ObamaCare and the "let it burn" theory of socialist collapse

Writing at the Wall Street JournalDaniel Henninger has some advice for ObamaCare opponents: just let it burn until it collapses, taking the entire rotted edifice of socialism with it.

As its Oct. 1 implementation date arrives, ObamaCare is the biggest bet that American liberalism has made in 80 years on its foundational beliefs. This thing called “ObamaCare” carries on its back all the justifications, hopes and dreams of the entitlement state. The chance is at hand to let its political underpinnings collapse, perhaps permanently.

If ObamaCare fails, or seriously falters, the entitlement state will suffer a historic loss of credibility with the American people. It will finally be vulnerable to challenge and fundamental change. But no mere congressional vote can achieve that. Only the American people can kill ObamaCare.

Well, sure, but is it really conservative or Republican “leadership” to let the American people suffer for years, until they finally rise up and demand reform?  “Let it burn” is not easy advice to give to people trapped at the heart of a raging fire.

Also, one of the points I think opponents of Ted Cruz and his filibuster are missing is that quiet, or even somewhat grumpy, acquiescence today fuels charges of hypocrisy during tomorrow’s political battles.  It matters that Republicans can stand up in 2014 or 2016 and invite the public to remember how hard they fought to stop ObamaCare when they had a chance.  It’s not their fault that they didn’t have the Senate votes to succeed.  I wonder if politicians and pundits sometimes forget how strongly such reasonable arguments resonate with average people, who understandably tend to remember only the largest and most dramatic gestures after a few years have passed.

Henninger goes on to offer some examples of the teetering entrenched social programs he thinks are ripe for a fall.  But, by his own admission, we’ve known these programs were insolvent for decades.  The “let it burn” strategy hasn’t gotten us anywhere yet.  How long are we supposed to let the ObamaCare fire burn before we reap some political dividends… especially when we know the inevitable collapse will be worse with every passing year?

Would anyone like to join me in the political graveyard and see if we can locate the remains of a dead-and-gone program that was allowed to collapse?  I’m having a hard time thinking of a significant example, at least at the federal level.  Part of the problem with leaving a government power grab to rot for a few years is that the moral argument against it decomposes as well.  People wonder: “If it’s such a repellent horror, why did you Constitution-loving defenders of liberty agree to go along with it?”

Going back at least to the Breaux-Thomas Medicare Commission in 1999, endless learned bodies have warned that the U.S. entitlement scheme of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid is financially unsupportable. Of Medicare, Rep. Bill Thomas said at the time, “One of the biggest problems is that the government tries to administer 10,000 prices in 3,000 counties, and it gets it wrong most of the time.” But change never comes.

Medicaid is the worst medicine in the United States. It grinds on. Doctors in droves are withdrawing from Medicare. No matter. It all lives on.

An established political idea is like a vampire. Facts, opinions, votes, garlic: Nothing can make it die.

But there is one thing that can kill an established political idea. It will die if the public that embraced it abandons it.

Six months ago, that didn’t seem likely. Now it does.

Does it?  The public hated ObamaCare all through the 2012 election, but Obama still got re-elected.  One reason for this was Mitt Romney’s poor job of rallying dislike for ObamaCare into effective action, a task clearly made more difficult by his resume.  Henninger is asking us to wait for the public to abandon a ship they never really boarded.  They’ve been clubbed into submission with despair and shanghaied aboard.  Their despotic President thunders that it’s the irrevocable “law of the land” – if taken seriously, he’s saying it’s the first law in American history that can never be changed or repealed, a formal writ of execution for the old notion of representative self-government.  We could get rid of the laws that enabled slavery, but we can never be free of ObamaCare.  The President’s minions are telling the public that anyone who resists this law is no better than a terrorist with a bomb strapped to his chest.  (That’s from White House Senior Adviser Dan Pfeiffer, if you’re having trouble keeping your loathsome Obama Administration toads straight.)

The “let it burn” attitude only deepens public despair.  By Henninger’s own analysis, the public has come to accept Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security as inevitable facts of life, no matter how poorly they perform.  Even people who know they’re headed for insolvency accept them.  This is due, in part, to years of social engineering perpetrated by such programs, along with other fiscally irresponsible socialist crusades, such as the “War On Poverty.”  People don’t even seriously think about alternatives to New Deal and Great Society programs.  The ObamaCare commissars will work very hard to ensure that alternatives to it will become unthinkable as well.  They’ve already done a pretty good job of that, haven’t they?

