Libertarianism 4: Minarchism Revisited (or “No, John Locke is not a Libertarian”)

This is the fourth post in my ongoing series on Christian libertarianism.  Previous posts can be found by clicking on the following links: Post 1, Post 2, Post 3.

My last post on minarchism elicited some comments from some of my libertarian friends. I’m going to begin this post by flagging one comment in particular, offered by Dr. J (not the Dr. J of basketball renown; This is Dr. Jason Jewell, a college friend of mine, a Faulkner University professor and affiliated scholar at the Mises Institute). Jason writes:

Minarchism is self-defeating only if Lockean social contract theory is self-defeating. Minarchist libertarians usually resort to some sort of contract theory that justifies a “night-watchman” state, e.g. the state can defend property because each individual has the natural right to do the same, etc. So I think you’d need to deal with contract theory in some way to make this criticism stick.

Also, folks like Hayek aren’t strictly reasoning from the NAP. Hayek was an old-school classical liberal just seeking to maximize individual freedom, and he was willing to make pragmatic concessions here and there on things like the welfare state if he could get people to give up central planning.

I appreciate Jason’s observation and want to use it as the launching point for this week’s post.  Jason is correct to observe that minarchists often rely on social contract theory to justify the minimalist state.  If I’m understanding Jason correctly, he is suggesting that my previous post neglects to attend to one of the major philosophical streams that informs minarchist visions of the state: Lockean social contract theory.  I think Jason is correct here. In this post I want to consider whether or not Locke himself resolves the problem I point to in my previous post. I believe Locke does to some degree, but only because Locke himself is not the libertarian that some interpreters would have us believe. Thus the alternative title for today’s post, “No, John Locke is not a Libertarian.”

With regard to Hayek and the NAP, it’s hard for me to know what to take from Jason’s comment.  If I’m understanding Jason correctly he seems to be suggesting that the market interventions that Hayek himself defends in Serfdom are not so much principled commitments flowing from Hayek’s own theory as they are Hayek’s pragmatic acquiescence to the welfare state.  The principle problem I see with this interpretation is that it doesn’t well make sense of the language that Hayek himself employs when he defends state-sponsored social insurance and state laws regulating working hours.  Hayek doesn’t frame this commitment as a pragmatic departure on his part, a way of getting along with the welfare state. He says that such a scheme is entirely compatible with a commitment to freedom.  In other words, Hayek seems to think that what he is advocating here is consistent with the thrust of his argument in Serfdom. I find Hayek’s argument frustrating here in that he doesn’t do much to explain why he thinks guaranteeing security to individuals is compatible with his own definition of liberty.

But enough about Hayek. Recall that in my last post I argued that minarchism (i.e. the libertarian perspective that defends the legitimacy of a minimalist state) is self-defeating.  My argument was that minarchism offers no distinctively libertarian basis upon which it is possible to justify even the limited actions of the minimalist state. When a state assumes the role of protecting every member, and when that state prohibits individuals from executing justice for themselves when they believe their rights are violated, how is this not just another example of aggression? Can a state exist that does not violate the rights of persons? John Locke (1632-1704) was a 17th-century English philosopher, a major figure in what is today known as the social contract tradition. In his Second Treatise of Government, Locke makes the case that a limited state can exist that upholds the rights of persons (note: parenthetical citations below point to sections in Locke’s Second Treatise).  The question is, does Locke’s argument offer sufficient grounds for justifying a minimalist state, or is it too self-defeating?

220px-locke_treatises_of_government_page

I’m going to assume for the moment that readers are not familiar with Lockean social contract theory, begging forgiveness if the next few paragraphs are overly elementary to some readers. Without getting too bogged down in the nuances of Locke’s account of the origins of private property (an important conversation related to the topic of my post here, but something I haven’t the space to tackle) and the Lockean Proviso (also very important to understanding Locke, but not immediately relevant to what I’m focusing on at the moment) I’m going to summarize the story that Locke tells that leads him to his conclusion about the legitimacy of a limited state.

