In Grand Junction Colorado yesterday, a student asked Barack Obama if the "public option" wouldn't be unfair competition to insurance companies that need to make a profit. The presumption behind the question is that making a profit from any enterprise is a fundamental right and that the government needs somehow to insure that profit -- and insure that nothing interferes with maximizing that profit.
This is not the first time such questions have come up in our history. There was a time when fire departments were independent and could choose whether or not to put out the fire in your house depending on whether or not they had an agreement with your insurer, if you had one at all.
Sometimes competing departments would engage in disputes over who had the right to fight the fire while buildings burnt to the ground. Sometimes there were arguments between homeowners and competing fire departments as to what the bill would be before one bucket of water was thrown. Sometimes less honest firefighting companies would loot and pillage while they worked. Some were accused of arson.
Then came the public option, and for the most part it works better than anything else. Everyone is covered, the insurance companies are doing fine and whole towns rarely burn to the ground any more. Moreover the argument that forming a municipal fire department to be funded by the public is unfair to the private sector's right to profit or is "socialism" has faded away in the light of experience. It's simply been far more economical and efficient than allowing multiple private companies to compete with each other and able to decide which fires they will fight and which they will not.
Is this an apt analogy? That's the question we need to ask of people like Zach Lahn, the student who questioned the President. Instead of looking for guidance only to our own unexamined credos, or to the plastic wrapped opinions handed out by insurance companies and the politicians they own, we need to look at history for examples. I think there is insight to be derived here. Perhaps he would agree.
Sometimes the public good and the public safety is best served by a public agency rather than multiple agencies who by definition and nature are motivated to ration services and keep prices as high as possible.