “fringe benefit,” which today mainly takes the form of health insurance. You guys kind of liked this; “corporation” had not yet become a synonym for “villain” in the progressive vocabulary, and Italian-style corporatism was very much in fashion among progressives, even after Benito Mussolini had gone out of style. Using the private sector to implement public policy must have seemed like a stroke of genius — the welfare state was still a pretty hard sell in 1935. Social Security, with its “teeny-weeny bit of socialism,” was disguised as an insurance program, and that worked spectacularly: It passed the House with 372 yeas, 33 nays, and two present votes.

When businesses started making health insurance available to full-time employees and their families, progressives saw this as a chance to achieve de facto the national health-care program that they could not pass de jure. A combination of incentives, union contracts, and regulations made employer plans nearly universal: By 1979, 97 percent of full-time workers were offered health insurance by their employers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But the realities of supply and demand, along with a great deal of (not pointing any fingers!) stupid regulation, sent prices up. Employers passed on some of those higher costs to employees, and participation went down — down to 83 percent by 1991. That, despite the creation of the HMO — another beloved, beloved progressive health-care reform — under the leadership of Teddy Kennedy in 1973.  

So, naturally, if a lot of mostly voluntary participation is a good thing, then universal and mandatory participation is an excellent thing, thus the Affordable Care Act’s employer mandate. But progressives are so used to getting their way in court that they sometimes forget that there are other laws, and that some of them, such as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, passed by a near-unanimous Congress and signed into law by Bill Clinton, are pretty plain. It’s hard to see how anybody familiar with both the English language and the text of the RFRA could have been surprised by the Hobby Lobby decision, but the Left was deliciously unhinged to such an extent that conservatives could very well have whiled away the afternoon mixing martinis out of their tears. (If that were the sort of people we were.) (Come to think of it . . . )