This quote, from a widely forwarded article in the (British) Guardian, got me thinking about a picture wider than just health insurance.
In the US, the greatest restriction on personal freedom that I have ever encountered in my own life, or witnessed in the lives of friends, all comes down to health insurance. Creative, innovative, talented people are unable to change jobs because they need the insurance. Small companies collapse because they cannot afford employee insurance. People die because they do not have insurance.
—American expat Bee Lavender, contrasting US health insurance and the NHS
I agree…in part. I actually think it’s bigger than that. From my perspective, living overseas, Americans seem whipsawed by a combination of two things: very poor employment protection (“at will” employment in particular) and the way that health insurance is tied to employment. The government may not be able to restrict your freedom of speech or your pursuit of happiness, but your employer certainly can.
Thus am I a progressive.
Conservatives1 seem to feel that the only real threats to individual liberty are those that have existed since the foundation of the nation (in other words, government malfeasance). While I agree that power-grabs by governments2 are a menace to personal liberty, I don’t think they’re the only one—or even the worst. I think we face additional threats now, and that we need to find appropriate tools to combat them. We need, in short, to progress, because the dangers to our liberty haven’t stood still.
And the emergent danger to personal liberty that I see, the threat of our time? The fundamental imbalance between the individual and the corporation. Corporate power distorts our lives, from DRM and the struggle over net neutrality, through the health insurance/employment trap and all the way to the power of lobbyists and the ownership of news media. What ordinary individual would have the resources to pursue a grievance against a large company? Who could hold his patent or his impolitic truth against one determined to pursue him3?
The two ways to address this imbalance are to limit corporate power and to strengthen the individual. And the tool to use in both of these efforts is government; nothing else has the standing or power to do it. Enforcing antitrust laws, strengthening union protections, and yes, reforming health insurance would all create real improvements in individual liberty. (Unfortunately, the use of government as a tool to enhance liberty is anathema to conservatives, focused as they are on the eighteenth-century threat alone.)
If we lose this health insurance battle—or even if we win it—I’m still a progressive. I’ll still be pushing to right the balance. I expect to work on it all my life.