The Medicare-Isn’t-Government Meme

Help Slate track the spread of this big-lie talking point against health reform.

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Keep your government hands off my Medicare.” It was funny the first two or three times this angry citizen’s cry against health reform got repeated—Medicare, you may have heard, is a government program, and the only way to take the government’s hands off it would be to abolish it—but the joke is starting to wear thin.

The New Republic’s health care blog, The Treatment, points out that during the Hillarycare battle back in 1994, then-Sen. John Breaux, a Louisiana Democrat, was accosted at the airport by an elderly constituent. “Now don’t you let the government get a hold of my Medicare,” she said. Writing in The System, Haynes Johnson and David Broder related Breaux’s criminally disingenuous response: “Oh, no, we won’t let the government touch your Medicare.” In a similar vein, supply-side economist Arthur Laffer recently complained on CNN, “If you like the Post Office and the Department of Motor Vehicles and you think they’re run well, just wait till you see Medicare, Medicaid, and health care done by the government.” (Medicaid is also a government program, financed jointly by federal and state government.) If there is a hell for libertarian poseurs, Laffer has secured himself a berth in it.

The big lie that Medicare isn’t, nor ever should be, financed and regulated by the government, is a nice illustration of Slate founder Michael Kinsley’s hypothesis, articulated in his 1995 book Big Babies, that infantile denial lies at the heart of much contemporary political disaffection. The American people, Kinsley wrote, “make flagrantly incompatible demands—cut my taxes, preserve my benefits, balance the budget—then explode in self-righteous outrage when the politicians fail to deliver.” Although Kinsley conceded that big babyism had been enabled by both conservative and liberal politics, he wrote: “It is conservatives, more than liberals, who stoke the fires of resentment and encourage vast swaths of the electorate to indulge in fantasies of victimization by others.” This is perhaps 1,000 times more true today than it was 14 years ago.

To combat the pernicious and big-babyish meme that Medicare lies beyond government control and must remain so, Slate will keep a running inventory of instances in which people who should know better, like Laffer and Breaux, encourage the public to believe such arrant nonsense. * Perhaps the mere establishment of this inventory will prevent conservative demagogues from adding to it. Perhaps it won’t. If it doesn’t, please notify Slate by e-mailing E-mails should bear the subject line, “Medicare isn’t government” and should provide a link to the source. Past instances (like Breaux’s) are eligible. Deceitful right-wing panderers, beware. We’re listening.

Correction, Aug. 7, 2009: An earlier version of this column referred to “errant nonsense.” This was incorrect (one might even say errant) usage. The author meant “arrant.” (Return to the corrected sentence.)