Third — and conveniently, perhaps, for people like Chaffetz or House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) — this stubborn insistence that people could have more money or more health care if only they wanted them more absolves government of having to intervene and use its power on their behalf. In this way of thinking, reducing access to subsidized health insurance isn’t cruel, it’s responsible, a form of tough love in which people are forced to make good choices instead of bad ones. This is both patronizing and, of course, a gross misreading of the actual outcome of laws like these.
There’s one final problem with these kinds of arguments, and that is the implication that we should be worried by the possibility of poor people buying the occasional steak, lottery ticket or, yes, even an iPhone. Set aside the fact that a better cut of meat may be more nutritious than a meal Chaffetz would approve of, or the fact that a smartphone may be your only access to email, job notices, benefit applications, school work, and so on. Why do we begrudge people struggling to get by the occasional indulgence? Why do we so little value pleasure and joy? Why do we insist that if you are poor, you should also be miserable? Why do we require penitence?
Just because what Chaffetz is saying isn’t novel doesn’t mean it isn’t uninformed and dangerous. Chaffetz, Ryan and their compatriots offer us tough love without the love, made possible through their willful ignorance of (or utter disregard for) what life is actually like for so many Americans who do their very best against great odds and still, nonetheless, have little to show for it. Sometimes, not even an iPhone.