By Ashley Menzies
President Obama’s relentless push for health care reform has sparked a bitter debate with protests and angry, sometimes even violent, town hall meetings. While Republicans are in strong opposition to providing a public option for health care, Democrats are divided on the issue. With the intensity of the health care debate growing across the nation, it is important to understand the underlying reason for much of this strident opposition to Obama’s demand for health care reform.
Other nations are puzzled with the intensity of this debate. They are even puzzled by the fact that we are debating the issue at all. Canada, Britain, France, Germany, Japan, Austria, and Belgium have some form of universal health care. Britain and Canada are outraged and baffled by the fact that so many Americans criticize their public health care system. Americans have used the words ‘evil’ and ‘Orwellian’ to describe Britain’s National Health Service. Other developed countries seem to believe public access to health care is a right, while Americans have not reached a general consensus on whether or not it is a right or a privilege. Why is there this discrepancy of attitudes towards universal health care among developed, democratic nations that act as political allies in the international arena?
I believe it is related to the distinct individualism associated with American culture since the founding of this nation. The United States has a unique culture that thrives on rugged individualism, capitalism, and the Protestant work ethic. Much of the welfare system was created during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency when he implemented the New Deal to help struggling citizens recover from the Great Depression. When the country was in desperate economic need, the government stepped in to provide relief. When the country was in wartime, the government stepped in to control several aspects of American life that are not usual for peacetime. Only under specific circumstances has the American government taken control to exercise more power than the individual. Government intervention is not the norm in America. It is only used in certain places during certain times. Many Americans believe that health care is not one of those places for government to get involved in. A privatized system is what citizens know and like best. Stanford alumnus President Herbert Hoover stated in his speech on rugged individualism in 1928, “We were challenged with a … choice between the American system of rugged individualism and a European philosophy of diametrically opposed doctrines of paternalism and state socialism. The acceptance of these ideas would have meant the destruction of self-government through centralization … [and] the undermining of the individual initiative and enterprise through which our people have grown to unparalleled greatness.”
Americans are afraid of this change. While there are many arguments opposing public medical insurance–such as that taxes will be significantly raised, especially on the wealthy, that the health care system will become inefficient, and that a public option will force private insurance companies out of business because employers will opt for the cheaper route–these are surface arguments for an underlying desire to protect America’s individualism and capitalism.