Freedom is all about "taking your own risks," physician and… (Win McNamee / Getty Images )
The French Revolution had Marie Antoinette reportedly urging the masses starved for bread to eat cake instead. Now progressive circles are jeering over an exchange involving Rep. Ron Paul that they say shows that conservatives are unwilling to use society’s power to treat sick Americans and would rather let them die instead.
The confrontation took place Monday night at the CNN/Tea Party debate among the Republican contenders for the nomination to face President Obama in 2012. At the center was Paul, a Texas congressman and libertarian icon. In many ways, it has been Paul who helped define the “tea party” movement, by pushing limited government, more spending cuts and mistrust of central institutions such as the Federal Reserve.
Healthcare, and the role of a strong central government in providing it, is one of the key issues separating the GOP, which opposes Obama’s healthcare insurance overhaul. So it was no accident that the issue became part of the debate as host Wolf Blitzer posed a hypothetical to Paul, who is also a physician.
“A healthy, 30-year-old young man has a good job, makes a good living, but decides: You know what? I'm not going to spend 200 or 300 dollars a month for health insurance, because I'm healthy; I don't need it,” Blitzer said. “But you know, something terrible happens; all of a sudden, he needs it. Who's going to pay for it, if he goes into a coma, for example? Who pays for that?
“In a society that you accept welfarism and socialism, he expects the government to take care of him,” Paul replied. Blitzer asked what Paul would prefer to having government deal with the sick man.
“What he should do is whatever he wants to do, and assume responsibility for himself,” Paul said. ”My advice to him would have a major medical policy, but not before —"
“But he doesn't have that,” Blitzer said. “He doesn't have it and he's — and he needs — he needs intensive care for six months. Who pays?”
“That's what freedom is all about: taking your own risks.,” Paul said, repeating the standard libertarian view as some in the audience cheered.
“But congressman, are you saying that society should just let him die,” Blitzer asked.
“Yeah,” came the shout from the audience. That affirmative was repeated at least three times. Paul, who has always had a reputation for being a charitable man, disagreed with the idea that sick people should die, but insisted that the answer to the healthcare problem was not a large government.
“I practiced medicine before we had Medicaid, in the early 1960s when I got out of medical school,” Paul said. “I practiced at Santa Rosa Hospital in San Antonio. And the churches took care of them. We never turned anybody away from the hospitals. And we've given up on this whole concept that we might take care of ourselves and assume responsibility for ourselves, our neighbors, our friends; our churches would do it. This whole idea — that's the reason the cost is so high. The cost is so high because we dump it on the government. It becomes a bureaucracy. It becomes special interests. It kowtows to the insurance companies, then the drug companies.”
Still, that some in the audience were willing to let people die became a symptom of the conservatives’ disregard for people, at least as far as progressives are concerned.
“Last night we got a disturbing view into the tea party’s extreme right-wing position on healthcare when members of the audience clapped and cheered the idea of letting someone without health insurance die,” Eddie Vale, communications director for the group Protect Your Care said in an e-mail. “Even worse, none of the Republican candidates on stage expressed a word of disapproval as the tea party audience literally clapped for blood. This was a spectacle one would have expected back in the gladiatorial combat of ancient Rome, not at a presidential debate.”
According to census data released Tuesday, the number of Americans with no health insurance rose slightly in 2010 to 49.9 million from 49 million the year before. About 1.5 million fewer Americans were covered by employer-sponsored health insurance plans, while the number of people covered by government health insurance increased by nearly 2 million.
There is some dispute as to whether the French queen ever uttered her famous, “Let them eat cake,” retort. But that was before modern technology. Here is the exchange from Monday night: