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 Now, thankfully, if Samuelson develops a new condition–mustache cancer for instance–he can't be "rescinded" (that was the idea, anyway) by his insurance company just because he's sick.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.