Letters + Opinion » The Town Dandy

Dreaming of San Salvador

By Hank Sims



One day, years ago, when Clinton was president, Congress passed a bill mandating that all specimens of a particular hardware item sold in the United States -- doorknobs, maybe, or electrical fixtures -- had to be stamped with their country of manufacture. For the sake of this parable, let's say it was electrical fixtures.

In the town I was living in at the time, there was one guy who was perennially in a state of frothing anger at the federal government. Very quickly he seized upon the Electrical Fixture Point of Origin Act of 1995 as the most damning piece of evidence in his eternal case against Washington. Bureaucracy run amok! Outrageous interference with the free market! A whole new wave of government bean-counters employed and stationed at ports of entry, examining each and every imported fixture for the precious little stamp!

I happened to see a contradiction in his position, so I put it to him. Look, I said, the evil ideology of statism threatens to swallow America at any moment. We must all be vigilant. I think you would agree. Given that, don't you feel better knowing that you're not going to be taken by surprise at your next visit to Mendo Mill? Don't you want the option of buying an electrical fixture you know was made in El Salvador, or Indonesia, or Zaire, or some other country that has fully embraced the principles of capitalism? Do you really want to run the risk of accidentally sending your hard-earned dollars to socialist strongholds like Sweden or Canada?

To my surprise, this fellow admitted that I had a point. His fixture-related rage ended that day, and he quietly moved on to other subjects.

Times have changed. Back then just about every town had one of those guys. Even though they lived near the edge of some kind of metaphysical cliff, they were passionate about policy. They'd talk with you and they'd listen, even if their ears were deaf to irony. Now, though, every town has hundreds of those guys, and they have their own Web sites and newspapers and radio networks and cable news channels. They have noisy membership in the House of Representatives and a full-fledged Howard Beale clone leading the charge.

But it's strange how well the choices I set before my townsman back in the day have held up. Then as now, nothing terrorizes this particular conscience quite so much as European-style social democracy. Why should this be so? To some degree or another, the entire developed world has settled upon it as an imperfect if functional solution to problems facing the commonweal. And yet not only is a standard-issue national health care system impossible in the United States -- or so we are told from on high -- to many, apparently, any sort of government intervention to rationally supply medical care to 43 million uninsured citizens, or the half again as many with inadequate insurance, is tantamount to treason.

If Norway and Denmark and Japan are unacceptable models, what are the alternatives? In these quarters, there is a quasi-totemic belief in the power and infallibility of the free market. Logically, that belief should have been somewhat tempered by now -- most recently by the Wall Street meltdown a year ago -- but it has not. So the astronomical costs of health insurance, the growing number of uninsured, and the relatively poor health care we receive for our astounding expenditures are all leading us in the direction that my hotheaded friend in Willits preferred all those years ago. As in any country of what used to be called the Third World, medical care is very soon going to be only for the rich. And there are not-rich people who apparently prefer it this way. On ideological grounds.

Our political discourse is following suit. "The conservative movement is herking and jerking like a zombie, dedicated to little more than frenetic gestures execrating Obama, and to regaining power," wrote conservative Dallas Morning News columnist Rod Dreher last week. "To what end? Given that they're birthing a conservative party whose instincts are dictated by loudmouths, reactionaries and crackpots, and overseen by cynics, it's dispiriting to contemplate."

Which is why we were so pleased to find a principled man like Ron Ross to hold up the anti-reform side in this week's issue. It is possible to pick apart his argument, to agree or disagree with his position based on the available evidence. He aims at the head, not the bowels. The most lasting pity of all, in this piteous national debate, may well be that voices such as his are the ones that are being quickly drowned out.

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