The Public Option, The Contested Term


When I teach writing-and-rhetoric to first-year college students, I and they emphasize the need clearly to define pivotal terms (words, phrases, labels) for the audience and then proceed to stick with those definitions–or to announce, in plain view, that, for good reasons (which one must provide) one is redefining a term. These kinds of transparency and care are in service of arguing fairly–of stating and explaining one’s argument to and for an audience one respects.

Defining terms and arguing fairly in politics? Not so much.

For example, I give you–and myself–the term “the public option,” in the context of health-care reform.

To me “the public option” has come to mean that a variety of insurance companies will write health-care insurance plans that the federal government will collect and then present, for potential purchase by individuals or businesses, to citizens. Allegedly, one purpose of the government’s serving as an intermediary is to gather plans that are relatively reasonable (with regard to cost and to health-care underwritten) and thereby a) provide insurance to those who don’t have any or to those who can’t afford what they have and b) provide additional competition to large insurance-companies so that they might be tempted to lower costs and/or expand coverage.

In a nutshell-paragraph, that’s what “the public option” has come to mean to me. Whether this option is a good thing or a bad thing or a good-and-bad thing–I’ll pass on that question, partly because I haven’t studied the details or studied others’ studies of the details. I will admit that the status quo with health-care in the U.S. is a disaster in progress.

To those who, for one reason or many, seem to oppose almost any kind of health-care reform, except perhaps the oblique “tort-reform,” “the public option” means . . . what? “A government[al] takeover.” “Socialized medicine.” “Rationed health-care.” “Unfair competition.” “Socialism.” “Communism.” “Big brother.” An attack on “the free market.”

. . . –The obvious point being that if people are trying to conduct a genuine debate about a policy-proposal, they will fail (or they will succeed in stalling debate, if that is their aim) when they cannot or will not agree on what a key term of the debate is.

If Bernie Sanders were to debate Orrin Hatch about “the public option,” I would prefer there to be a referee present to control the debate, and not to let the debate proceed unless and until Sanders and Hatch (for example) agreed what the basic elements of “the public option” were. Then it might be worth one’s while to listen.

But that’s not the way politics, politicians, and media work. That would be too easy–and careful and transparent.


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