Leonard Peikoff delivered a speech that changed my life 20 years ago today.
His talk was titled “Health Care is Not a Right”. I was in the audience at the Red Lion Hotel in Costa Mesa, California, when he delivered it. I can attest that Dr. Peikoff, his speech and the audience response were a breathtakingly brilliant exercise in objective communication. What made the speech exceptionally powerful was his mastery of the extremely difficult subject, his radical theme, understanding his audience, the context of the presentation and its stirring delivery.
I had been acquainted with the trials of working in medicine. I knew firsthand that Health Maintenance Organizations (HMOs), created by government control through the HMO Act of 1973 by Nixon and Ted Kennedy, were ruining people’s lives and livelihoods and that – other than Ayn Rand, who had passionately argued against government-run medicine including Medicare – only one serious intellectual had made a moral case against socialized medicine. I’d read Dr. Peikoff’s ingenious “Medicine: The Death of a Profession” (1985), based on his speech at Ford Hall Forum in Boston. His explanation had opened my eyes to the spreading bureaucracy of socialized medicine and alerted me to the fact that the emerging new jargon was to be questioned, challenged and not taken lightly and that to do less was to sanction the insidious creep of dictatorship.
When Bill Clinton was elected president in 1992, vowing to offer “health care that can never be taken away”, I knew that meant individual rights that will instantly be stripped away; the right of the doctor to practice medicine, the right of the drug company to make and sell drugs, the right of the health insurance company to assess, measure and price risk, terms and treatment – and of course the right of the patient, policyholder and individual to choose his or her own health care including whether to own a policy. I knew that medicine was, as a profession, dead or dying and I knew that President Clinton’s “health security” was a monstrous ideal. An organization started as a grass-roots effort to stop it and invited Dr. Peikoff to address its Town Hall Meeting on this date in 1993.
There were conservatives, libertarians and others among the speakers. The Red Lion’s ballroom as I recall was packed with hundreds of people from across southern California. I saw and talked to people who were truck drivers, waitresses, families, businessmen, entrepreneurs, medical professionals, doctors, nurses, housewives – all Americans uniting against the prospect – which we’d been told was imminent – of total government control of medicine. Several people spoke, some droned on. None made a moral case for capitalism. Then, Leonard Peikoff stepped to the podium.
He was electrifying. With passion, vigor and reason, like a surgeon cutting with precision, he railed against the premise of the Clinton health care plan. His argument that health care is not a right was an undeniably concise, clear case yet its thesis was framed with an unmistakable reverence for life, liberty and the founding American ideals. I was first on my feet as I rose amid the thundering applause and saw in my peripheral vision the audience rise in a kind of wave – row after row after row – while applauding in an explosion of energy I’ve not seen since. I was fixed on the face of Dr. Peikoff. He was clearly moved by the response.
I think I had known then that he was the son of a doctor, that he had once been a pre-medical student and that his brother was a doctor. I, too, had loved ones who worked in medicine. I think I appreciated how personal this issue – freedom versus slavery in medicine – must have been for the speaker. I became emotional, feeling an intense swell which comes from knowing that someone you love is under siege by those who seek to put him in chains. I thought it was just me … until I looked around. Tears were streaming from people’s faces. The feeling in the hall was not fear, pain or guilt. It wasn’t exactly anger, though a strong sense of justice had been evoked. It struck me as a response based on an overwhelming sense of justice – the feeling was an affirmation: this is good, right and just – mostly matched by a strong sense of resolve.
I was later hired to write about the Clinton health care plan for the group that sponsored Dr. Peikoff’s talk, Americans for Free Choice in Medicine (AFCM). We helped to stop the plan, which was killed before it was even proposed as legislation. It wasn’t as easy as that and the effort was an enormously fast and constant stream of disseminating facts and evaluations. Looking back 20 years later, I credit Dr. Peikoff’s “Health Care is Not a Right,” which, it must be noted, was not sponsored by any Objectivist group or anything with Ayn Rand’s – or Peikoff’s – name on it, with propelling the crusade against the Clinton health care plan. The talk’s brilliantly integrated abstractions and concretizations are logical, rational and very persuasive. It provided high-octane fuel to ignite the moral passion of those opposed to government control. It bought us time to win over men such as Wyoming Sen. Malcolm Wallop among others, including some who later formed alliances such as the Tea Party-oriented Freedom Works and it allowed groups such as the Ayn Rand Institute (ARI) to spread Objectivism.
It is impossible to convey the sense of doom that hung over the country’s medical profession during those days. The Clinton health care plan was inevitable, we were incessantly told. And many believed it. The most ardent believers were on the right. Only one man stepped forward first to declare that the notion that health care is a right is a moral abomination. He did it 20 years ago today. That we as a movement can even conceive of calling the nation’s 3-year-old dictate ObamaCare – which at once names the dictator and mocks his dishonesty – and steadfastly fight for its repeal is possible thanks to Leonard Peikoff.
It is true that we’re losing the battle for freedom. ObamaCare is law. Today, Republicans compromised again in favor of the welfare state. One of the chief Republican welfare-statists, a smooth-talking, mealy-mouthed conservative congressman from Georgia named Tom Price, went on Fox News today and answered, after evading Charles Krauthammer’s question whether health care is a right, that conservatives hold that the government has a moral obligation to provide health care to all. That the question is even asked – in a forum on Fox News Channel, which didn’t exist 20 years ago – owes to the power of a rational philosophy. We should be grateful to Leonard Peikoff for interpreting, advancing and acting on it. We should finish what he started.