Willie Whitelaw, a genial old buffer who served as former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's deputy for many years, once accused the Labor Party of going around Britain stirring up apathy.
Mr. Whitelaw's apparent paradox is, in fact, a shrewd political insight and all the sharper for being accidental. Big government depends, in large part, on going around the country stirring up apathy - creating the sense that problems are so big, so complex, so intractable that even attempting to think about them for yourself gives you such a splitting headache it's easier to shrug and accept as given the proposition that only government can deal with them.
Take health care. Have you read any of these health care plans? Of course not. They're huge and turgid and unreadable. Unless you're a health care lobbyist, a health care think-tanker, a health care correspondent or some other fellow who is paid directly or indirectly to plough through this stuff, why bother? None of the senators whose names are on the bills have read 'em; why should you?
You can understand why they drag on a bit. If you attempt to devise a health care "plan" for 300 million people, it's bound to get a bit complicated. But a health care plan for you, Joe Schmoe of 27 Elm St., didn't use to be that complicated, did it? Let's say you carelessly drop Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's health care plan on your foot and it breaks your toe. In the old days, you would go to your doctor (or, indeed, believe it or not, have him come to you); he would patch you up; and you would write him a check. That's the way it was in most of the developed world within living memory. Now, under the guise of "insurance," various third parties intercede between the doctor and your checkbook, and to this the government proposes adding a massive federal bureaucracy, in the interests of "controlling costs." The British National Health Service is the biggest employer not just in the United Kingdom, but in the whole of Europe. Care to estimate the size and budget of a U.S. health bureaucracy?
According to U.N. figures, life expectancy in the United States is 78 years; in the United Kingdom, it's 79 - yay, go socialized health care! On the other hand, in Albania, where the entire population chain-smokes and the health care system involves swimming to Italy, life expectancy is still 71 years - or about where America's was a generation or so back. Once you get childhood mortality under control and observe basic hygiene and lifestyle precautions, the health "system" is relatively marginal.
One notes that even in Somalia, which still has high childhood mortality, not to mention a state of permanent civil war, functioning government has collapsed, and yet life expectancy has increased from 49 to 55. Maybe if government were to collapse entirely in Washington, our life expectancy would show equally remarkable gains. Just thinking outside the box here.
When President Obama tells you he's "reforming" health care to "control costs," the point to remember is that the only way to control costs in health care is to have less of it.
In a government system, the doctor, the nurse, the janitor and the assistant deputy associate director of cost-control system management all have to be paid every Friday, so the sole means of controlling costs is to restrict the patient's access to treatment.
In the province of Quebec, patients with severe incontinence - i.e., they're in the bathroom 12 times a night - wait three years for a simple 30-minute procedure. True, Quebecers have a year or two on Americans in the life-expectancy hit parade, but if you're making 12 trips a night to the john 365 nights a year for three years, in terms of life-spent-outside-the-bathroom expectancy, an uninsured Vermonter may actually come out ahead.
As Louis XV is said to have predicted, "Apres moi, le deluge" - which seems as incisive an observation as any on a world in which freeborn citizens of the wealthiest societies in human history are content to rise from their beds every half-hour every night and traipse to the toilet for yet another flush simply because a government bureaucracy orders them to do so. Health is potentially a big-ticket item, but so is a house and a car, and most folks manage to handle those without a Government Accommodation Plan or a Government Motor Vehicles System - or, at any rate, they did in pre-bailout America.
More important, there is a cost to governmentalizing every responsibility of adulthood - and it is, in Mr. Whitelaw's phrase, the stirring up of apathy. If you wander 'round Liverpool or Antwerp, Hamburg or Lyons, the fatalism is palpable. In the United Kingdom, once the crucible of freedom, civic life is all but dead: In Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland, some three-quarters of the economy is government spending; a malign alliance between state bureaucrats and state dependents has corroded democracy, perhaps irreparably.
In England, the ground ceded to the worst sociopathic pathologies advances every day - and the latest report on "the seven evils" afflicting an ever more unlovely land blames "poverty" and "individualism," failing to understand that if you remove the burdens of individual responsibility while loosening all restraint on individual hedonism, the vaporization of the public space is all but inevitable. In Ontario, Christine Elliott, a candidate for the leadership of the so-called Conservative Party, is praised by the media for offering a more emollient conservatism predicated on "the need to take care of vulnerable people."
Look, by historical standards, we're loaded: We have TVs and iPods and machines to wash our clothes and our dishes. We're the first society in which a symptom of poverty is obesity: Every man his own William Howard Taft. Of course, we're "vulnerable": By definition, we always are.
But to demand a government organized on the principle of pre-emptively "taking care" of potential vulnerabilities is to make all of us, in the long run, far more vulnerable. A society of children cannot survive, no matter how all-embracing the government nanny.
I get a lot of mail each week arguing that when folks see the price tag attached to Mr. Obama's plans, they'll get angry. Maybe. But if Europe's a guide, at least as many people will retreat into apathy. Once big government's in place, it's very hard to go back.
Mark Steyn is the author of the New York Times best-seller "America Alone."