Monday, April 20, 2009

What a waist!

In an editorial entitled Universal Healthcare and the Waistline Police in the Christian Science Monitor dated January 7, 2009, Paul Hsieh describes a policy in Japan whereby citizens over the age of 40 have their waists measured by the government. If the citizen's waistline is large enough to indicate obesity and its attendent health risks, the citizen is required to undergo dietary counseling. Paul Hsieh finds this policy “nightmarish” and sees it as just the sort of evil that is bound to occur in a government-run health care system. As an advocate of a single-payer government-run health care system (because I have had the benefits of living under several such systems in several Canadian provinces over the course of more than thirty years), I cannot seem to find the Japanese system in any way nightmarish. Indeed, I would heartily welcome such a program in the United States.

The issue that seems to terrify Americans is the prospect of paying money into a system that takes care of people who have not taken care of themselves. People who stay slender resent paying into a system that takes care of obese people. People who exercise regularly resent paying for the health costs of couch potatoes. People who don't drink or smoke resent paying into a system that cares for the health costs of drinkers and smokers. People who oppose abortion are unhappy about paying for legal abortions. Vegetarians do not like having to pay for the medical costs of those who get cancer as a result of eating animal flesh. In a society that loves its fantasies of self-reliance and personal responsibility and especially freedom, the very idea of paying for those who are not blessed with good physical and mental health seems all but intolerable. Why, Americans ask, should I help anyone who does not think and act in exactly the ways I personally approve?

I understand the resistance. As someone in favor of banning all ownership of firearms, I am not happy having to help pay for people who get shot by pistols and rifles. As a pacifist, I do not like having 43% of my tax dollar paying for America's unnecessarily bloated military. During the twenty-five years of my adult life when I did not own or drive a car, I thought it would be nice if my hard-earned money was not paying for those who were injured in traffic accidents and for those who were made sick by air pollution coming from burning fossil fuels. But I also realized that such resistance was petty and selfish. On the balance, I wanted my fellow citizens to be healthy, and I was very happy to pay into a system that helped people retain their health. The more money I earned, the more taxes I paid, and the more I helped support the tax-based health care system, and the more I felt good about doing my share to keep the nation healthy.

Part of keeping health care costs under control is practicing preventive medicine. Taking measures to keep employees healthy makes good sense. At the place where I work there are numerous programs for helping people stop smoking, stop using alcochol, stop taking drugs, get enough exercise, stay slender and keep their blood chemistry within healthy tolerances. I am deeply grateful for those programs. I get my waist measured, and I gladly participate in exercise and diet programs. I would appreciate the programs no less if they were run by the government. (In fact, they are government programs, because my place of work is paid for by the state.)

Those who claim to love freedom but who are unwilling to pay for those who experience the consequences of exercising their freedom show that they do not love the freedom of others. They love only their own freedom. But not to love the freedom of others is not to love freedom at all. The cry of freedom is hollow and meaningless unless it is expressed in the form of helping one's neighbors when they have made their choices.

The Paul Hsieh's of the world have little reason on their side. They appeal to emotional argumentation and other fallacious methods of persuasion. Most of all they appeal to an irrational fear of government. Read his editorial for yourself. If you find anything of value in it, report back to me. A discussion on health care is something the United States of America needs to have. I'm happy to participate in that discussion with anyone who is interested.