Locke begins by asking us to imagine a world in which there are no states.  Let’s call this state what Locke calls it, the “state of nature.” In the state of nature every individual possesses a natural right to their body.  Every person has a natural right to labor and reap the benefits of what they produce when they mix their labor with nature.  If I am a talented wood craftsman, for example, and I see a oak tree in the forest, a tree that I proceed to cut down and carve into a fine oak chest, I can legitimately claim that this chest is mine.  I have a right to this chest because I mixed my labor with nature in a way that gives me a rightful claim to what I have produced. I have this right, and so does every other individual in the state of nature (Note: I’m glossing over a lot of academic discussion about Locke’s theory of property).

john-locke-natural-rights-life-liberty-property

My right to mix my labor with nature is not mine alone. In the state of nature every person lives in “a State of perfect freedom” and “Equality” (§4). In the state of nature there is no government that takes responsibility for enforcing my right or protecting me from those thieves that might steal what is mine. In the state of nature when my right is violated–say that an armed robber enters my home and takes that fine oak chest I created–I have a natural right to punish the thief and to exact compensation from him.  He has violated my rights.  And here again, every other individual has this same right to punish and seek compensation.  Says Locke, “every Man hath a Right to punish the Offender, and be Executioner of the Law of Nature” (§8).

633679737659863139-johnlocke

What would life be like in this state of nature?  Locke’s vision here is not as bleak as that of his 17th-century contemporary Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679).  Hobbes’s pessimistic account of human nature leads him to conclude that life in the state of nature would be terrible. With individuals being driven to-and-fro by their unchecked desires and impulses, conflict and unending war are the inevitable outcomes.  Here life can only be “nasty, brutish, and short.”  Locke’s assessment of human nature is more modest. Yes, humans are acquisitive and self-interested, but humans can also embody the positive moral sentiments of compassion and other-regard. Human nature encompasses both virtue and vice. Thus, it would be quite possible for people to continue living in this state, and Locke seems to believe that there are moments historically in which humans have lived as such. Says Locke, “Men living together according to reason, without a common Superior on Earth, with Authority to judge between them is properly the State of Nature” (§19).

But this more positive assessment raises a critical question: if individuals could live in this way, each person asserting their natural right with no sovereign to interfere, what would ever compel individuals to leave the state of nature?  Hobbes’s pessimistic assessment of human nature points us to an obvious conclusion: in the state of nature our mutual fear and desire for security leads us to give up our natural right to all things. We are willing to forsake our natural rights, giving them over to a single sovereign who assumes responsibility for adjudicating our conflicts, enforcing law, and protecting us from the chaos that would ensue absent the sovereign’s rule.

But what about Locke? While life in the state of nature is possible and endurable, Locke argues that individuals will inevitably discover the disadvantages that attend life in this state. Yes, it is true that in the state of nature every individual possesses natural rights and that we will live alongside other individuals who are neither brutes nor saints. But even if humans have the capacity for compassion and other regard, in the state of nature what do we do when we disagree about what belongs to whom? I believe the oak chest is mine; you believe it is yours. I appeal to heaven, and so do you.  How do we resolve this conflict? In the state of nature each of us asserts what we believe to be our right, and there is no superior who can adjudicate the legitimacy of our claims. Conflicting property claims will too easily devolve into a conflict of wills in which brute force wins out over reasoned assessment of our claims.

Conflict over property claims is not the only disadvantage we will encounter in the state of nature.  Because of our natural self-love, individuals have a propensity to overvalue their losses when their rights are violated.  Because individuals have a right to punish violators in the state of nature, this propensity will lead individuals to exact punishment and seek compensation that is excessive. Furthermore, in the state of nature there will be circumstances in which a person can claim that their rights have been violated while lacking the power to punish the offender. What do I do if that oak chest was stolen from me and the thief’s brute force is more powerful than my reasoned objections? These disadvantages demand some solution.

