The Public Option Sucks

Aug 21, 09 | 7:50 AM   byMichael Wolff
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Curiously, both words are good, “public” and “option.” And yet they’ve added up to a dreaded condition.

Perhaps “public option” is being construed not as in public library, or roads, or schools, or even hospitals, but as in housing—crumbling, chaotic, scary. And option is not, apparently, choice but confusion. Or worse, the Orwellian opposite, compulsion.

Anyway, the public option has become the specter in the health care debate. It is the formal entrance of the government into issues too important to be left to government. It is the label that suggests the great conspiracy lurking behind health care legislation—the power grab on the part of bureaucrats.

How has government gotten such a terrible reputation?

Mind you, this is a reputation in the face of the worst crisis in the private sector in our lifetimes—transparent incompetence, mendacity, irresponsibility, and bankruptcy.

It should be the big reversal. After 20 years of turning control of most aspects of our lives—economic and otherwise—to the marketplace, only to have this end in an epic meltdown, we ought now to be looking at government regulation and oversight and management as a reasonable alternative.

The private responsibility for health care has, specifically, created a situation that nobody thinks is adequate, so, therefore, why not logically conclude that government ought to take a bigger role?

I am not arguing here for the public option—even though it seems the necessary and logical fix to me. What I’m trying to understand, or accept, is the nation’s visceral objection, the underlying suspicion, the instinctive resistance to public administration. It’s great enough to assume it has some meaning.

It is so great that the public option seems potentially even more bureaucratic, more insufferable, more unresponsive, more unaccountable than a private insurer. This is either an unaccountable and tremendous PR victory for Reaganesque free-market proponents, or mismanagement of perception on the part of bureaucrats and politicians, or the result of generations of bad government service.

It’s real.

The government is not a positive selling proposition.

The government does not become a reasonable alternative to even a failing private system.

The US government doesn’t, evidently, have the equity of even the most bureaucratic-laden European government.

Nobody wants Uncle Sam.

I’m not sure anybody—or any Democrat—quite understood this fix.

More of Newser founder Michael Wolff's articles and commentary can be found at, where he writes a regular column. He can be emailed at

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