Medicare for All is the new Frontier of Liberty in America
During the colonial period, there was a common belief that freedom is directly linked to one’s ability to control their own labor. A worker who exchanged labor for wages was less free because his or her labor was being done at the direction of another. The primary method of becoming your own master was to be an independent yeoman farmer, perhaps the first conception of the American Dream. As a result, access to land was the most powerful element attracting new colonists. This force kept pulling settlers westward, pushing the frontier further which each generation.
Of course, this was all predicated on the dispossession of American Indians, providing possible freedom and economic opportunity for white settlers at the expense of the indigenous inhabitants. That said, the frontier, as historian Greg Grandin and others have written about extensively, provided a safety valve for segments of American society. Rather than passing laws to improve workers’ lives, people could pick up stakes and take their chances in the West. This alternative, to some degree, helped prevent wages from going too low because employers had to compete with the allure of going West. Thus, the frontier, and the freedom of mobility that came with it, was often associated with liberty.
Today, there is no real equivalent option for American workers, except Medicare for All. Medicare for all, according to every study, would save employers quite a bit of money compared to the current system. Which begs the question: why aren’t more corporations fighting to pass a Medicare for All system? The answer is LEVERAGE. Everyone knows that wages have been stagnant for decades. The reasons for this are legion. For example, due to Free Trade policy, corporations have used the threat of offshoring jobs to suppress wages. Another key factor that suppresses wages is that workers do not feel empowered to unionize, negotiate with bosses, or leave their job to go into business for themselves because their access to doctors and medicine is directly tied to their employment. This last option is the closest modern equivalent to “Go West, young man.” That is a huge risk to take if you have a family to support, especially with healthcare costs skyrocketing in recent decades. Even if you have saved up some money, one accident, one injury, one sudden diagnosis can bankrupt you instantly. Workers feel tethered to their jobs.
Imagine the freedom of mobility that would be created by decoupling healthcare from employment. Workers would feel empowered to leave their job knowing that their access to healthcare would remain intact. They would begin to switch jobs more frequently, forcing employers to raise wages to hold on to their talent. More people would start their own businesses, creating new opportunities for themselves and creating more jobs for others. These new businesses would create more competition in fields that are currently dominated by a handful of big corporations, driving up wages and driving down prices. Corporations don’t want Medicare for All because it will set their workers free! It would open on a “gate of escape” for labor. It would also help empower workers to organize because the fear of losing healthcare would no longer be hanging over workers’ heads. This was illustrated quite clearly when GM suspended the healthcare plans of workers who recently went on strike.
The corporations, and the politicians (in both parties) that serve their interests, know this very well. That is why they are working so hard to thwart of the movement for Medicare for All. This was on full display at the last Democratic Debate, when Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg made the argument that Medicare for All would give workers less freedom of choice. Putting aside that this is a Republican talking point, it is also false. The choices that matters in healthcare are decisions like picking your doctor and determining what course of action to take when you are ill. Under the current House and Senate bills, expanded and improved Medicare for All would give Americans far more control over those healthcare decisions. Under private insurance, these decisions are made by a for-profit corporation whose motivation is only to maximize profits. You can only use doctors that are in that particular network and medical procedures and medications that the corporation decides to pay for. Under Medicare for All, all doctors are “in network” because there is only one network. Medical decisions are made by you and your doctor. The “freedom” Biden and Buttigieg are proposing is the freedom to have less. Like to libertarian concept of Liberty Contract so common during the Gilded Age, it is an argument against anything that a worker might be willing to agree to in order to find work, regardless of how desperate he or she might be. By their reasoning, there should be no minimum wage: this denies a worker’s right to choose to work for less. These politicians, favorites among the billionaire class, are using the guise of “choice” to push a radical and discredited rightwing concept in order to keep workers down. Medicare for All would set workers free. It is the new frontier of economic liberty and we must pass it now!
Ron Widelec is a high school teacher in New York City and a progressive activists living in Westchester.