Locke concludes that these disadvantages offer individuals sufficient reason to leave the state of nature. Instead of continuing to assert their executive power and to enforce their natural rights, people in the state of nature enter into a “social contract” in which they give up the “Executive Power of the Law of Nature” and “resign it to the publick” (§88). The commonwealth that individuals establish serves as the executive arbiter of the Law, responsible for adjudicating property claims, punishing violators, and protecting the natural rights of each person who is a member of the community.

Thus, political society emerges as a constructive solution to the problems of persons seeking to secure their natural rights. States act legitimately when they protect the natural rights of those who have contracted together to create this society.  The “fundamental natural Law” that governs the Legislative power of the state is, says Locke, “the preservation of Society, and (as far as will consist with the publick good) of every person in it” (§134).

So let’s connect this summary to minarchism.  Remember that minarcho-libertarians assert that only a limited state can be justified (though recall here that minarchists divide over precisely where the limit line is to be drawn).  I argued in my previous post that minarchism is self-defeating because minarchists offer no libertarian grounds that can justify the actions of the minimalist state.  Locke offers one possible response to this criticism. Like minarchists, Locke argues that protection of property rights is a paramount function of the limited state, and he argues that consent is essential to the state’s legitimacy:

“…The Supream Power cannot take from any Man any part of his Property without his own consent. For the preservation of Property being the end of Government, and that for which Men enter into Society, it necessarily supposes and requires, that the People should have Property, without which they must be suppos’d to lose that be entring into Society, which was the end for which they entered into it, too gross an absurdity for any Man to own.  Men therefore in Society having Property, they have such a right to the goods, which by the Law of the Community are theirs, that no Body hath a right to take their substance, or any part of it from them, without their own consent; without this, they have no Property at all” (§138).

As this paragraph stands, Locke’s argument seems tailor-made for the minarchist position. The minarchist objection to contemporary states, after all, is that they regularly violate the property rights of citizens when they tax them to pay for social welfare benefits, healthcare, and the like. Locke here seems to be arguing that states function legitimately when they safeguard the property rights of citizens who have given up their individual executive power to enforce their rights.  Minarchists also point to the coercive, non-consensual way that the state confiscates the property of taxpayers (i.e. consider once again Citizen X’s objections to the state from earlier posts in this series), so Locke’s claim that consent is essential to the legitimacy of the state at first glance seems to suggest a minarchist response to my criticism: the only actions that are legitimate on the part of the state are those that I consent to.

Has Locke solved the minarchist problem?  I don’t believe that Locke has.  The fact that Locke’s argument is not self-defeating is because Locke is not a libertarian. Or more precisely, the appearance of sympathy between Locke’s argument and minarchism is an illusion; Locke’s arguments depends on two crucial assumptions of Locke’s that most minarchists reject.

First, Locke’s view of consent allows that there are circumstances when states function legitimately against the explicit objections of some community members. For most libertarians when citizen X objects to being taxed his explicit rejection of the tax illustrates that the tax is nonconsensual.  Locke offers up a more layered view of consent in which the implicit consent that individuals express when they leave the state of nature to enter  political community takes priority over their explicit objections in moments when they conflict with the will of the majority. The formation of political community (i.e. what happens when we agree to leave the state of nature) incorporates individuals into a single political body (a “Body Politick”) “wherein the Majority have a Right to act and conclude the rest” (§95).  Locke explicitly rejects the idea that political consent must be tied to the individual wills of each member of the community. Indeed, to require explicit consent of every member would render political communities unstable, fleeting and ineffective:

“For if the consent of the majority shall not in reason, be received, as the act of the whole, and conclude every individual; nothing but the consent of every individual can make any thing to be the act of the whole: But such a consent is next to impossible ever to be had, if we consider the Infirmities of Health, and Avocations of Business, which in a number, though much less than that of a Common-wealth, will necessarily keep many away from the publick Assembly. To which if we add the variety of Opinions and contrariety of Interests, which unavoidably happen in all Collections of Men, the coming into Society upon such terms, would be only like Cato’s coming into the Theatre, only to go out again. Such a Constitution as this would make the mighty Leviathan of a shorter duration, than the feeblest Creatures;…For where the majority cannot conclude the rest, there they cannot act as one Body, and consequently will be immediately dissolved again” (§98).

