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Health-care debate highlights America's primal distrust of big government

WASHINGTON - Throughout this summer's emotional debate on the Obama administration's health-care reform plans, one reality about Americans has once again become crystal clear - they have a visceral distrust of big government.

WASHINGTON - Throughout this summer's emotional debate on the Obama administration's health-care reform plans, one reality about Americans has once again become crystal clear - they have a visceral distrust of big government.

President Barack Obama knows it, and it likely played into his decision to host a conservative talk-radio host at the White House on Thursday to take questions from a wary public.

"You know, passing a big bill like this is always messy," he told one caller.

"FDR was called a socialist when he passed Social Security. JFK and Lyndon Johnson - they were both accused of a government takeover of health care when they passed Medicare. This is the process that we go through, because understandably the American people have a long tradition of being suspicious of government until the government actually does something that helps them."

The distrust has been an integral ingredient of the country's DNA for hundreds of years, since the American Revolution and the writing of the Constitution.

It fuels the Second Amendment's right to bear arms, which states Americans have the right to arm themselves for the purposes of, among other things, deterring an undemocratic government.

But long after U.S. citizens have any reason to fear government is going to pound down their doors, some opponents to health-care reform are saying Obama's plans amount to a dangerous government intrusion into the lives of Americans that will lead the country down the path to socialism.

"The government takeover of health care is the crown jewel of socialist control," read an editorial Thursday on HumanEvents.com, a conservative website.

"When the government rations health care, it has the power to decide who lives or dies in America, and that's a power the statists do not intend to let slip through their fingers."

It's not just conservatives who are suspicious. A recent survey for CBS and The New York Times suggested only one in five Americans trusted the government to do the right thing all or most of the time, one of the lowest levels since 1958.

Some wonder why such a primal suspicion of government persists, not just amid fringe militia groups but also everyday Americans who enjoy the benefits of Uncle Sam's involvement in other aspects of their lives.

"It's a very deep part of the romantic vision that symbolizes America," says Richard Hayes, a philosophy professor at the University of New Mexico who lived in Canada for more than 30 years.

"There's a strong sentiment about going it alone, relying on yourself, just you and God - it exists throughout the country but especially in the West, even though most people living there aren't descendents of the pioneers."

But Hayes points out the ridiculousness of holding onto antiquated prejudices about central government in modern times.

"Government is not the enemy; it does things that are useful and necessary and that private enterprise just has no interest in doing because there's no immediate opportunity for profit," said Hayes, 64.

"How many people talk about a socialist police force or a socialist fire department? How many times have people accused police officers and firemen of going wild with power, or of being involved in a government takeover?

"The very same people, in fact, who are deeply antagonistic towards the government have favourable feelings towards the police."

Democracies the world over have government health insurance and efficient, centralized government control of many institutions, Hayes added, including his home for 36 years - Canada.

"I had three experiences in emergency rooms in Canadian hospitals due to various injuries and I got immediate attention," Hayes, who once taught at Montreal's McGill University, recalled with a chuckle.

"The only time I got injured and had to wait was here in Albuquerque, and it was because they were sorting out my insurance."

Garry Wills, a noted historian, once bemoaned the tendency of Americans to be suspicious of government in his 1999 book "Necessary Evil: A History of American Distrust of Government."

"It is a tradition that belittles America," he wrote, "that asks us to love our country by hating our government, that turns our founding fathers into unfounders, that glamorizes frontier settlers in order to demean what they settled, that obliges us to despise the very people we vote for."

But Americans haven't always had such a steely-eyed distrust of government. In the 1930s, the Great Depression put matters into perspective.

Citizens looked to government for help, and Franklin D. Roosevelt capitalized upon the times and their trust to push through the New Deal program, which created Social Security and a host of additional government institutions.

In the 1950s, Americans also trusted Dwight D. Eisenhower to build the country's interstate highway system.

But thanks to the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal - and more recently the war in Iraq and the botched federal response to hurricane Katrina - the distrust has taken on new life.

In the heat of the health-care reform battle, Obama has been called a tyrant, with some right-wing extremists even comparing him to Adolf Hitler.

Stephen Hess, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Brookings Institution, says all will likely be forgotten once health-care reform is a reality.

"People will come to realize that it's not always a bad thing to have government involvement," said Hess, a onetime aide to Richard Nixon.

"When I got into this business, all the federal government really did was build bridges and roads and give benefits to veterans. There's no question it's getting bigger, but that's because it performs services that are necessary and services that benefit the entire population."

Health reform will happen, he adds, despite the rhetoric from both left and right.

"This thing is going to work itself out the way all major and important pieces of legislation do," he said.

"What we are seeing is sausage being made. But we're going to have some health-care bill of considerable girth that passes Congress and is signed by the president. All they're fighting over right now is the details."

 
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