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Ezekiel Emanuel and the Skeletal Grin of Collectivism

Lurking behind Emanuel’s wish to die at 75 is the premise that the individual is only valuable so long as he serves society.

Ezekiel Emanuel’s article on why he hopes to die at 75 has been a revealing little moment in the debate over ObamaCare and the government’s role in health care. It’s disturbing practical implications have been described succinctly in The Federalist:

When Ezekiel Emanuel popped onto the national stage during the Obamacare deliberations, some of us had serious misgivings. We were familiar with his previous work, such as his ‘complete lives system’ of allocating health resources. This would have prioritized adolescents and young adults in receiving health care and put infants and the elderly at the end of the line…. Many Obamacare critics worried such an allocation system would be used sooner or later to ration services within the program.

So when he talks about what age he thinks people should die at, he’s not just giving his own opinion as a private citizen. He’s giving an opinion that has the power to influence whether or not a government-run medical system decides to pay for your care. So he really is issuing a rule for you, not for him.

(As a corrective to some of Emanuel’s dubious facts, also check out an article—in the very same issue of the very same magazine—laying out the real trend: soon, we’re all going to live to 100, and rather than extra years of decrepitude, we will mostly get extra years of vitality.)

But there is a deeper and more disturbing premise lurking behind Emanuel’s article. Consider his creepy description of the supposed plight of his own father.

About a decade ago, just shy of his 77th birthday, he began having pain in his abdomen. Like every good doctor, he kept denying that it was anything important. But after three weeks with no improvement, he was persuaded to see his physician. He had in fact had a heart attack, which led to a cardiac catheterization and ultimately a bypass. Since then, he has not been the same. Once the prototype of a hyperactive Emanuel, suddenly his walking, his talking, his humor got slower. Today he can swim, read the newspaper, needle his kids on the phone, and still live with my mother in their own house. But everything seems sluggish. Although he didn’t die from the heart attack, no one would say he is living a vibrant life. When he discussed it with me, my father said, “I have slowed down tremendously. That is a fact. I no longer make rounds at the hospital or teach.” Despite this, he also said he was happy.

“He also said he was happy.” Shouldn’t that end the argument? It should, if the purpose of life is the happiness of the individual, and if the pursuit of happiness is regarded as a basic individual right in our political system. Which, of course, it is.

But lurking behind Emanuel’s article is the opposite premise: that the individual is only valuable so long as he serves society. The entirety of his article is focused on how productive individuals are with age, by which he mean how much they “contribute” to society, and “whether our consumption is worth our contribution.” Since such “contributions” decline with age, at some point the individual reaches a cutoff at which his life no longer has utility for the human hive and is not worth the effort of prolonging.

That premise—that the individual lives only for the sake of the collective and must justify his existence by his service to society—is something that most on the left will not state fully and openly any more. The era of doctrinaire collectivism has passed, but it lingers on as a poisonous hidden premise. It is the skeletal grin that persists long after the corpse of Communism—and of its millions of victims—has decomposed.

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