03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Olympia Snowe Still Opposes Public Option Because it's Too Good

Among the major developments yesterday in the health care reform debate was Joe Lieberman's threat to filibuster health care legislation that contains a public option. As many folks have pointed out, Lieberman's arguments, including his claim that the public option will be a burden on taxpayers, simply do not wash.

Among the people who understand this fact is Senator Olympia Snowe, the focus of a bizarre delusion that a single Republican vote for watered down health care reform constitutes a "bipartisan" solution to a problem that, if not tackled aggressively, threatens to swamp our economy in the next decade.

Talking Points Memo's Brian Beutler asked Senator Snowe whether she agreed with Lieberman that the public option would be a significant financial burden on the government. Her response: "no." In fact, and not for the first time, Snowe explained that she was opposed to the public option because it's too good. Really. Here's what she said:

"[triggers] obviously can have a maximum impact...certainly, not as comparable to a full public option and what they want, but on the other hand what you're doing with the public option is basically crowding out the private sector, because of the government's, you know, inordinate advantage in the market place." (Beutler's emphasis).

Snowe later elaborated that the public option would "drive[] the industry out" and clarified that "I believe in, to the extent possible, to allow the private sector to provide a solution."

This is not the first time (see item#3) Snowe has argued against the public option because it would be too good for ordinary Americans. But of all the bizarro-world aspects of the debate about health care reform, this may take the cake. A robust public option would save the government money while providing many more Americans with affordable health insurance and because this is bad for an oligopolistic industry whose profits have exploded in the past ten years at most Americans' expense, this is a bad outcome.

Of course, Snowe is claiming to stand on principle in asserting that better is worse. She believes, she tells us, that it's better for the private sector to provide a solution even, apparently, if it's an inferior solution. This principle runs contrary to the founding texts of modern economics, including the writings of Adam Smith. For Smith, the division of labor, private exchange and self-interest were to be praised to the extent that they achieved ends worthy of praise - namely what Smith called "universal opulence." Private economic activity was not praiseworthy as an end in itself. In those instances where private economic interests were not likely to produce better outcomes than the government, and Smith enumerated plenty such instances, the government should certainly step in.

Snowe, by contrast, is articulating a blindly ideological view, one that asserts, against common sense, that even when the outcome is likely to be inferior, we should prefer "private" solutions (whether large, privileged corporations are 'private' in the sense that is ordinarily meant is another question). Whether that sort of incoherence is better or worse than Lieberman simply lying about the public option, I cannot say.

Of course, ascribing Snowe's views to blind ideology might be a charitable view of her motivations.

Jonathan Weiler's second book, Authoritarianism and Polarization in Contemporary American Politics, co-authored with Marc Hetherington, is just out from Cambridge University Press. He blogs daily about politics and sports at