Citing social programs that have endured despite decades of mounting criticism – not to mention doomsday fiscal projections from the agencies that actually run them – is not a convincing argument for applying “let it burn” tactics to ObamaCare.  Maybe it will prove to be a bridge too far for the entitlement state… or maybe it will be folded into the same protective shroud of despairing rhetoric and brute socialist politics as the rest of the system, held together in unison until the whole thing blows up in ten or fifteen years, at which point I still would not be sanguine about the odds of a previously accommodating conservative movement leading America out of the ruins.  Look at the end-stage socialist basket cases of the world.  Do you see a lot of Thomas Jefferson types rising to lead them?

The Left is very good at turning its failures into arguments for even more power; that’s the M.O. of “progressive” philosophy in a nutshell.  Liberty taken is never returned; the State never grows less powerful.  Instead, it uses its power to stigmatize scapegoats for its disasters.  And it’s always got foot soldiers, because even the worst government policies have their captive dependents and ardent supporters.

Henninger dismisses the odds of ObamaCare failure leading to single-payer socialized medicine as “not bloody likely if the aghast U.S. public has any say.”  I wouldn’t count on their having anything to say about it.  A population reshaped by a decade of dependency on ObamaCare – with people well into the previously independent middle class hooked on welfare subsidies, delivered via tax credits – is going to produce a sizable, energetic bloc of voters who will be very receptive to the “evil Republicans want to take your health care away and kill you” argument.  A small, focused, bought-and-paid-for strike force of voters can defeat a larger, unhappy population, especially if the media is lecturing the unhappy that their discontent is immoral.

Henninger’s concluding suggestions are excellent ideas, right up until the last sentence:

Republicans and conservatives, instead of tilting at the defunding windmill, should be working now to present the American people with the policy ideas that will emerge inevitably when ObamaCare’s declines. The system of private insurance exchanges being adopted by the likes of Walgreens suggests a parallel alternative to ObamaCare may be happening already.

If Republicans feel they must “do something” now, they could get behind Sen. David Vitter’s measure to force Congress to enter the burning ObamaCare castle along with the rest of the American people. Come 2017, they can repeal the ruins.

The discrediting of the entitlement state begins next Tuesday. Let it happen.

Hasn’t the long, dreary history of the entitlement state demonstrated that its discrediting is not something that will just “happen?”  I’m all in favor of a full-spectrum assault that highlights ObamaCare as an example of the corrupt dead-end socialist philosophy Henninger criticizes.  But I think we have to launch that assault now, not only because I would spare my countrymen the agony I see coming in the next decade, but because I’m not convinced the terrain is going to become much more favorable for conservative and libertarian reform, during the collapsing window of time in which America still has the strength to change course.  There were doubtless early opponents of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid who wanted to let them burn for a few years, too.

Update: One other point Mr. Henninger raised that I’d like to address: “ObamaCare’s Achilles’ heel is technology.  The software glitches are going to drive people insane.”

Yes, they are, and all of these software problems are inexcusable.  I’ve got a computer background myself, and the notion that these infrastructure issues were not discussed in depth before the Affordable Care Act got rammed through Congress is absurd and pathetic.  Nobody involved in crafting the Peoples’ Glorious Health Care Exchanges realized, until just a few months ago, that the computer systems containing the necessary data were incompatible?  This is the kind of foolishness that puts private-sector operations out of business.  But of course, the government never goes out of business – it just hypnotizes the public with some more dishonest speeches, raises taxes, prints money, and keeps rolling.

But the ObamaCare computer problems will eventually be hammered out.  Every data processing problem can be solved eventually, given enough time and money.  The “let it burn” approach gives them time; tax serfs and deficit unicorns will be squeezed until enough money falls out.  In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the urgent need to fix the train-wreck ObamaCare exchanges was soon cited as an argument against tax and spending cuts, or in favor of tax increases.  “How can you evil Republicans even think about taking away the money our Sainted Middle Class needs to complete work on infrastructure for the Affordable Care Act?”

Once the fires have been extinguished with a blanket of money, all that remains is persuading people to forget about how horrible ObamaCare Launch Day was.  This has been done successfully with numerous glitchy computer hardware and software launches in the past.  I can see Obama or his successor chuckling about it in a few years – “we all remember how many challenges there were at the beginning, but now that the Affordable Care Act system is fully up and running, how can Republicans ask us to discard all the hard work we’ve done?  How can they expect us to throw away these accomplishments?”