Feedback matters. One of the reasons the private sector often is so much more effective than government is that market competition forces firms and entrepreneurs to admit error or suffer dire financial consequences. Capitalism will slap you upside the head if you do something dumb — ask President Trump‘s bankruptcy lawyers about that. In the marketplace as in nature, the instrument of evolution is death: Bad products and bad ideas don’t make it, and capital eventually flees bad firms and bad investors. A good company doesn’t punish an executive for trying something new and failing — it punishes him for refusal to admit failure when that failure is obvious and for continuing to shovel precious resources into the bonfire of his vanity.
Politics should be more like that, but it’s getting less like that. Because our political identities are shaped by tribalism rather than by reason, creating a political culture that embraces healthy experimentation and iterative, incremental reform is difficult for us to do. What we do instead is put together unwieldy bundles of legislation that promise to solve a particular problem for now and for all time — and then accuse the other side of being evil for opposing it. That isn’t government — it’s performance art.
The defects of the ACA are plain for all to see. Everybody knows what they are. But what has been the Democratic response to attempts to fix them? Screeching that Republicans are cruel, that they hate poor people, or that they are influenced by obscure financial motives. What those financial motives might be is not obvious: The biggest financial players in the health-insurance industry, the insurance companies themselves, generally supported ACA and generally opposed recent Republican reform efforts, especially the repeal of the mandate that obliges every American to buy the products the insurance companies sell. And the insurance companies like the Democrats’ current big idea on health-insurance reform: burying the insurance companies in bailout money to cover up the problems created by the ACA.
This situation sometimes results in amusing developments: When Graham-Cassidy was being debated, progressives circulated a list of industry groups opposed to it — as though deferring to corporate interests were self-evidently good policy from a progressive point of view. It’s part of an argument that, in total, doesn’t make any sense — “Corporate special interests want to stop Republicans from selling the People out to corporate special interests!” — but the argument isn’t about the argument. It’s about pointing to the other side and shouting: “Bad!” If you think about it, Donald Trump hasn’t invented a new kind of politics but has simply stripped our existing political discourse down to its fundamentals.
But whatever else you can say about the politics of health insurance, it remains the fact that the ACA does not work. Even if it were the case that Republicans are mean, wicked, greedy, and ignorant, the ACA does not work. Sure, President Trump is a buffoon and the Republican congressional leadership has been strikingly unpersuasive — but the ACA does not work. Mitch McConnell could be in the employ of Beelzebub himself and the ACA still does not work. In a house or with a mouse, on a train or in the rain, the ACA does not work. It does not do what its authors promised it would do. And it has failed mostly for the reasons that conservative critics pointed to at the time.
The Affordable Care Act is the New Coke of Democratic domestic-policy initiatives, the McAfrika sandwich (“based on an authentic African recipe”), the Clairol Touch of Yogurt Shampoo. You know what all those products have in common? They’re gone. But the Coca-Cola Company, McDonald’s, and Procter & Gamble still exist. They’re doing okay. They understood their failures, fixed them, and moved on to better and more profitable things. Eventually, we’re going to have to do the same thing when it comes to health insurance, and the sooner the Democrats get on board the less it is going to hurt.
Admitting that you got it wrong is the first step toward getting it right.
Commentary by Kevin D. Williamson, a roving correspondent at National Review. Follow him on Twitter @KevinNR.
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