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Health Care Reform: Too Great a Good for Caesar

Dr. John Mark Reynolds | The Torrey Honors Institute | Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Health Care Reform: Too Great a Good for Caesar

August 26, 2009

Left-of-center Evangelical Jim Wallis recently said that health care, the subject currently dominating the news for political reasons, is a "deeply theological issue, a Biblical issue and a moral issue." For once I can say Jim Wallis is right, though he is wrong to wish for greater government involvement. Health care is such a deeply theological, Biblical, and moral issue that it cannot be trusted to the government.

God loves humankind and commands His servants to reflect His love. Jesus made it clear that none of His followers could pass by a deeply wounded person and ignore the pain. The Bible says ignoring hurting bodies while saving souls is wrong.

Wherever Christians have gone they have founded hospitals and provided medical care, often for free. Support for hospital care is so ecumenical in Christianity that my children could be born in Catholic care, be treated by Presbyterians, and receive nutritional advice from Seventh Day Adventists.

Christians agree: it is immoral to deny any human being basic health care. Since government-run health care promises to provide this service to all it is attractive to many Christians. However, politicians make government promises and we all know how good such promises can be.

Politicians often get obsessed about an issue. When they focus on it, they act as if their pet issue, such as health care, is the only good. If getting health care to people were the only thing we valued or had to worry about, it would be right to provide it in any way and using many means. Sadly, in a broken world there are many competing goods and providing health care by some means conflicts with other goods.

Society loses things when it gives more power to government even when it gains something else.

Liberty is a great good. The more power we give to the government the less liberty we will have. Diversity is also good and, as we are frequently reminded, the United States has become more diverse in the area of ethics. Increasing government control over health care increases the number of ethical issues where government authority will have to be on one side or the other of these disputes.

Sometimes increasing state power is necessary, but it should also be done with care. When religious leaders like Jim Wallis pretend that it is obvious that government should increase its involvement in health care, they have confused the goal (universal basic care) with the means (government programs).

In fact, the European and Canadian experience suggests to many of us that the cost in loss of liberty and ethical diversity is too great. Soon government bureaucrats far removed from families, churches, and businesses begin to make universal decisions for everyone. Though sometimes government involvement is necessary to protect human life, usually there are better ways to solve medical problems. People can become used to looking to government to solve most serious problems . . . an attitude that is long-term incompatible with a free people.

Most of the plans now in Congress, especially those supported by the President, give too much power to government. The cost is simply too high, and it is not fundamentally a financial cost. We might borrow money to fund our neighbor's surgery, but we will not borrow money to fund the loss of our liberty.

There are other plans like those of the brilliant and rising Congressman Paul Ryan that balance liberty and an expansion of health coverage. Ryan is trying to solve a complex problem in a sane manner, while the President seems intent on winning a political victory by creating an "all or nothing" crisis.

Christians know from painful experience the dangers of giving too much power to the government to do good things. We have been killed in the millions by secular states that thought they were doing good deeds. Worst, we know that we cannot be trusted with such power. Limited government is the result of our knowledge that no human, including Christians, can be trusted with too much power.

Government is particularly dangerous because it commands strong loyalties and great inherent powers. Government already has most of the guns and cannot be trusted with most of the scalpels as well.

Every Christian longs to see medical care for all of God's children, but not at the cost of loss of liberty, crushing reasonable minority opinions, and giving too much power to the state.

Of course government already provides medical care in some social service programs. These programs do much good and nobody is sorry for this, but bankrupt and expensive programs like Medicare may do as much harm as good. Certainly, the harm they have done is great enough that only a fool would rush into creating more programs that are just the same. The best way to solve overspending by one government entity is not to create a new one that will spend even more.

Assume that some government medical care has been harmless. That does not mean that even more governmental involvement would also be fine. There can be a tipping point where a safety net ensnares us and takes away our liberty.

Even fans of the President should be hesitant to give the government such powers. The Obama plan may be passed with great intentions, but Obama will not be President forever. Worse men may come to power and use increased government control of health care to enforce their will. Caesar naturally wants more power, but the same government that runs the police, the armed forces, and the prisons should not also come to dominate medical choices. Reasonable citizens must not plan for the saints who will govern us, but for the great sinners.

John Mark Reynolds is the founder and director of the Torrey Honors Institute, and Professor of Philosophy at Biola University. In 1996 he received his Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Rochester. John Mark Reynolds can be found blogging regularly at Scriptorium Daily.