"You Can Keep Your Plan" And The Liberal Failure Of Moral Imagination

Obama lied, people lost their healthcare!

I want to put forward a more generous interpretation of the “If you like your plan, you can keep your plan” lie. Obviously in the first sense it is a lie, given that the Administration knew plans would be cancelled and pretended otherwise.

But I think there’s a well-intentioned way in which the people who conceived this lie could tell themselves that it wasn’t a lie. People have focused on the second clause “you can keep your plan”, but I think the key is the first clause: “if you like your plan.”

The entire premise of the Affordable Care Act is that the best, most awesomest form of healthcare coverage is comprehensive insurance, with an emphasis on the “comprehensive.”

Most of the plans that are getting cancelled are of the “non-comprehensive” variety (although many of them are far from the stingy, just-catastrophic, doesn’t-really-cover-anything picture of liberal propaganda). I think there’s a certain sort of White House who thought that if someone had a non-comprehensive plan, surely that person couldn’t possibly like it. And so, sure, that person’s plan would get cancelled, but the promise of “If you like your plan, you can keep your plan” would be fulfilled.

Of course, the reality is much different. There are a lot of people who really did like those non-comprehensive plans. Some of them are outraged because they have to pay more for the new plans replacing the old plans, perhaps because they’re just above the cutoff for subsidies under the ACA, and so the new status quo is a bad financial deal for them. But some of them are outraged because they don’t want comprehensive insurance. They understand that comprehensive insurance is, well, comprehensive, but that’s something they’re not interested in. Maybe they like the, ah, freedom, and control, of not having to go through an insurer for routine medical procedures. Maybe they object philosophically. Maybe they’re hubristic “Invincibles.” Whatever!

The point is that there was a failure, here, of what I can only call moral imagination. Of putting yourself in another person’s shoes. Clearly, judging by the liberal indignation since the ACA’s unraveling that no, you don’t understand, this really is better for you, a lot of the supporters of the law just cannot imagine that other people might want different things for their healthcare needs than what the law says they should have.

I found it interesting because it not only speaks to the progressive’s lack of humility in the face of complexity, but also to a certain lack of empathy. And this is interesting to me, because I happen to think, because of Christian premises, that empathy is the first and most important political virtue.

Now, this points to a contradiction, because, in a Haidtian sense, progressives as a group tend to be more empathetic than conservatives. But there is a certain kind of progressive empathy (not the only kind! But a certain kind, often present), which I can only characterize as a false empathy, because it oversimplifies the object of the empathy.

To take a grossly oversimplified example: no, actually, what poor people need isn’t just a handout, and a check. Poor people are, first, people, and they have all sorts of needs and emphases and their lives are complex, and they also need things like dignity, the self-realization and self-actualization that often comes from work, the fulfillment that comes from building a stable family, etc. In this sense, the drive that views in increased social spending a simple and obvious poverty cure is, while animated by a feeling of empathy, no real empathy at all. It can be more of a kind of “let them eat cake” moment. It can be. Which, of course, leads to frustration in some people when opposition to increased social spending is seen as a moral litmus test, and evidence of a lack of empathy.

Of course, none of what I’m saying is original.