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Rugged Individualism Is Exactly The Wrong Case for Obamacare (Forbes.com) June 15, 2015

Posted by daviddavenport in Newspaper Columns/Essays, Op/Eds.

President Obama has been heating up the rhetoric about Obamacare as the Supreme Court prepares to announce its decision on whether the whole program might collapse over illegal subsidies.   In a press conference, he meddled in the work of the judicial branch, saying the Court should never have taken the case in the first place.  The next day, he summoned up American rugged individualism in its defense, saying:  “The rugged individualism that defines America has always been bound by a set of shared values; an enduring sense that we are in this together. That America is not a place where we simply ignore the poor or turn away from the sick. It’s a place sustained by the idea that I am my brother’s keeper and I am my sister’s keeper.” I’m sorry, Mr. President, but America’s rugged individual—bounded or not– is the last place to look for defense of federalizing healthcare.

The idea of the rugged individual was captured in historian Frederick Jackson Turner’s “frontier thesis,” explaining how the American character had been developed battling the elements and conquering the territory of the American West.  The first use of the actual expression “rugged individualism” was by Herbert Hoover in his campaign for president in 1928, explaining why the great concentration of federal power built up during World War I should be returned to the people in peacetime.  He contrasted the American system of self-reliance and “rugged individualism” with the European systems of paternalism and socialism.

Yes, it is true that American rugged individualism is often accompanied, even limited, by something else.  But that something else is not federal mandates such as Obamacare.  Perhaps what Obama was aiming for, but missed, was what the French journalist and philosopher Alexis De Tocqueville observed when he visited America, noting that Americans were forever associating and helping one another, whether through churches or civic associations of every shape and form.  Even life on the American frontier involved a lot of collaboration, along with individualism.  But these were voluntary community efforts, a kind of public virtue, not statism.  Efforts by the state—such as Obamacare—are precisely the opposite of individualism.

Beginning with Progressivism and the New Deal, the modern welfare state became the alternative to rugged individualism, and Franklin Roosevelt’s “forgotten man” began to replace the “rugged individual” as the object of federal policy.   The two should ideally live alongside one another, if Washington leaders would allow room for both.  So, for example, even among the excesses of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, there would nevertheless be space for individual and corporate health care policies for rugged individuals, and then the safety net of Medicare created for the forgotten man.

But, alas, Obamacare neither sought nor found a balance between the rugged individual and the forgotten man.  It turned out that if you liked your policy, you probably could not keep it, Mr. Rugged Individual, as millions of policies became “illegal” because they did not cover everything Obamacare insisted upon.  Of course it’s hard to find balance when you ram through a massive overhaul of the health care system on a party-line vote, without a single member of the “other” party voting in favor.  So rather than creating two systems—one a rugged individual’s personal or workplace policy and the other a safety net for the forgotten man—Obamacare created one, large system, essentially federalizing healthcare.   This is not rugged individualism bounded by public virtue—this is a federal takeover, pure and simple.

While there is widespread agreement that individualism is part of the unique character of Americans, policymakers in Washington have been steadily killing it since the New Deal.  It would help if the President understood rugged individualism and then allowed it a place at the policy table, rather than continuing to suppress it in the quest to federalize everything from education to healthcare and the environment.

Link to Forbes.com:  http://www.forbes.com/sites/daviddavenport/2015/06/15/rugged-individualism-is-exactly-the-wrong-case-for-obamacare/

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