If There Were Death Panels

by Conor Clarke

One of the odd things about the public debate over "death panels" -- panels that will rain death by bureaucracy once Obamacare is passed -- is that, like some curiously inverted version of OJ Simpson's If I Did It, it has become totally and strangely hypothetical. The Wall Street Journal, for instance, will no longer publish something saying the administration or Congress is proposing actual, bona fide death panels. Because, well, no one is proposing them. Instead, the Journal publishes an Orwellian short story -- fiction on the Journal op-ed page! -- about a man standing before some hypothetical future death panel, being deprived of life saving care.

Now you might wonder, "What on earth does a a piece of fiction on the Wall Street Journal op-ed page tell us about the current and ostensibly non-fictional debate over health care?" And you might answer: "Absolutely nothing." But Journal author Andrew Klavan has a different answer, and it goes something like this:

[T]he politicians promised you -- they promised everyone -- there would never be panels like this. They made fun of anyone who said there would. "What do they think we're going to do? Pull the plug on grandma?" they chuckled. The media ran news stories calling all rumors of such things "false" or "misleading." But of course by then the media had become apologists for the state rather than watchdogs for the people. 

In fact, the logic of this moment was inevitable. Once government got its fingers on the health-care system, it was only a matter of time before it took it over completely.

Well, as a member of the apologist media who has spent a fair amount of time making fun of people who say there will be death panels, let me make a couple of observations about this.

First, it's worth noting that the debate over the death panels didn't start with hypotheticals. It started with the utterly false claim, advanced by Betsy McCoughey and others, that mandatory end of life counseling was part of the House's health-care bill. So, to some extent it's gratifying to see that the death panelists have been beaten back into the realm of fiction. But it's also a testament to the slipperiness of the debate.

Second -- and this gets to the heart of the slippery debate -- hypothetical arguments are totally non-falsifiable. It Betsy McCaughey says the text of the House health-care bill will create death panels, it's pretty easy to prove her wrong. But if Andrew Klavan then pops up, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, with the Hegelian argument that the "logic" of history points towards death panels ... well, that's rather more difficult, and rather more frustrating. The "logic" of history might point toward many things. But until time machines come along, I'm of the opinion that we should stick to the text of the bill.

Third, I think Klavan -- and the many others who are now worrying about death panels "in the future" -- imagine a future without checks and balances. But one of the nice things about American democracy is that signing a health-care bill doesn't mean signing away the Constitution. If he is disappointed with a health-care reform bill, he can always vote for the non-fascist candidate in 2012. Or he can write an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal.

If he's still allowed to, of course.