Many of the pundits attacking government health insurance rely on government health insurance for their own families.

Commentary about business and finance.
Aug. 19 2009 9:46 AM

Health Care Hypocrisy

Many of the pundits attacking government health insurance rely on government health insurance for their own families.

Dick Armey. Click image to expand.
Dick Armey

You have to give Whole Foods CEO John Mackey credit for having the courage of his convictions. Last week, the libertarian penned an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal arguing that national health care was a step toward socialism and advocating a series of alternative steps—including healthier eating and high-deductible insurance policies of the type that Whole Foods employees are offered. A Whole Foods spokeswoman told me that Mackey "participates in the same plan that is offered to all of our Whole Foods Market team members," which includes a "combination of high-deductible health insurance and a Personal Wellness Account." (Whole Foods pays the premium for full-timers' health insurance and puts up to $1,800 into the savings accounts.) In Mackey's case, what's good for the free-range goose is good for the free-range gander.

The same can't be said for the legions of people you hear on television, or read in the op-ed pages, or chat with at weekend barbecues, raging about taxpayer-funded health care as an unworkable, inefficient, Orwellian evil.

This is a something of a Churchillian moment. Never before have so many known so little about so much. The meme that my Slate colleague Timothy Noah has been tracking about Medicare not being a government program has two sources: ignorance and mendacity. Some people may really not know that Medicare is taxpayer-funded health care. That's ignorance. Many more people know it—and know the degree to which taxpayers are already funding lots of health care for them and their loved ones—and argue otherwise. That's mendacity.

As we've noted before, if you add the failure of employer-linked health care with Medicare, Medicaid, government employment, and the military, a huge chunk of Americans already have taxpayer-funded health care. It's a diverse lot. Rich old people and poor kids, university professors, congressmen, teachers, DMV clerks and their families. Pretty much everybody you see on CNBC yelling about socialism? Their parents and grandparents (if they're still living) get taxpayer-funded health insurance. Mine do. Charles Grassley, the septuagenarian Iowan who is doing his darnedest to torpedo meaningful health care form, has it. Arthur Laffer, the 69-year-old economist who went on television and suggested that Medicare isn't a government health care program, is eligible for Medicare. Dick Armey, who spent many years teaching at a state university and served several terms in Congress, has had taxpayer-funded health insurance for much of his adult life. Same for Rudy Giuliani and Newt Gingrich. Democratic senators like Max Baucus, Kent Conrad, and Ben Nelson? Yes, yes, and yes. Law professors at the University of Tennessee have it. The employees of George Mason University, which houses the free-market Mercatus Center, do, too. Policy analyst Betsy McCaughey, currently reprising her 1990s role of health care bamboozler, will be eligible for it in a few years' time.

Obvious? Yes. But it's still worth pointing out. All these people rely on—or have relied on—the government to pick up the tab for their health care and for their health insurance. And that hasn't caused euthanasia or the abolition of private property. Funny how you don't hear any complaints from worthies about taxpayer-funded health insurance when it's covering them, their staffs, and their loved ones. For many of these people, especially the older ones, there literally is no affordable alternative. Insurance companies prefer to insure healthy people, not sick people—that's how they make money. And older people are more likely to run into health trouble requiring expensive care. Dick Armey, who is suing to get out from under the tyranny of Medicare, is apparently under the illusion that insurance companies are really eager to cover 69-year-old men at a low cost. House Minority Leader John Boehner is a 59-year-old smoker whose skin has an orange hue. What do you think Aetna would charge him per month for a good policy?

After the stock-research scandals of the 1990s, analysts were required to disclose whether they or their families owned stock in the companies they were talking about. That has since emerged as a key gauge of credibility. I'd like to see something similar for the health care debate. Before they weigh in on the prospects for health care reform, interview subjects—pundits, talking heads, policy wonks, editors, members of Congress—would have to disclose whether they or their family members rely on taxpayer-funded health insurance.

Such a disclosure might eat into valuable airtime. But it would clarify the debate. We're witnessing a conversation between various people who are dependent on taxpayer-funded health insurance telling the public why tens of millions of people shouldn't have access to it. Most of the opponents of universal health care don't really think the public provision of health insurance services is immoral, evil, or socialistic—after all, they'd be at risk of bankruptcy without it. And most aren't opposed to deficit spending as a matter of principle. (How do they think we're paying for the Medicare prescription drug entitlement the Republicans rammed through a few years ago?) In effect, they believe that taxpayer-funded health insurance is appropriate and crucial for some people—themselves, their staffs, their parents—but not for others; that some are entitled to it, and that others simply aren't. In Washington, unlike at Whole Foods, they want us to believe that what's good for the goose will poison the gander.

Daniel Gross is a longtime Slate contributor. His most recent book is Better, Stronger, Faster . Follow him on Twitter.