Thus, when Citizen X objects to being taxed to fund universal police protection and military defense, Locke’s argument suggests a possible response, as follows:

Citizen X: ““I don’t want to submit to your authority.  I’m perfectly willing to purchase my own protection, and I’m more confident that a private personal defense contractor will provide better protective service to me than a bloated, inefficient state.  Further, I object to your demand that I pay taxes to subsidize the cost of the protective services you are providing to others.  If other people want your police protection, make them pay for it.  I see no reason why I must pay so that other people get access to the services you are offering.”

Locke: “No, Citizen X, because you are a member of our community, you have given your implicit consent to this contract that now binds us together. In leaving the state of nature, you have given up your executive power to preserve your natural rights.  There is now a single sovereign responsible for this.  Your explicit objections to paying for police protection and military defense are in conflict with the will of the majority, which agrees that you and other members are obligated to pay for police protection and military defense. We can’t have a political community that is beholden to individual will.  To allow your objection any sway here would make our community impossible to sustain. The consent of the majority is a reflection of your own implicit consent, the basis for our social contract.”

Locke himself insists that governments act legitimately when they tax citizens to pay for the services they provide, and he likewise subsumes individual consent into the consent of the majority:

“‘Tis true, Governments cannot be supported without great Charge, and ’tis fit every one who enjoys his share of the Protection, should pay out of his Estate his proportion for the maintenance of it. But still it must be with his own Consent, i.e. the Consent of the Majority, giving it either by themselves, or their Representatives chosen by them” (§140).

Taking stock of Locke’s argument, readers would do well to anticipate the libertarian pushback against Locke. Locke seems to be saying that my implicit consent to a social contract (a contract that I never explicitly agreed to! This is an imaginary contract! I was born into a political community that I never explicitly chose!) takes priority over my explicit objections to taxation.  He is saying that my membership in my community is a reflection of my implicit consent. One reason for libertarians to be concerned with Locke’s argument is that it implies something about the legitimacy of majorities to enforce policies that are in service to what Locke calls the “publick good,” policies that for some majorities will extend the reach of the state far beyond what minarchists will tolerate.  Locke himself similarly extends his own view of the legitimate function of the state in his “Essay on the Poor Law,” where he suggests that England establish publicly-funded working schools in English parishes responsible for teaching poor children skills that would enable them to become self-sufficient laborers, less dependent on public provision.

5a4c2a58b02548750e97118382ce02f04f9224e08792129bde445cb9c6278e20

Locke’s own defense of something resembling a state-funded system of education for poor children points to a second more interesting facet of Locke’s thought that suggests closer affinity between his position and modern welfare state liberalism than minarchism. I’m indebted to Matt Zwolinski, a contributor at the Bleeding Heart Libertarian blog site, for this observation. For Locke the law of nature that is the foundation for individual property rights is the same law that mandates a moral obligation to, in Locke’s words “preserve the rest of Mankind” (§6). The implications of this claim are made more explicit in a passage from Locke’s First Treatise (with credit to Zwolinski for drawing my attention to this quote):

“But we know God hath not left one man so to the mercy of another, that he may starve him if he please: God the Lord and Father of all has given no one of his children such a property in his peculiar portion of the things of this world, but that he has given his needy brother a right to the surplusage of his goods; so that it cannot justly be denied him, when his pressing wants call for it: and therefore no man could ever have a just power over the life of another by right of property in land or possessions; since it would always be a sin, in any man of estate, to let his brother perish for want of affording him relief out of his plenty. As justice gives every man a title to the product of his honest industry, and the fair acquisitions of his ancestors descended to him; so charity gives every man a title to so much out of another’s plenty, as will keep him from extreme want, where he has no means to subsist otherwise: and a man can no more justly make use of another’s necessity, to force him to become his vassal, by with-holding that relief, God requires him to afford to the wants of his brother, than he that has more strength can seize upon a weaker, master him to his obedience, and with a dagger at his throat offer him death or slavery” (4.42).

