A few months ago Imprimis, the monthly publication put out by Hillsdale College, printed an edited version of an address given at Hillsdale by Mark Steyn. Steyn’s piece, entitled “Live Free or Die,” is remarkable, as is typical for his work. Not to compare myself to the great Steyn, but it reminded me of something I wrote for the libertarian publication The Freeman way back in 1993, entitled “A Nation of Children.”
Back then we were facing some of the same assaults to the free market and individual liberty that confront us today. Hillary Clinton was leading the charge for government provided “universal health care” and President Bill Clinton and members of his inner circle, such as economist Robert Reich, had resurrected talk of government guiding the workings of the market through “industrial policy” and advocated the placing additional mandates on employers.
The fact that we are arguing many of these same issues now, 16 years later, points to the fact that those of us who believe that protecting individual liberty is the primary role of the government, came out, to a significant degree, victorious in those previous battles. “Hillary Care” went down to defeat, industrial policy did not take off, and though we lost the argument on increasing the minimum wage and other employer mandates, we did win on achieving meaningful welfare reform.
On the flip side, however, our renewal of many of these same debates reflects the fact that we did not win the ideological war. Though enough Americans were convinced that the Clinton’s version of socialized medicine would reduce the overall quality and availability of health care, for instance, most Americans did not sign on to the notion that none of this was the business of the federal government in the first place. We won the argument on practical grounds — big, intrusive government does not work — not on philosophical grounds — we should not allow government greater control over our lives. Since we did not win that philosophical argument in 1993, we now have to fight the same battle today, with a more powerful and ideological opponent in the Obama administration and its large left-wing majority in Congress.
The opposition to the power grabs of the Obama administration has been focused on the practical arguments. Cap and Trade will have no meaningful impact on global CO2 emissions (as admitted by the EPA), and will cost U.S. companies and consumer billions of dollars and cost jobs (yes, it will “create” some jobs in “green technologies” but cost many times as many jobs throughout the rest of the economy). Americans do not want health care rationing or reduced quality care, which is exactly what we will get under Obama’s European-style “healthcare reform” (which is designed to drive all Americans into a “single payer” government “alternative” insurance program) as is widely demonstrated in countries where similar schemes have been in operation for decades: In Great Britain, many patients are denied life-saving drugs based on the ruling of bureaucrats that they are not “cost effective” and roughly 40% of cancer patients never get to see an oncologist. In Canada, ambulances are often turned away from big city hospitals due to overcrowding, and it is not unusual for patients needing MRIs and other specialized treatment to be flown to rural American hospitals that are better equipped than many big city Canadian hospitals. All across Europe and Canada, waiting list horror stories are the norm, and you are far more likely to die from a host of ailments under socialized European or Canadian care than if you are being treated in the United States.
And the proposed “financing” for socialized “Obama Care” — placing the burden of a huge on-going entitlement on employers and on the backs of the top 1% of wage earners (who already shoulder 40% of the national tax burden) with a huge income tax surcharge, and on doctors and hospitals who, by government fiat, will be paid less and less for their services — is both immoral and insane, and will obviously have a negative impact on employment and economic growth, and on the quality and quantity of health care available. And what do you think will happen when the cost of the entitlement outstrips the revenue from the taxes on the small minority that is currently targeted to pay for it?
But the argument against these policies goes farther than merely the practical. As Steyn writes:
Once you have government health care, it can be used to justify almost any restraint on freedom: After all, if the state has to cure you, it surely has an interest in preventing you needing treatment in the first place. That’s the argument behind, for example, mandatory motorcycle helmets, or the creepy teams of government nutritionists currently going door to door in Britain and conducting a “health audit” of the contents of your refrigerator. They’re not yet confiscating your Twinkies; they just want to take a census of how many you have. So you do all this for the “free” health care — and in the end you may not get the “free” health care anyway. Under Britain’s National Health Service, for example, smokers in Manchester have been denied treatment for heart disease, and the obese in Suffolk are refused hip and knee replacements. Patricia Hewitt, the British Health Secretary, says that it’s appropriate to decline treatment on the basis of “lifestyle choices.” Smokers and the obese may look at their gay neighbor having unprotected sex with multiple partners, and wonder why his “lifestyle choices” get a pass while theirs don’t. But that’s the point: Tyranny is always whimsical.
