Polls show that, if there is one thing the American people are more concerned about than any other (save, perhaps, national security), it's health care. And rightly so. Lots of people are willing to gamble that they will stay reasonably healthy up to 40 or thereabouts — which is why so many younger people don't bother to buy health insurance, thereby providing politicians with that ominous-sounding statistic that "45 million Americans don't have health insurance." (The more unscrupulous ones even declare that "45 million Americans don't have health care" — which is flatly untrue, since anyone who can make it to a hospital emergency room is legally entitled to free care there and then.)
But, in our later years, we all want to be sure of proper medical care (and not just in emergencies) if we need it. That's why most people either buy health insurance or, if they can't afford it, rely on governmentally-funded Medicare or Medicaid, or their employers' health plans, to provide it free of charge.
But it turns out, as the more thoughtful among us might have anticipated, that there are, or can be, strings attached to this medical care that (the politicians assured us) is our inherent right as residents of a wealthy and compassionate country. It goes back to the old saying that the man who pays the piper calls the tune.
It all began, no doubt, with the refusal of private health insurance companies to issue policies to people with obvious and serious pre-existing medical problems. That's fair enough: No insurer would stay in business very long if it routinely sold medical insurance, or life insurance, to people with terminal cancer. And from there it was only a short and logical step to refusing to sell policies, at the same low price, to people who are habitual cigarette smokers, since statistics make it clear that such people get lung cancer, and die of it, far more often, and sooner, than people who aren't.
But now some employers who provide health care for their employees have decided that (to borrow another old expression) what's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander: If insurance companies can refuse to insure smokers, so can they. And, since health care for their employees is a fundamental part of their employment policy, they can and do refuse to hire smokers, and order their employees who are already smokers to stop. If they won't stop, they are fired. What's more, the policy applies not only to smoking on the job, but smoking anywhere, anytime, including in their own homes at midnight.
It's not hard to follow the logic. If an employer must pay to nurse employees who come down with lung cancer, the cost must be borne by the company in the first instance, and thereafter either by the other employees (in the form of lower pay) or by the buyers of the company's products (in the form of higher prices). What's fair about that?
And why single out only smokers? Employees who are obese, or heavy drinkers (on their own time), or who insist on eating large quantities of foods containing trans-fats (thereby clogging their arteries and setting themselves up for heart attacks), all are statistically prone to ill health, and thereby run up the cost of everybody else's health care. Shouldn't they be fired too? In fact, why shouldn't an employer be entitled to impose strict limits on anybody seeking employment, and hire only magnificent physical specimens?
And if we get that far, how long do you think it will be before the government, which dearly loves to tell us what is good for us, and would enjoy even more requiring healthy behavior of us, decides that caring for us under Medicare and Medicaid gives it the right to specify exactly what we eat and drink, and how we shall behave?
Which brings us to a third and final grand old aphorism: Look before you leap. The only thing holding government back from cracking down on smokers and drinkers right now is the fear that they are still a dangerously large part of the voting population.
William Rusher is a Distinguished Fellow of the Claremont Institute for the Study of Statesmanship and Political Philosophy.