I see that The New York Times last week heard from the cultural phenomenon I call "Liberty Man. "

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I see that The New York Times last week heard from the cultural phenomenon I call “Liberty Man.”

Liberty Man rears up in almost any political debate, reaching out via phone, email or just old-fashioned venting at public forums to say: “It’s not my problem.”

Times columnist Nicholas Kristof recently told a story of how his college roommate, Scott Androes of Seattle, came down with stage 4 prostate cancer. Last Monday, he died at Swedish Medical Center.

The story was about how Androes made a huge mistake in not buying health insurance — even though he could have afforded it — and so lost his life while racking up $550,000 in medical bills that now will be picked up by the rest of us.

Kristof intended his column to mean that national health reform can save both lives and money. And that this election matters because one candidate, Mitt Romney, has said he will repeal the law’s universal insurance provisions, creating potentially millions more Scott Androes in the land.

Instead, Kristof said he was “taken aback by how many readers were savagely unsympathetic.”

“Your friend made a foolish choice, and actions have consequences,” one reader wrote.

“Not sure why I’m to feel guilty about your friend’s problem,” wrote another. “I take care of myself and mine, and I am not responsible for anyone else.”

Liberty Man! I hear from these rugged individualists whenever I write about anyone in trouble. Even if the matter is life-or-death, as it was last week at Swedish, a portion of the culture shrugs and says, “Tough, buck up, you’re on your own.”

Like at that GOP debate last spring when some of the tea-party crowd cheered the idea of letting a 30-year-old uninsured guy die rather than have society pick up the costs to treat him.

A few months ago I wrote about a Burien man with stage 4 lung cancer who was in a bureaucratic battle with both the state and his insurance company over the escalating cost of his partial drug-coverage policy. The kicker of the story was that the cancer patient, Patrick Nelson, was himself an insurance agent.

“When even the insiders have this much trouble navigating the health system, do we need any more proof it’s broken?” I wrote.

But a series of commenters lit into Nelson, the cancer victim. You get what you pay for, and beyond that, too bad, some said. This is what happens when government meddles with private enterprise, so by extension it’s Nelson’s fault because in this dispute he sided with the government.

“This guy just needs a better insurance agent,” one concluded.

Kristof wrote that this lack of empathy even for the sick and struggling “isn’t heroic Ayn Rand individualism. It’s sociopathic. Compassion isn’t a sign of weakness, but of civilization.”

I caught up with Nelson last week and he had heard all about the story of the uninsured man who died at Swedish. He said it resonated with him because he and his wife solved how to afford his now dramatically more expensive insurance in part by canceling her prescription-drug coverage.

“We’re not complaining, but she is now out there uninsured, taking a risk, for me,” he said.

As to the “let ’em die” comments, Nelson said he, too, was taken aback.

“I don’t think this is really what America is about, this idea that fundamentally you’re out there on your own,” he said. “We don’t throw you under the bus just because you don’t have full insurance, for whatever reason.”

Don’t we? Maybe not yet we don’t. But this tension between whether we’re going to tackle problems collectively or as every Liberty Man for him or herself seems like it’s at the core of the political debate today.

We’re the richest, most advanced nation in the world. That in some ways still acts like it’s pioneer days.

Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com.