One of the real, continuing problems with talking to Leftoids, whether they call themselves “Leftists”, “Progressives”, “Liberals”, or just “Democrats”, is that you can almost never tell, at least at first, just which sort you’re interacting with. By far the majority of them are good-hearted folk with good intentions who just don’t think things through.

An excellent example is “cynn”, an occasional commenter at Protein Wisdom. cynn is by no means stupid, and my position puzzles her no end. “Don’t you know there are people who get sick, and can’t pay for treatment?” she would say. “Obama wants to set up a system to let the public help them pay, and you oppose that. Why so heartless? Do you want people to get sick and die without help?”

Well, no, I don’t want people to get sick and die without help, although sometimes I’m afraid it isn’t possible to do anything about it. And yes, being something like $13K in the hole for doctor bills for myself and my wife, and not being sure if I’ll still have electric power after Wednesday, I’m acutely aware that there are people who get sick and can’t pay for treatment. (Note that Bobbe and I got the treatment; the question, now, is how to pay back the people who helped us.)

The basic source of cynn’s confusion lies in the term “the public”. What she has in mind is people working together, helping one another out. But there is no “public” in the sense she’s conceiving it, in the sense most good-hearted, unthinking Leftoids conceive it; no entity called “the public” that can act, can help people, can take up contributions and pass them on to the less fortunate.

Describing something as a “public function” or a “public option” is a lie. As an adjective, “public” has a useful meaning, usually deprecatory — nudity with the shades drawn and a Significant Other co-operating can be a lovely thing; public nudity is generally a nuisance for everybody else. As a noun, “public” can have one of two meanings in normal usage: something like the vector sum of the actions of all its members, or something more like a “committee of the whole”.

When you get a big enough society, almost all the actions end up cancelling out. It can’t actually do anything; it just sprawls across the sociopolitical landscape like an amoeba. The “committee” definition is worse. The intelligence of a committee equals the sum of the intelligences of the members, divided by the square of the number of members (some authorities make it the factorial of the number). A small committee is smart enough to get useful work done; by the time you get to twenty or so you’re in flatworm territory, and a “committee” of three-hundred-plus million Americans is dumber than anything with a notochord, and possibly dumber than anything that can move by itself. “The Public” can’t act. It’s more like an algal mat, clinging to the rocks and being torn by the waves.

What we have isn’t the Public, it’s the Government — and that’s a different kettle of piranha entirely. Worse, what we actually have is the Government bureaucracy.

In 1976, science fiction writer Larry Niven and multimath[1] Jerry Pournelle wrote their version of Inferno, with their own selection of people from history and characters from the modern world getting their “just deserts”. (The book is more fun if you know something about science fiction fandom and its in-jokes.) One of the characters in it is Hammurabi, the ancient Babylonian ruler remembered for issuing the first known written code of Law. Those same Babylonians were also the ones who invented the notion of detailed records for tax and management purposes; accordingly, Niven and Pournelle declared Hammurabi the inventor of bureaucracy. As such, the poor old fellow is sentenced to Hell — but only until he can put in his resignation. The catch is, the resignation has to be in the proper format with all the blanks filled in, no mistakes allowed, all done in cuneiform on a clay tablet before the clay dries hard in the furnace heat of the Pit.

A just punishment, indeed. Anyone who’s ever dealt extensively with, or from within, a bureaucracy knows how it works. The bureaucrat’s attention is fixed on, first, his or her own position, perquisites, and compensation; second on those of his or her fellow bureaucrats, both in competition with them and in concert when seeking budget for operations and expansion; third on the demands of his or her supervisors, taking care to minimally meet their requirements to save his or her position with minimal effort; and lastly (if at all) on the nominal functions of the Department and the people who need those functions performed. We often think of “bureaucrat” as being almost synonymous with “Government”, but that’s a mistake. Private companies above a certain size develop bureaucracies every bit as ponderous as anything Government can manage, requiring as much or more paperwork and red tape to get anything done.

Leadership doesn’t matter much to a bureaucracy unless the leadership also has both the power and the stones to fire people wholesale. Individuals within the bureaucracy may be punished for failure to perform; the Department, as a whole, soldiers on in the same old fashion, with the survivors pursing their lips and shaking their heads at the unfairness of it all, while spending more and more time covering their own butts and less and less on their nominal functions. Don’t talk about the “profit motive”, either. In any corporation, there are maybe three people who care about the Company’s profits. The rest of them, if they consider profit at all, disapprove of it. After all, if the Company made umpteen million dollars last year, surely it could come through with a teenyweeny raise…

In the case of Health Care, people object to medical funding decisions being made by Corporate bureaucrats sitting in cubicles, with managers looking over their shoulders and bitching about budget, and subject to a book of Corporate Rules. They therefore propose the “Public Option” — which, in the end, comes out to medical funding decisions being made by Government bureaucrats sitting in cubicles, with managers looking over their shoulders and bitching about budget, subject to a whole bookcase full of Federal Regulations which their SEIU contract says they aren’t obliged to know. I’m sorry. I don’t see the advantage, and it’s not got much to do with how much it costs.

[1] That’s a science fiction fan joke.