The Townhalls: They’re not Waving, They’re Drowning

September 3, 2009

For immediate release (730 words)

There’s a moment in the movie “As Good as it Gets” when the character played by Jack Nicholson explodes in frustration at his therapist. “Look you. I’m very intelligent. If you’re gonna give me hope you got to do better than you’re doing.  . . . I mean I’m drowning here, and you’re describing the water.”

Some who attended a recent Indiana townhall meeting felt like that. The presiding congressman spent the evening alternately detailing the hopelessly complex remedies and then the equally hopeless failings of government-controlled health care.

Was the congressman a doctor or a nurse or a hospital administrator? No, he had always held a public office. Was he an expert on health insurance or healthcare economics? Far from it, he could not have read all the thousands of pages of competing legislation, let alone the alternative reforms judged politically infeasible in this particular Congress. Was he even a patient in the U.S. healthcare system? No, members of Congress have their own system.

So why, other than the casting of an insignificant vote on the House floor, should we find his opinions interesting, why should we listen to his description of the water in which the rest of us may drown?

That may be the question of our age. To answer it, you must consider what the congressman might have said instead:

“I see many of my constituents here tonight — men and women of mature judgment who have raised fine families and have lived worthy lives. I trust them — not only in regard to their own health care but more generally on the proper relationship between citizens and their government. It is obvious that this proposal sends us in the wrong direction, away from rule by law and toward rule by men. It threatens our freedom. My instructions therefore are clear. Good night.”

The congressmen didn’t say that because he doesn’t believe it. As most in his generation of politicians (Republican and Democrat), he believes that his opinion and the opinion of others in government are the most considered in any room, even to the point of shutting out the opinions (and choices) of others.

But this is a truth that officials think us incapable of handling (to pull from another Nicholson line). So they schedule townhall meetings and make a show of gathering our views but in fact lecture us on how healthcare economics is too complex for any individual citizen to grasp. They inevitably conclude that government must step in — perhaps just a little and under their personal supervision. They assure us that health care isn’t a free market anyway, that we don’t choose health care as we choose, say, a cell phone.

Ah, but we do . . . or at least we could.

Dr. Regina Herzlinger, a Harvard business professor and an actual expert on health care, was in Indianapolis a few weeks earlier speaking at an Indiana Policy Review seminar. She took a cell phone from her purse to illustrate why transparency and consumer choice —  factors scarce in any government-controlled operation — are important to keeping prices low and quality high.

She recalled that her doctoral thesis required the use of a room-sized computer whose operators had to wear dust-free uniforms for fear of fouling its sensitive workings. The cell phone in her hand, pulled from the “hostile” environment of a purse, was a million times more powerful.

The presence of free individuals made the difference. It is not important that consumers understand computer electronics. They need only be able to choose the progressively more amazing products developed with them in mind.

This “I’ll know it when I see it” attitude is the carrot for innovation. The consumers of insurance and healthcare services need not know a catheter from a crutch or an exemption from a premium. Others who do know the difference, given a free market, will knock themselves out trying to make something that the consumer finds useful — life saving even.

Not proactive enough for you? Still believe that government, properly tuned, has a useful role to play in keeping you healthy? Well, jump in. Beginning with the president’s address to Congress next week, there is an ocean of townhall meetings awaiting you — all presided over by politicians describing the water in which they would let you drown.

Craig Ladwig is editor of The Indiana Policy Review. Contact him at


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