Who’s afraid of a little competition?

WHO’S AFRAID OF A LITTLE COMPETITION?…. Throughout the debate on health care reform, the right has been pretty consistent about public-private competition: they don’t think it’s fair.

The argument is unpersuasive, but it’s at least coherent. As conservatives see it, if private insurers had to compete against a public plan, the companies wouldn’t stand a chance — a public plan wouldn’t have to worry about profit margins, stock prices, or exorbitant salaries for executives, which means it could provide the same service at a lower price. On a level playing field, the argument goes, the private insurance industry simply couldn’t compete.

In a Fox News interview yesterday, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) made the exact opposite argument.

“[A]s far as liberals go, they want the government literally to control every aspect of our lives. We saw that with student loans. They put in a quotes [sic] public option for student loans, government couldn’t take the competition because the private sector was outperforming by far, so they shut out any private student loans. Today all student loans have to be public or government run.

“They’ll do the same thing in health care, government can’t compete with private industry — they’re not as innovative, they’re not as quick on their feet, they’re not as cheap, they’re not as high quality.” [emphasis added]

On student loans, Bachmann simply doesn’t know what she’s talking about. But on health care, Bachmann’s point is the polar opposite of what conservatives have insisted for months.

In this sense, I see this as a terrific opportunity. As Bachmann sees it, a public plan would invariably fail. By her reasoning, it’s inevitable — if Americans are given a choice, they’d reject Medicare-like public coverage and go with the innovative, affordable, high-quality insurance offered by private companies.

So, here’s what I propose: let’s give it a shot and see who wins. If Bachmann believes what she said, she can shut liberals up very easily — give American consumers a choice. If she’s right, and “government can’t compete with private industry,” Americans will choose private coverage. If I’m right, Americans will prefer a public plan. If she’s right, the public option would be rejected and wither away. If I’m right, we’d have a vibrant marketplace in which competition lowers costs for everyone.

Reform advocates would welcome that bet. If conservatives believe the private sector is necessarily superior to the public sector, they should gladly take the wager and prove their point.

Let’s give Americans the choice and see. Whaddya say, conservatives? Afraid of a little competition?