07/31/2012 11:56 am ET Updated Sep 30, 2012

Of Government Role and Universal Health Care

In 1987, just two weeks after filing my first ever tax return in the U.S., I was thrilled to see a refund check for more than $900 in my mailbox. As a 21-year-old who had just emigrated from India, I was quite floored with the integrity of a government that would willingly and efficiently rush me money. So what if the refund was my rightful due. Where I had come from, such things did not happen.

Since then, in 25 years of living here, I have been consistently in awe and appreciation of a government that actually works. Those Americans who routinely demonize their government in the political discourse of the nation don't realize what an asset they are devaluing. Compared to the endemic ineptitude, bureaucracy, bribery and corruption that are the hallmarks of many governments around the world, what we have here is an enviable, even if imperfect, institution.

One imperfection relevant to the national health care debate has to do with a welfare system that has been criticized as facilitating an addictive handout mentality in certain demographic groups. What is equally disturbing, however, is the political use of this valid concern about a wayward welfare system, to broadly undermine government and its other legitimate roles in the public sector. Health care, for example, is no more a "handout" than is, say, the interstate system or other infrastructure that the government provides -- especially when the only alternative is a cost-prohibitive behemoth that is inaccessible to close to 50 million Americans and a huge drain on the household budget of most others.

Critics of universal health care fail to see that an exclusively free-market system has already been given a run... and look what we have to show for it. While Americans may be divided about what will work, there is an almost unanimous consensus that our current solution is failing, and that something needs to be done. Sure, we may boast a global lead in cutting-edge advances in health care, but what good are those to the millions who are shut out from even baseline health care?

The political right likes to project government as being at odds with capitalism. I don't believe capitalism can thrive on a sustained basis in any nation that knocks its own government and thereby allows it to deteriorate. Those of us who have grown up in countries like India, where the government was a feeble entity in the public sector can attest to the utter failure of removing or neutering government from crucial roles of infrastructure, whether it is roads, water-supply or health care.

Most Third World countries don't have universal health care, and as a result, along with other quality-of-life challenges, the mental and physical suffering from untreated illnesses is staggering. Conversely, countries that consistently rate on the top of the quality-of-life indices are from the developed Western hemisphere, and have robust governments that offer some form of a universal or nationalized health plan.

From this standpoint, the debate about whether "Obamacare" is flawed or not, and constitutional or not, and the hoopla surrounding the semantics of what it is, is a distraction from the more fundamental question of whether or not we as a nation want universal health care. Since the far right has consistently opposed any such solutions, they can't claim any legitimacy towards discussing either Obamacare or other such alternatives. They have lost ownership of the health care debate, no matter how flawed one believes Obamacare to be.

A baby does not ask to be born in a world where, even if she grows up to be a hardworking teacher, she will find herself in the inhumane dilemma of not being able to afford treatment for a life threatening illness of her child -- because buying health insurance on her salary was out of the question. No country can call itself a civilized nation if it has not remedied this insurmountable obstacle to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.