Rhetoric of fear behind health care agenda 

“When it is advisable that the audience should be frightened, the orator must make them feel that they really are in danger of something, pointing out that it has happened to others ... like themselves.”
— Aristotle

“By the time I’m finished speaking tonight, more Americans will have lost their health insurance. Millions will lose it this year ... patients will be denied the care they need.”
— President Barack Obama


In his efforts to reorganize the nation’s health care system by giving the federal government power to compel and subsidize insurance, President Barack Obama has faced one bleak obstacle: The vast majority of Americans, while concerned about rising costs, nonetheless consistently report satisfaction with their existing health coverage.

So how do you convince people who are happy with what they have to go along with radical change? Convince them that what they are happy with can be lost at any time, and through no fault of their own.

In other words, scare them.

Politicians have long used fear to muster support for various causes. In his treatise on rhetoric, Aristotle advises on the ways and means of using fear to sway an audience: “Fear is associated with the expectation that something destructive will happen to us, plainly nobody will be afraid who believes nothing can happen to him; we shall not fear things that we believe cannot happen to us.”

And so Obama tells us in his State of the Union address: “I took on health care because of the stories I’ve heard from Americans with pre-existing conditions whose lives depend on getting coverage; patients who’ve been denied coverage; families, even those with insurance, who are just one illness away from financial ruin.”

Implicit warning: It can happen to you. Not to worry: Obama offers “security” with his plan, promising to free us from the paralyzing fear of losing our health insurance.

It’s true that America’s peculiar system of employer-based health coverage makes the prospect of job loss all the more terrifying, but this is an argument for decoupling health insurance from employment, not an argument for expanding government. In fact, the existing system, which creates so much insecurity, is a result of too much government — World War II-era wage and price controls.

And so it is all too often when government inserts its heavy hand into the market, unintended and costly consequences pile up, until sooner or later someone recommends more government fixes, which themselves cause more market distortions, ad infinitum, ad nauseam.

The problem with using fear in your rhetoric is that you have to convince your audience that your solutions are less terrifying than the problem. Obama frets, for example, that “patients will be denied the care they need” if we don’t adopt his health care plan, but Americans know that government systems are not free from such problems. 

“Shattered Lives: 100 Victims of Government Health Care,” by Amy Ridenour and Ryan Balis, profiles some of the more-egregious national health care horror stories from places such as Great Britain, where potentially life-saving chemotherapy drugs can be denied because of their expense, and pregnant women on the verge of giving birth are turned away from hospitals due to a lack of beds.

It’s true that private insurers sometimes deny funding treatment due to cost, and government bureaucrats sometimes do the same. Some people in private markets receive little or substandard care, and so do people in government systems.

Medical resources, like all resources, are finite, and therefore at times must be rationed to some degree by somebody.

That health care can somehow be immune to the limiting but immutable laws of economics and physics is a pipe dream that can exist under no system, public or private, on this or any other world.

That’s not scary rhetoric. That’s sad reality.

Matt Patterson is a policy analyst for the National Center For Public Policy Research and a National Review Institute Washington Fellow.

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