The left-right battle that erupted over last week's Congressional Budget Office report showing that Obamacare reduces work incentives was, on the surface, yet another argument about the health care law's impact on the U.S. economy.
On a deeper level, however, what's at issue are long-standing American assumptions about government assistance and who deserves it.
In other advanced industrial democracies, especially in Europe, health insurance, pensions and even certain amounts of income support for working-age adults are considered rights, to which everyone is entitled by virtue of their membership in society and their shared vulnerability to life's vicissitudes.
In the United States, by contrast, there is more emphasis on the duty of the “able-bodied” to provide for themselves and on the idea that government benefits should be earned, or, at least, ultimately traceable to one's work effort.
Hence the seemingly contradictory spectacle of conservative voters who hate “welfare” but oppose cuts to Social Security and Medicare. In their minds — and, to some extent, in reality — the latter are different because you receive benefits after a lifetime spent working and paying into the programs.
To a large extent, the U.S. health-insurance system rests on this ideological foundation. Other than Medicare and Medicaid, the largest government intervention in health care is the tax break for group health plans that workers get through their employers. Another big item is government health care for military personnel, current and former, and their families — the ultimate “deserving” beneficiaries.
To be sure, Medicaid, the State Children's Health Insurance Program and other programs for the poor and disabled have grown in recent years. But these expansions confirm the work-benefit link; one reason they're politically possible is because the intended recipients, children and the disabled, aren't expected to work.