As Zwolinski correctly notes, Locke is not simply saying that it is a good, charitable thing for those who have means to give to those who do not.  Locke is saying that those who are in need have a title to the plenty of another. Says Zwolinski, “He is saying that the needy person has “title” to the rich person’s surplusage – and it’s hard to see how “title” could mean anything short of an enforceable right.  If, then, the purpose of the state is to enforce natural rights, then it looks very much like it will be permissible, perhaps obligatory, for the state to have some redistributive policies.”

This post has gotten long, so I’ll conclude by returning to the question that spurred this post. Does Locke resolve the minarchist problem?  Yes, he does.  Locke justifies the minimalist state by appealing to the implicit consent of citizens who have given up their executive power, a consent that takes priority over their explicit objections when those objections are in conflict with the majority will. But how minimal is Locke’s state, really?  Locke himself defends poor laws that include the public provision of education to poor children, and his view of natural law gives ample reason for justifying this provision as well as other provisions that enforce the title that those in need have on the surplus of the wealthy. If minarchists are willing to join hands with Locke this far, then liberals like me will welcome them to our fold.  The minarchist label seems inaccurate, but we’ll even let them keep it and get it on to the business of discussing the proper limits of this state that has commanded our implicit consent.

 

Advertisements

On Chess and Virtue

This week I felt inspired to take a break from my libertarianism series.  I’ve been thinking a lot this week about chess.  I love chess.  I can’t remember how old I was when I began to play.  I do remember losing regularly to my dad in elementary school until I picked up a beginning chess strategy book. Before long I was winning most of the time. I still own the portable wooden chess set I received as a Christmas gift many years ago. In junior high I attended chess club every week, hosted by Mr. Johnson, our junior high civics instructor.  “Here comes the power!” he would say when stronger club players would enter the room.  I came in second place my first year in his chess club, winning a computer chess set with gleaming metal pieces. During the summer I would pretend to be an aspiring chess master playing a rated chess match against my computer foe. I attained a small library of chess books. Every school year I would check out from our school library a book of the collected chess games of Bobby Fischer.  I had dreams of one day becoming a chess grandmaster. I looked forward every month to the arrival of my Chess Life magazine. In those pre-internet days the magazine’s arrival in our mailbox would provide the much anticipated update on the Karpov-Kasparov world championship match.  Times have changed.  These days you can watch the world championship match live via an online stream, with unbeatable computer engines providing their live assessments of the game.

lead_960

For several years I was a member of the United States Chess Federation, and occasionally my dad would drive me to the Pittsburgh Chess Club (1 1/2 hours from my home) to play in their Saturday tournaments. I recall one game in particular, a game in which I drew a won endgame against a player rated 500 points above me. I was disappointed by my failure, and my opponent replayed the endgame with me to show me my mistake. I lost a lot, and I won some. In college I stopped playing regularly, but during my doctoral work I became interested once again in the game. While I’m currently only an intermediate chess player, and while I rarely play in rated events, since 2010 I’ve been an organizer for scholastic chess in Abilene, TX.  Every week I run a chess club at Taylor Elementary School that has almost 60 members. Two years ago I began a second chess club for one of our local Boys and Girls Clubs.  I also direct the annual Abilene Scholastic Chess Tournament, a competition that over the past several years has hosted 60-70 students each year. Yes, I love chess.

Thinking about the elementary chess kids that I spend time with each week, I am reminded of an illustration that Alasdaire MacIntyre employs in his seminal book After Virtue. MacIntyre’s book is a polemic against the state of contemporary moral discourse, which he argues relies on an incoherent set of moral beliefs stemming from our Enlightenment past.  The modern presuppositions we bring to ethics render contemporary societies morally fractured. Moral disagreements abound, and modern enlightened selves employ a moral language without substance, rendering our moral discourse vacuous and sterile. We live in a world that truly is “after virtue.” Against this bleak picture of moral aimlessness and chaos MacIntyre advocates for the recovery of an Aristotelian ethic in which communities embrace moral languages and practices that promote virtues and cultivate character, all oriented toward a shared conception of the Good.

