Our Health Care Mess Is a Symptom of a Much Bigger Problem

Just in case you’ve missed it, there has been a lot of debate recently about reforming our nation’s health care system. The president and his allies in Congress have told us they have just the ticket to fix our problems: a plan that creates a new federal government insurance company and pays for it by raising taxes on just about everyone and cutting nearly $500 billion from Medicare.
Their plan takes an unsustainable mountain of government debt, bureaucracy and spending, then bulldozes a new mountain of bureaucracy and debt right on top of it.

But for all of the mind-boggling complexity and numbers we’ve heard, this debate is about much more than health care. It’s about how we find ourselves in a situation where we are debating the best way to give the government control over another big part of our lives and our economy.

In the story of Hansel and Gretel, the children drop a trail of breadcrumbs as they walk through the forest, so they will be able to find their way home again. But when birds eat the breadcrumbs, the children find they are lost in the dark and frightening woods.

Well, lost in the woods is exactly where we find ourselves as a country right now. We know we’re in trouble, but there’s no clearly marked path to get us back to where we were, and it’s plenty frightening.

In the past year alone, government has taken over two automakers, insurance companies and hundreds of banks. It has bailed out Wall Street and attempted to stimulate the economy by taking a trillion dollars out of the private sector and spending it on wasteful government programs. It has thrown taxpayer money at people to encourage them to buy new cars and houses, and it is looking at imposing massive new job-killing taxes on businesses in the name of reducing “global warming.”

All of these things have happened because we’ve stopped asking, “Should government attempt to solve this problem?” Instead, we start by asking, “How should government fix the problem?” It’s now considered a sign of admirable restraint to occasionally ask, “How much should we spend?” And somehow we started thinking that anything less than a trillion dollars is a bargain.

This matters not just because of our unsustainable debt and the huge amounts of money we waste. It matters because every time we give a job to the government, we take away some control that people have over their lives, and we take away a little bit more of their freedom. In return for letting government try its hand at solving a problem, we as citizens cede our ability to try for ourselves to find a better way.

It’s awkward to admit it, but my colleagues in Congress have led this country into the woods despite our oath of office. We swore to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States and to bear true faith and allegiance to it. The Constitution prescribes a very limited role for the federal government. There is not a word in our oath, or in the Constitution, about most of what we do. As we’ve wandered off the path of liberty, there are few crumbs left of the Constitution in the halls of Congress to lead us out of the woods.

There’s not a word in the Constitution about the government deciding what medical tests private health insurers should pay for. Nothing about the government deciding how much executives on Wall Street should earn, or what kind of light bulbs and cars we should buy. There’s nothing about the thousands of parochial earmarks that fund local bridges to nowhere, golf courses, bike paths, sewer plants, and tea pot museums.

There’s nothing about these or many other things in the Constitution because they have nothing to do with the proper role of a federal government in a free society. But these are exactly the kinds of things our government spends its time and money on, and we don’t even question anymore why that is.

Instead, it’s gotten to the point where if we oppose the government doing anything, we are accused of being opposed to getting it done. That’s patently absurd. If you really want to get something done, and done the right way, the government is the absolute last place we should turn.
The tea parties, town halls and rallies affirm the American people are rethinking the appropriate role of the government in a free society. Hopefully, their discontent will be demonstrated in the 2010 elections. Only the American people can hold our elected federal representatives accountable for fulfilling their oath of office.

In the health care debate, this means deciding exactly what role the government should play to help people and the private sector find solutions, instead of creating a monstrous new bureaucracy that puts the government in charge of every decision. But this debate is about much more than health care. It is a battle for the heart and soul of America. It is a struggle between freedom and socialism, between free markets and a centrally planned economy, and between “We the People” and an entrenched class of elite politicians.

The current debate over health care reform is a symptom of a bigger problem in Washington. But it can be the catalyst for a wider debate about the proper role of government in our lives. The same debate can lead us to a moment when Americans finally take a stand to return government to its proper place -- and we all start to find our way out of the woods.

Jim DeMint is a U.S. Senator from South Carolina and chairman of the Senate Steering Committee.