Among the many astute observations in Parkinson's Law, British historian C. Northcote Parkinson noted that institutions always build their grand, monumental palaces designed to house all their greatest efforts at the exact point when they are going into terminal decline.
"Perfection of planned layout is achieved only by institutions on the point of collapse," Parkinson declared in his wry manner:
This apparently paradoxical conclusion is based upon a wealth of archaeological and historical research, with the more esoteric details of which we need not concern ourselves. In general principle, however, the method pursued has been to select and date the building which appear to have been perfectly destined for their purpose. A study and comparison of these has tended to prove that perfection of planning is a symptom of decay. During a period of exciting discovery or progress there is no time to plan the perfect headquarters. The time for that comes later, when all the important work has been done. Perfection, we know, is finality; and finality is death. [Emphasis added.]
The Democrats' perfectly planned edifice of Universal Health Care as embodied in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 fits squarely into this mold.
Right now Republicans are energized by the possibility that Massachusetts Republican Scott Brown is going to upset Democrat Martha Coakley for Teddy Kennedy's old Senate seat and stop Obamacare just inches short of the goal line. I confess, I sent my $50 and am just as excited as anyone.
Still, some small part of by brain keeps saying, "Look, we've come this far. Let's go ahead and let the Democrats hang themselves." Somehow I can't help but think that Obamacare is going to be America's equivalent of the British Colonial Office -- another of Parkinson's gems -- which reached its apogee just as its Colonial Empire was disappearing beneath its feet. ObamaCare may be the Great Pyramid of Liberalism, which is to say, its mausoleum.
President Obama and historically minded Democrats always trace their inspiration to the Roosevelt Revolution and the New Deal -- and they are entirely correct. The spirit of that era can be summarized in a single phrase: "Bring it all down to Washington." Data collection, administration, and decision-making would be centralized at some grand bureaucratic headquarters in the nation's capital. The FPC, the NRA, the CCC, the WPA -- all would command and control the economy. Most of these "alphabet soup" agencies didn't survive but live on in the Department of Transportation, the Department of Energy or the Department of Health and Human Services.
National healthcare reform is the last gasp of this centralizing spirit. In truth, Democrats have no idea what results their bill is going to produce. They haven't read it any more than anyone else. Their only intent is, "Bring it all down to Washington, we'll figure it out later."
One of the practices criticized for making health insurance expensive, for example, is the regrettable tendency of state legislatures to pile up coverage mandates in response to marginal providers who want patients to be able to afford their special brand of medicine. As a result, chiropractors, holistic therapists and foot massagers all end up in the policies. Now we'll solve this problem by having Congress write the mandates -- without the input of special interests, of course.
Another Democratic complaint is that in many states insurance providers have achieved near monopolies. As Health Care for America Now!, an ad hoc group formed by the unions, ACORN and all the usual groups, expressed it last May:
The American Medical Association reports that 94 percent of insurance markets in the United States are now highly concentrated. In Hawaii, Rhode Island, Alaska, Vermont, Alabama, Maine, Montana, Wyoming, Arkansas and Iowa, the two largest health insurers control at least 80 percent of the statewide market.
Senator Chuck Schumer, perhaps the biggest "Bring-it-all-down-here" cheerleader in Washington, proclaimed. "A public plan will push down health care premiums by injecting competition into the health insurance market, which right now has too few players and they have a stranglehold over consumers."
What neither Senator Schumer nor Health Care Now! seem to understand is that these monopolies have been deliberately created by state insurance commissions. The commissioners are still operating on the 1990s paradigm that large, monopolistic insurance providers (usually Blue Cross/Blue Shield) can provide the market leverage to bargain down doctors and hospitals. (That's why the AMA is so negative about them.)
These state-sponsored monopolies could easily be broken by allowing insurance companies to sell policies across state lines. That would create choice, decentralization and competition -- the very things most people want. But it takes power out of the hands of government bureaucrats, which exactly what the Democrats don't want. So it's "Bring-It-Down-to-Washington" instead.
No evidence or historical trauma can persuade Democrats that most people want something different. By far the most spectacular miscalculation of the healthcare debate has been former President Bill Clinton's conclusion that his administration lost the House of Representative in 1994 is because it had failed to pass healthcare reform. Clinton delivered this message to Congressional leaders back in November and they haven't forgotten it. That's one reason they've been ready to strike any deal, concede any giveaway, as long as something gets passed.
Yet Clinton's analysis could not be more wrong. Does anyone who was of sound mind and body in 1994 seriously believe that Newt Gingrich and the Republican Congress were elected because people were disappointed Clinton hadn't passed health reform? HillaryCare was exhibit A of how Clinton was trying to concentrate too much power in Washington. The Tea Party Movement, which Democrats still dismiss as some kind of "special interest," is simply a bigger and more robust reincarnation of the same concern. The real "special interests" were the ones who were on hand last week in Washington when Massachusetts Democratic candidate Martha Coakley showed up for her fundraiser.
When David Mamet made his "I'm a conservative" confession in The Village Voice two years ago, he said something quite memorable: "Thomas Sowell is our greatest philosopher." Wow, I've been reading Sowell since 1980 but it never occurred to me -- he is our greatest philosopher. The point of Knowledge and Decisions, Sowell's magnum opus, is that in a complex modern society, knowledge is decentralized. It can't possibly be assembled in one place. Anyone who tries to do this loses information. (Ask any software engineer.) And when you lose information, you make wrong decisions and make a whole lot of people unhappy.
That's the trajectory Obamacare is going to follow. All medical decisions will be routed through the nation's capital. Nobody will have the faintest idea what's going on. The President will appoint a phalanx of "health czars" to try to get control of the situation -- maybe even split off a new Department of Health and Health Insurance from the Department of Health and Human Services. (Parkinson's Law # 2: "Bureaucrats make work for each other.") Meanwhile, any supposed benefits won't kick in for four years, while the taxes and confusion will all become apparent immediately. The whole bill is also riddled with unconstitutionalities. The government can order people to buy insurance? Citizens of Nebraska and Florida get much better care than citizens of the other 48? Does anybody think this stuff will ever get through the courts, let alone past the 2010 Congressional elections?
So let the Democrats pass their crowning edifice, their perfectly planned national healthcare system, the last gasp of the 1930s. Its rejection by the electorate may even convince Democrats that things have changed since Herbert Hoover left office.
You can already feel the nostalgia setting in. Last week Ira Shapiro, a former Clinton Administration official, wrote an amazingly backward-looking elegy in the New York Times about how the Senate has never been the same since the Democrats lost control in 1980.
That night, they were all defeated as Ronald Reagan won a crushing victory over Jimmy Carter. Additionally, Abraham Ribicoff, one of the liberal stalwarts, had retired, as had Adlai Stevenson, while Ed Muskie had left the Senate in May to become secretary of state. It was the greatest exodus of talent and experience in Senate history... In the weeks that followed, we Democrats were virtual zombies, numb with grief and shock. It didn't help that the Republicans celebrated boisterously and endlessly... The 1980 election was more than just a change of party control from Democratic to Republican. Gone was the Senate that had been experienced, progressive and bipartisan; 30 years have passed, and the decline has only accelerated. The Senate today is bitterly divided, frequently paralyzed and borderline bizarre. Olympia Snowe offered this sad observation: "We have been miniaturized."
If that doesn't sound like the end of an era, I don't know what does.