Henry Fairlie's sound advice on health care reform.

Gossip, speculation, and scuttlebutt about politics.
June 19 2009 3:36 PM

Henry Fairlie, Health Maven

From Grub Street, unexpectedly wise words about reforming health care.

Click here for a guide to following the health care reform story online.

I never expected to receive sound advice about health care from Henry Fairlie. I knew Henry a little during the 1980s. He was a writer of elegant and somewhat cantankerous political essays for the New Republic, where I contributed pieces that were less elegant and less seasoned by human experience (of which I had none). Lately I've been reading the just-published Bite the Hand That Feeds You: Essays and Provocations, an engrossing anthology of Fairlie's best essays, edited by Jeremy McCarter.

Bite the Hand That Feeds You: Essays and Provocations

That Henry would have anything to offer to the current health reform debate is a surprise for three reasons:

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1)    He died in 1990, one month after his 66th birthday (coincidentally, my 32nd, though the one time I mentioned this shared bond, he silenced me with a look of irritated bafflement that we might possibly have anything in common).

2)    Henry's personal health was a disaster. Born with a cardiac defect ("I have a hole in my heart," he liked to say), he drank like a fish, smoked like a chimney, and in general indulged in behavior, as McCarter puts it in his introduction, that stood out "even in the louche world of Fleet Street" whence he came. Fairlie's fellow Briton (my Slate colleague) Christopher Hitchens wrote in a June 12 New York Times book review, "The word 'raffish' might have been coined for him," a judgment whose authority commands deference. (Christopher is sufficiently raffish that Vanity Fair achieved high comedy two years ago merely by sending him to a spa, but compared with Henry, he's Charles Atlas.)

3) Henry was a Tory, which is generally taken to mean a conservative.

Fairlie clarifies this last point in "In Defense of Big Government," a stirring and clear-headed essay the New Republic published in 1976 that I'd not previously read:

The characteristics of the Tory, which separate him from the conservative, may briefly be summarized: 1.) his almost passionate belief in strong central government, which has of course always been the symbolic importance to him of the monarchy; 2.) his detestation of "capitalism," of what Cardinal Newman and T.S. Eliot called "usury," of which he himself calls "trade"; and 3.) his trust in the ultimate good sense of the People, whom he capitalizes in this way, because the People are a real entity to him, beyond social and economic divisions, and whom he believes can be appealed to, and relied on, as the final repository of decency in a free nation. The King and the People, against the barons and the capitalists, is the motto of the Tory.

This description puts Tories well to the left of today's Democratic Party, particularly when it comes to health reform. Ezra Klein, the Washington Post's resourceful blogger on this and other economic topics, has posted an outline of the latest (tentative) iteration of the Senate finance committee's health care proposal. It appears designed to achieve two contradictory goals: to lower the bill's cost and to reassure the insurance lobby. These are achieved at the expense of extending and improving Americans' access to health care, which some might say is the whole point of passing a reform bill.

As Robert Pear reports in the New York Times, the Congressional Budget Office's latest 10-year cost estimate (well over the $1 trillion price tag President Obama envisions) scared the finance committee half to death, and now Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., has delayed introduction of its bill and begun frantically scaling it back. The public option, i.e., creation of a new government health insurer to compete with private insurers, is gone, at least for now. In its place is a publicly chartered health cooperative, proposed by Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., that would lack the clout necessary to bring health costs down to the point where coverage could be extended in any meaningful way to the uninsured and the underinsured. (Berkeley political scientist Jacob Hacker, who devised the public option, explains why Conrad's idea is a poor substitute here.)

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