When you tell government that it is its responsibility to make sure everyone has “affordable healthcare” or some other “benefit” you are telling an army of nanny bureaucrats that it is perfectly legitimate for government to regulate your behavior for your own good, the good of the “system,” or the good of the planet. And we have seen in America how seemingly innocent intrusions always expand as the years go on. For instance, the very reasonable proposition that smoking should be banned in public places where people have to sit grouped together, such as in sports stadiums, expanded after a few years, on the basis of questionable studies on the effects of “second hand smoke,” to the complete banning of smoking in almost all public areas as well as private property such as restaurants, to today where some municipalities are working to forbid people from smoking in their own cars and residences.
Using the hysteria of “man-made global warming” the Obama administration is pushing for Cap and Trade and other measures to take away freedom that otherwise would not have any political traction. Cap and Trade has nothing to do with forcing polluters to “internalize” the cost of pollution. It is all about placing costs on energy producers, and all who consume energy (that’s just about everyone, including couples making less than $250,000 per year) in order to force industries to use “greener” but more expensive sources of power, and to adapt their homes, businesses, and lifestyles to be more “eco-friendly.” By the way, authors of a recent study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, have suggested that Cap and Trade, to really be effective and “fair,” should be implemented on an individual level. No doubt, policy makers are taking much greater note of this study than they are of the fact that there has been no “global warming” over the last decade. And one must wonder, since the most potent greenhouse gas is not CO2, but methane, and the biggest single “man-made” source of methane is farm animals, for the good of the planet (as well as to keep health care costs down) will we all need to cap our intake of beef and pork?
Though liberals love to complain about conservatives trying to “impose their morality” on others, it is liberals who consistently argue for expanded powers of government over people’s lives, which ultimately result in liberals “imposing their morality” on the rest of us. And if you can’t be prodded or incentivised to act the way liberals want you to, eventually you’ll be compelled by law to do so.
As I wrote back in 1993, “Like children, Americans will sooner or later discover that they cannot rely on some authority to take care of them and still be free. It is a truism that with freedom comes responsibility. It is also true that freedom only lasts if people take responsibility for their activities and reject the premise that their lives should be made easier at the expense of other people’s freedom.” Unfortunately, today many Americans are perfectly content to bargain away what was for a long time the defining word of the American spirit in exchange for promises of federal paternalism.
Freedoms bargained away to government are usually lost for generations. As Steyn comments:
To rekindle the spark of liberty once it dies is very difficult. The inertia, the ennui, the fatalism is more pathetic than the demographic decline and fiscal profligacy of the social democratic state, because it’s subtler and less tangible. But once in a while it swims into very sharp focus. Here is the writer Oscar van den Boogaard from an interview with the Belgian paper De Standaard. Mr. van den Boogaard, a Dutch gay “humanist” (which is pretty much the trifecta of Eurocool), was reflecting on the accelerating Islamification of the Continent and concluding that the jig was up for the Europe he loved. “I am not a warrior, but who is?” he shrugged. “I have never learned to fight for my freedom. I was only good at enjoying it.”
Americans have historically been good at fighting for their freedoms as well as enjoying them, though an increasing number of Americans over the past few generations have been opting out of the fight and have instead taken on the attitude reflected by Mr. van den Boogaard. But if we stop fighting for our freedoms, they will be taken away by, at best, the likes of Mr. Obama or future benevolent socialists who believe that there is little intrinsic value to personal liberty, or, at worst, by future not-so-benevolent autocrats.