The Universal Notebook: Other people's money

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In voting to turn down $1 million a day in federal funds that would have provided health insurance to 60,000 low-income Mainers, Sen. Garrett Mason, R-Lisbon Falls, said something that goes to the very heart of what is wrong with the conservative mindset.

“I don’t have money,” Mason said, “to pay for other people’s health insurance.”

That may be the most insightful statement of the misguided conservative philosophy of self-interest I have ever heard. Senator, you already pay for other people’s health insurance. And assuming you have health insurance, other people pay for yours. That’s the way insurance works.

Very few people can afford to pay out of pocket for health care, so we pool our resources. No one pays in as much as they collect if and when they become seriously ill. We all underwrite one another. That’s why we need young, healthy people in the pool and why there is a health care mandate. And if people do not have health insurance, we pay for their care in the increased cost of our own health care and hospitalization.

The same is true of life insurance. Sure, you pay premiums, but when you cash out, it’s other people’s money that pays the death benefit. No one pays their own way in this world.

I first became aware of the emboldened and benighted selfishness of the conservative right when I served on the local School Committee back in the 1990s and heard people arguing that they should not have to pay for other people’s kids to go to school. Somehow the idea that you shouldn’t have to pay for anything that doesn’t directly benefit you swept through the conservative movement like a self-inflicted virus.

A decade on, I find it extremely tiresome to hear conservatives constantly complain about paying for health care, unemployment benefits and food stamps as though they were footing the entire bill themselves. They would have you believe that they not only pay their own way, but also have to support an entire family of illegal immigrants on welfare.

To begin with, no one pays their own way. We are all supported by other people’s money. And when it comes to taxes, the portion that goes to assist the poor is a pittance.

The American way of life is underwritten by the tax dollars we pool to support a civil society and the money we pay into a social safety network of Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and military and public pensions. No one other than criminals would be able to make a living, were it not for our concerted effort to work for the common good.

Of course, conservatives don’t believe in the common good, which to me means they don’t believe in America. Only in the perverse logic of the right, for example, could a Nevada rancher who refuses to pay the same fees as other ranchers for grazing his cattle on public land be considered some kind of a folk hero. He’s a thief.

The primary aim of the far right seems to be to privatize and monetize everything in American public life, from Social Security to national defense and public education for their own benefit. Sen. Mason, in fact, was the sponsor of the 2011 enabling legislation that allows charter schools in Maine. It’s odd that Mason doesn’t have the money to pay for other people’s health insurance, but he seems to believe that rest of us have the money to pay for other people’s charter school educations.

Last year, as charter schools and their zombie cousins, virtual schools, stumbled and lurched to life, Mason introduced a bill that would have exempted them from civil rights and health and safety requirements. I guess that’s what conservatives mean by reducing government regulation.

To his credit, Mason quickly realized how wrong such exemptions would be and didn’t press the matter. I guess it’s too much to hope that tax-cappers and tea partiers might one day wake from their self-absorbed reveries and realize how wrong they are about just about everything, but one can always hope.

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Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Yarmouth. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.