Winners Take AllDecember 6th, 2009

Life in these United States is a zero-sum game. Your gain is my loss in most transactions. People recognize this, and that awareness may be the cause of our current paralysis. Consider the resistance to national health insurance.

The people who have access to health care have been sitting pretty for a good long time. Many have grown accustomed to empty waiting rooms and prompt access to care. So-called “Cadillac” plans could continue to offer such privileges, but the health care “haves” would, with universal insurance, suddenly be forced to share medical resources with tens of millions of additional patients.

And so it’s not the high cost of national health insurance that’s scaring the insured population. It’s that the costs, paid for through premiums, would be so low that millions of new people would suddenly be allotted a share of scarce health care resources.

A just and enlightened nation would design a practical health care system and execute it. The people would enact laws to ensure a sufficient supply of medical people and materiel and the means to finance a universal system. The beneficiaries of the system being replaced would be provided for.

But not here. In the USA, we let the markets decide what sort of life we lead, and the health care markets are working adequately for a heck of a lot of people. Those people simply aren’t ready to give up their privileges. Put yourself in their place. It may be that some of the insured crowd would be willing to share with the have-nots if they believed everybody would get a fair deal, but nobody believes that, because it almost never happens in 21st Century America.

Instead of fairness, we’re forced to rely on self-interest, and it’s dog-eat-dog under that regime. If you’re not a winner, you’re a loser, and this prospect seems to have changed us. For instance, most Americans—if we can credit the political acumen of our president—are now content to sacrifice young lives in foreign combat in the superstitious belief that this will somehow preserve them and their families. And polls tell us that, for the first time in our history, most Americans now believe torture can be justified if it saves innocent life. It’s a brutal ethic that allows us to see things this way—one that works only in fiction, as history attests—but we seem ready to embrace it. Because life in these United States is a zero-sum game.