You just want to be happy

Today Robert Samuelson, mustachioed captain bringdown of the Washington Post op-ed page, meditates on the obvious fact that people who think they're right about something feel good about being right.  The only thing is that he mistakes this for some kind of profound discovery.  He writes:

Obama's approach was politically necessary. On a simple calculus of benefits, his proposal would have failed. Perhaps 32 million Americans will receive insurance coverage — about 10 percent of the population. Other provisions add somewhat to total beneficiaries. Still, for most Americans, the bill won't do much. It may impose costs: higher taxes, longer waits for appointments. [argument please–eds]

People backed it because they thought it was "the right thing"; it made them feel good about themselves. What they got from the political process are what I call "psychic benefits." Economic benefits aim to make people richer. Psychic benefits strive to make them feel morally upright and superior. But this emphasis often obscures practical realities and qualifications. For example: The uninsured already receive substantial medical care, and it's unclear how much insurance will improve their health. [WTF? –eds.]

Purging moral questions from politics is both impossible and undesirable. But today's tendency to turn every contentious issue into a moral confrontation is divisive. One way of fortifying people's self-esteem is praising them as smart, public-spirited and virtuous. But an easier way is to portray the "other side" as scum: The more scummy "they" are, the more superior "we" are. This logic governs the political conversation of left and right, especially talk radio, cable channels and the blogosphere. [Or it's even easier to portray them as having ulterior psychological motivations about feeling good about themselves-eds.]

I think a country as rich as ours ought to be able to provide health insurance for everyone.  I think this for moral reasons and practical ones.  On the practical front, the total costs, I think, of our current system outweigh the benefits.  The new bill, by the way, wasn't just about the uninsured (and really Samuelson ought to know this)–it was about reforming the insurance you already have (which in many cases barely qualifies as "insurance").  Now, thankfully, if Samuelson develops a new condition–mustache cancer for instance–he can't be "rescinded" (that was the idea, anyway) by his insurance company just because he's sick.  If his kid has a preexisting condition, the Post's insurance policy can't not cover him.  Well, that's the idea anyway. 

Does it make me feel good about myself to have supported such a position?  Maybe.  Did I think it was the correct position to take?  Yes.  That feeling–feeling good about having the right position–is a consequence of my thinking I have the right position, rather than the cause of it. 

But in any case, I think we can all assume for the sake of argument that everyone always wants to feel good about himself.  We can also assume that people want to feel good about themselves for good reason.  The relevant question here is whether people who supported (or opposed) HCR have good reason to feel good about themselves. 

Maybe they do, maybe they don't. 

4 thoughts on “You just want to be happy”

  1. If people chose their HCR positions on the basis of feeling good about themselves we would have universal coverage.

  2. Why does it matter if you feel happy about a reform, or view it as a bitter but necessary pill, if you believe it was good public policy? Has he voiced similar criticism of the triumphalism or self-professed moral superiority of various Iraq war proponents? I suspect that he's a bit miffed that "his side" lost the healthcare reform debate, and he sees gloating behind every happy face he sees on a reform proponent.

  3. I have no idea what Robert's main point is here. What's wrong with being right and feeling good about being right? I'm with John. One can make an argument against the bill and state it will not achieve what it proposes to do: increase coverage, cut cost and get better quality. However, this silly argument it's just that silly.
    On a related note, the White House has done a poor job of selling this bill to the public. Maybe Obama should hire the people that ran his campaign.
    "The latest CBS News Poll finds Americans are concerned about health care and the economy. The public is increasingly skeptical of the health care reform bill signed into law last week. More Americans now disapprove of the legislation, and many expect their costs to rise and the quality of their care to worsen; few expect the reforms to help them." (

  4. This just seems to be another way to frame the "Democrats are arrogant and smug" meme that Republicans have passed around for decades.  

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