41rvatjsbsl-_sx331_bo1204203200_

In this blog post I don’t intend to engage the larger argument MacIntyre is making about modernity and morality. Irrespective of the merits of his argument, MacIntyre’s claim that contemporary ethics needs to renew attention to the cultivation of virtue seems valid to me even if one does not share MacIntyre’s pessimistic assessment of modern ethics. I want to assume that MacIntyre is correct in calling for the recovery of virtue and consider the consequent question: how does one cultivate virtue? MacIntyre’s answer is illuminating, and this part of After Virtue helps me make sense of the value of the work I do every week with my chess students. MacIntyre points to “social practices” as the locus for the formation of moral character.  A “practice” is

“any coherent and complex form of socially established cooperative human activity through which goods internal to that form of activity are realized in the course of trying to achieve those standards of excellence which are appropriate to, and partially definitive of, that form of activity, with the result that human powers to achieve excellence, and human conceptions of the ends and goods involved, are systematically extended” (187).

Practices are those things we do that require dedication, effort, and skill.  The range of activities in human life that qualify as such is broad.  Bricklaying is a practice. Playing football is a practice. Farming is a practice.  So is painting.  So is playing music. How do you cultivate virtue, then?  You cultivate virtue by participating in these sorts of practices.

Furthermore, each one of these practices can be associated with two types of goods: extrinsic and intrinsic.  Extrinsic goods are those things that we attain through the practice that can be attained in alternative ways.  If I play football, for example, a college might see fit to give me a scholarship to play for their teams. Or perhaps I will earn a lot of money when a professional football team contracts with me to be their quarterback. The scholarship funds I receive or the money I earn or  are both extrinsic goods.  The money is not essentially connected to the practice (i.e. I could play football in my backyard and receive no money or scholarship at all. I could also earn money or receive a scholarship in other ways). By contrast, intrinsic goods are those things that are internal to the practice itself, goods that can be attained only by participating in the practice.  If I want to become an excellent football player, for example, I can’t simply read about football.  I won’t become an excellent football player by playing Madden on the XBox (though I might become an excellent player of the Madden football game if I give enough time to that activity).  No, to become an excellent football player I need to play football. The practice is integral to realizing the good in question.

So what does all of this have to do with chess? In the context of his discussion of extrinsic and intrinsic goods, MacIntyre uses chess as an example to illustrate the importance of this distinction:

“Consider the example of a highly intelligent seven-year-old child whom I wish to teach to play chess, although the child has no particular desire to learn the game. The child does however have a very strong desire for candy and little chance of obtaining it. I therefore tell the child that if the child will play chess with me once a week I will give the child 50 cents worth of candy; moreover I tell the child that I will always play in such a way that it will be difficult, but not impossible, for the child to win and that, if the child wins, the child will receive an extra 50 cents of candy. Thus motivated the child plays and plays to win. Notice, however that, so long as it is the candy alone which provides the child with a good reason for playing chess, the child has no reason not to cheat and every reason to cheat, provided he or she can do so successfully. But, so we may hope, there will come a time when the child will find in those goods specific to chess, in the achievement of a certain highly particular kind of analytical skill, strategic imagination and competitive intensity, a new set of reasons, reasons now not just for winning on a particular occasion, but for trying to excel in whatever way the game of chess demands. Now if the child cheats, he or she will be defeating not me, but himself or herself” (188).

Playing chess is a practice too, and what I find most meaningful about organizing scholastic chess is that it affords me the opportunity to do ethics, not simply study it.  Every week I participate in the gritty, sometimes mundane, practical work of cultivating character among the girls and boys I am given the opportunity to work with. In teaching kids how to play chess, I don’t want them to simply want to win.  I want them to pursue excellence, to develop the attention and habits of mind essential to playing chess well.  That might sound abstract and ethereal, but the day-to-day things that one must do to cultivate these qualities of character are not.

