G.K. Chesterton’s Prophetic Look at National Health Care

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ChestertonCommonSense101Dale Ahlquist | 2-20-2012 | American Chesterton Society Blog


G.K. Chesterton considered himself a member of the Liberal Party until 1912. As he would later say, he did not leave the Liberal Party. It left him. He believed in something called liberty, the idea that people should be able to make most decisions for themselves, especially the most basic and most important decisions, and not have such decisions made for them by anyone else, especially by the government. He believed, as a liberal, that the State’s role was to preserve liberty, not take it away.

What happened in 1912? The Liberal Party, which held power in Parliament, passed The Health Insurance Act. Every working man was required to have part of his wages withheld to pay for a national health insurance. The funding was to be further supplemented by a tax on every employer. Sound familiar?

Chesterton’s objections to the Insurance Act were threefold. First, it was anti-democratic in practice. The vast majority of the English population was against it. It was being passed against their will, but—so the argument went—for their own good. Second, it was anti-democratic in principle. It divided the populace into two permanent castes: those who labor, and those who pay for the labor. Chesterton called this what it is: slavery. Third, Chesterton saw the Act as paving the way to the State seizing more power, more influence, more interference in everyone’s daily lives. Sound familiar?

About a century later, here in America, we are looking at essentially the same thing that Chesterton was looking at. We watched as a National Health Care program was passed in utter defiance of public support, rammed through the legislative process by one party rather than by any sort of consensus. We have also watched the reinforcement of a system comprised of employers and employees, of wage-earners rather than independent, self-sufficient and truly “self-employed” citizens. And we have also watched the unimaginable growth of government as it has insinuated itself into every aspect of our lives.

One of Chesterton’s strongest objections to the Insurance Act was the increase in taxes to those who could scarcely afford to have any of their income taken from them, even if it was to be used for something specific like health care. The tax prevented a man from paying for other needs he had that might be just as important as medical care. He was being forced to pay for medical care that he might not need. What other things that he did not need would the State decide he must also pay for?

Chesterton pointed out that a compulsory Health Insurance Act was first passed in Germany. It followed another compulsory act that was also first passed in Germany: compulsory education. Chesterton was a vocal opponent of state-sponsored compulsory education, for the same reasons he was against a national health insurance. It was an attack on freedom. It gave the government too much power, and it took away a basic freedom from the citizen. The liberal argument was that the State was providing a valuable service. Chesterton’s counter-argument was that though the State was providing education, it was the State’s education. Though it was providing medicine, it was a forced medicine. With a compulsory insurance, he argued, people were being forced to pay to be protected against themselves. People are often willing to trade freedom for security. But the problem is that it is usually someone else trading our freedom for our security.

Although Chesterton found himself allied with the conservatives on the issue of health care, he might point out now that one of the reasons we have gotten into the present mess was that health care became an industry, controlled by large corporations rather than independent practitioners, and every industry tends to grow till it forms an alliance with big government. When health care started becoming too expensive, the solution was supposed to be health insurance. But insurance quickly made health care even more expensive. On the one hand, the medical industry stopped worrying about being affordable; on the other, a new layer of private bureaucracy and overhead was added that also needed to be paid for. Is there a solution? Yes. There is one drastic solution.

But sometimes issues of health require drastic measures. The health care system needs radical surgery. The honest thing to do is do away with health insurance. Doctors and hospitals and clinics should start selling a product that people can afford, and that they should not have to buy unless they actually need the product. It should not cost a thousand dollars to treat an ingrown toenail. But it does. It should not cost $30,000 to set a broken arm. But it does. Ours is a system that cannot be sustained. That is why the government feels justified to step in.

Chesterton prophesied this very scenario. He warns that the State cannot become a Universal Provider without becoming just another big shop. The one thing we’ve seen about big shops is that they collapse. We can avoid the big collapse if we start getting small again. We might even get healthy again.

GilbertMagazine—Dale Ahlquist for the editorial board of Gilbert Magazine

*This editorial appeared in the April/May 2010 issue of Gilbert Magazine, which you can read in its entirety right here.