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Conservatives and the Fear of Change

September 3, 2009

Nicholas D. Kristof writes:

So almost every country moved to what today’s health insurance lobbyists might label “socialized firefighting.” In effect, we have a single-payer system of public fire departments.

We have the same for policing. If the security guard business were as powerful as the health insurance industry, then it would be denouncing “government takeovers” and “socialized police work.”

Throughout the industrialized world, there are a handful of these areas where governments fill needs better than free markets: fire protection, police work, education, postal service, libraries, health care. The United States goes along with this international trend in every area but one: health care.

The truth is that government, for all its flaws, manages to do some things right, so that today few people doubt the wisdom of public police or firefighters.

Conservatives worry a lot about big government. They also worry about redefining marriage. In both cases, they are worrying about something we, as a country, have already come to accept. It is one thing to say you favor “traditional marriage,” and another to allow for birth control, no-fault divorce, and cohabitation, but draw the line at gay marriage. Similarly, it is one thing to favor “limited government,” and another to argue that government does fire protection, police work, and libraries well, but ought to stay out of health care. (It may, of course, be true that government does not do health care well: still, opponents of health care reform rarely delve into specifics, preferring simply to denounce “big government,” which is meaningless, if you are willing to concede the government does some things well, and other things not so well.)

Most people fear change. For better or worse, we already know what happens when the state allows straight couples to divorce freely. We know the results of a ‘single payer system of public fire departments.’ What really scares people is the unknown: the possibility, however remote, that government might really pull the plug on grandma, or that traditional marriage might at last breathe its dying breath. So long as these scenarios linger in the realm of the possible, cynical politicians and interest groups will continue to exploit them.

Unfortunately for conservatives, fear of change doesn’t often produce intellectually consistent results, as I’ve tried to indicate above. For that, one would have to become a libertarian. Or a liberal.

ENDNOTE: I realize that many conservatives do in fact wish to slash funding for already-existing government programs like Medicare, and privatize as much as possible. When in the post I refer to “conservatives,” I mean people like Michael Steele — people who want to protect programs like Medicare and, at the same time, rail against big government. I am also referring to ordinary Republicans who fail to realize that big government means more than redistributing wealth to the supposedly undeserving poor; it means a host of things that most people already accept as legitimate (public education, postal service, and so on).

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