Every September a sizable group of second graders make their way to chess club for this first time.  Most of them have never played chess.  Over the first few weeks they learn the rules of chess, and eventually they begin to play. They move pieces around the board with reckless abandon, with no apparent aim or reason behind the chaotic mess they leave in their wake. Disinterested in the finer points of chess strategy, some of my students feel it necessary to grant some of their pieces special powers.  “It’s Harry Potter Chess!” said one of my students some years ago when trying to describe the strange happenings between him and his opponent, who apparently had either forgotten or lost interest in the basic rules of chess. During their first semester in club, illegal moves are par for the course.

No, Brady, you never capture your opponents king.

No, Claire, your king is in check. You need to get out of check.”

“No, Ian, that’s a stalemate, not a checkmate.”

No, Alexandra, your board is set up wrong.  White square is always on the right corner.  The Queen always begins the game on her own color.”

They lose a lot. Sometimes they cry, and some of them have a hard time sitting down for an entire game of chess.

They keep coming to club.

Late in the fall we begin working on basic chess strategy.  Students practice some simple one-move checkmates.  We talk about the importance of developing your pieces in the opening, controlling the center of the board, and winning exchanges.  They keep playing. Some of the kids keep losing, and the new members who don’t lose quite often end up stalemating positions that they will win with more practice.  We talk about how to win well and lose well (“Shake your opponent’s hand.  Thank your opponent for the game.  Don’t cry.  Don’t rub it in when you win.”). Through the Fall and early Spring students participate in a regular season club tournament. In March we begin the March Madness club championship, a double-elimination tournament that concludes with the crowning of a club champion. By the end of the Spring most of the students have improved to some degree, some of them remarkably so.

636284596504357798-hunter-ely-ponders-his-next-move

They keep coming to club.

And some of them keep coming back for four years.  By the time they get into fifth grade, my veteran players–those same kids that lost every game in second grade and couldn’t stop crying–are not only winning games regularly but are modeling for the kids who’ve come behind them how to win and lose well.   Keep playing chess for four years in a club organized around a commitment to practicing the goods intrinsic to chess, and you’ll leave that club a different person. Stick with chess long enough, you might even become an excellent–that is, a virtuous–chess player.

Ten years into my academic career, I love my job. I count myself very fortunate to be in a career and working at a university where I continue to find my day-to-day life invigorating and my labor meaningful.  I know that there are many (too many!) people in this world who do not have this luxury.  That said, there are days when I feel that the time I spend with my young chess students, standing over a 64-square board and discussing such simple things as forks, skewers, double checks, and fianchettos will have more lasting impact than that journal article that will soon be published to be read by a handful of scholars in my field.

I need to wrap this post up.  My chess students beckon.

 

 

Libertarianism 3: The Self-Defeating Nature of Minarchism

This post is part of my ongoing series on Christian libertarianism.  Earlier posts in this series can be found here and here

hqdefault

In earlier posts I have focused my attention on some basic features of libertarian thought.  The impression these posts might give is that libertarianism is monolithic, with self-identifying libertarians sharing wide agreement on most issues.  Spend enough time talking to libertarians, surfing their blogs, and perusing Tom Woods’s daily email messages to subscribers, however, and you’ll discover that there are substantial, sometimes quite contentious, disagreements among libertarians. Over the next week I want to explore the variety within libertarianism. My hope is that this exploration will illuminate some bedrock questions that libertarians forces us to consider.

