In a Missoulian opinion piece (March 18), Rep. Denny Rehberg wrote that the people don’t want health care reform. He said reform is being jammed down our throats by government. That’s a pretty story – and it’s one the Republicans love to tell. It features the government as a monster standing ready to devour the weakest among us. But it’s a false story, a figment, mist. Because in the real story of health care in America, it’s the unregulated private system that’s eating us alive.

I do a lot of work in Honduras with Missoula Medical Aid. I help coordinate teams of doctors and nurses who work in rural communities and regional hospitals. Whenever I hear Republicans talk about the need to shrink government – or to make it disappear altogether – I want to take those people by the hand and show them Honduras. I want to show them a country that has a small, weak government – a Republican utopia, perhaps. It’s a country where free markets unchallenged by government have polluted the water and grown giant slums filled with desperate people who will work for cheap. It’s a country where a tiny government has kept the roads a horror, the schools inadequate, the police unreliable, and access to health care often a vaporous dream.

Unless you are rich, of course. If you are rich, a small government is perfect. It’s just enough to protect your neighborhoods and fix your street. Your children will go to good schools; you’ll have good health care. Small government is never too small to help the businesses of the wealthy thrive. What shrunken government really means is a government of, for, and by the wealthy.

I can understand why some people like it this way. They’ve worked hard. They’ve done well in their lives. Or they work for a company that is doing very well, thank you, under the present system. So they support politicians like Denny Rehberg and tell him that a small government is all they need to protect their interests. And then to keep things just so for all of them, Rehberg spreads their fear of the monster government.

But let’s take a good look at this monster. When did we forget that it is government that elevates us out of the jungle, that keeps the strong from devouring the weak, that protects property and labor, and protects our air and water supply? When did we forget that it is government that has fostered the rise of the middle class by building schools and helping us to borrow money, government that puts out fires and builds roads and railroads and makes our food and our air travel safer. When did we forget that it is government – in balance with free-market forces – that has fostered our general prosperity?

We now live in a country in which that general prosperity is threatened. Unrestrained health care costs not only hurt individuals, but also the economic health of the nation. Insurance companies – many with near monopolies in some regions – have not increased access or controlled costs. Our individual health and our national health need protection, and we need to take up the task. This is our job as citizens – to govern ourselves, to create laws that protect our most vulnerable citizens, and at the same time protect our common fiscal health.

Over the next 20 years you can bet the health reform law will be messed with and changed and made better and sometimes even worse. But at least you’ll get to vote for your government. You can be sure nobody at the insurance company is going to solicit your opinion on health care policy.

So let’s stop wringing our hands and conjuring false monsters. If you’re afraid, come down with me to Honduras sometime, take a look at that small-government utopia – the second-poorest nation in the hemisphere. Or stay here and take a good long look at the real monster: Being afraid. Letting the wealthy scare you so much you’ll gladly take your pittance. Not standing up and claiming your right to make laws that will protect you and your family. Doing just what the wealthy profiteers of this system would like you to do: nothing.

David Allan Cates is the author of the novels “X out of Wonderland,” “Freeman Walker” and “Hunger in America.” He is the executive director of Missoula Medical Aid.

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