Recall from my last blog post that the non-aggression principle (NAP) prohibits anyone from threatening or committing violence unless that person is acting in self-defense against unjust aggression. Libertarians argue that states regularly violate the NAP when they enact policies and tax citizens to fund programs that politicians deem necessary, all with the implicit threat of state violence hanging in the background.  Following from this starting point, libertarians divide over the normative conclusion that this arguments points us toward.  If we assume for the moment that libertarians are correct that states regularly violate the NAP, what is the alternative?  Here libertarianism divides into roughly two camps:

Minarchists argue that the alternative is to circumscribe the power of the state so that it plays a very limited role, far more limited than that of most modern states.

Anarchists (“Anarcho-libertarians”) argue that the alternative is to eliminate the state altogether, to fashion a society built entirely on voluntary contract and consensual exchange.

Historically, minarchism has been the more prominent perspective in mainstream academic circles.  This is the libertarianism of Milton Friedman, F.A. Hayek, and Robert Nozick. Institutionally, the Mont Pelerin Society (founded in 1947 by, among others, Ludwig Von Mises, Hayek, and Friedman) is a major intellectual source of minarchist thought, as is the Cato Institute. Anarcho-libertarianism, while less prominent in the mainstream, is a perspective embraced by a cluster of revisionists economists, historians, and scholars mostly affiliated with the Mises Institute, a libertarian think tank based in Auburn, AL. It’s fair to say that Murray Rothbard is the father figure of modern anarcho-libertarianism.  Contemporary scholars who represent this perspective include Tom Woods, Robert Murphy, and Hans-Hermann Hoppe. The line between minarchism and anarcholibertarianism can be overdrawn, and historically there have been strong alliances forged between libertarians on both sides of the divide that blur the philosophical boundary. Still, disagreements between minarchists and anarcho-libs can get quite testy. I discovered this just yesterday while browsing an article written by Hoppe  in which he labels anyone who believes in the necessity of any state as a “fake libertarian” and goes on to ridicule those “honest but dim-witted libertarians” who vilify true libertarians (i.e. anarcholibertarians) and have abandoned the foundational principles of the libertarian cause.

tumblr_mzjav1ccdc1qgklg6o2_r1_1280

I’m planning a future post that explores anarcholibertarianism.  In this post I want to unpack minarchism further.  I’m going to foreground here my own non-libertarian conclusion about minarchism: while I find minarchism more defensible as an intellectual perspective than anarcholibertarianism, I also believe minarchism is self-defeating because it offers no philosophically consistent libertarian answer as to how a minimal state can exist that does not violate the NAP. It is the self-defeating nature of minarchism that makes anarcholibertarianism more interesting as a philosophical perspective, though a perspective that I find unpersuasive.  That’s for a future post.

So on to minarchism. Libertarians are critical of the wide-ranging encroachment of the state in many spheres of life: healthcare, education, social welfare, housing, the labor market, to name just a few. The minarchist solution to this problem is to limit the state to a much narrower set of functions, to turn the modern welfare state into a “minimal state.” A minimal state will not guarantee healthcare for all. It will not tell business owners a minimum wage they are required to pay their workers, nor will it promise poor families that they will receive tax-funded subsidies to buy food at the local supermarket. All of this of course begs the question: if the state should not do these things, what should the state do? Often minarchist visions of the minimal state lean toward something resembling a “night-watchman state.” Say minarchists, the state should provide a universal system of defense to members of the community: military and police protection. The state should also ensure that there is a legal system in place that can adjudicate property disputes and sanction individuals who violate the rights of others. That’s it.

screenshot2015-05-05at103832am

This limited state should feel familiar to anyone who has kept up with conservative-liberal debates in the United States over a host of public policy issue in the last two decades.  Progressives typically advocate for expansive state involvement, while conservatives frequently criticizing the state for overreach.  For the purpose of understanding minarchism, the key point is this: both sides agree that the state has some legitimate role to play. In this debate minarchists are much closer to the conservative end of the spectrum than the liberal. The debate is about where the line between justifiable and unjustifiable state action should be drawn.

But here is the problem that minarchists face: minarchists themselves draw this line in very different places, and minarchists do not always offer clear justification for granting the state the power that minarchists themselves say the minimal state should wield.  F.A. Hayek’s argument in The Road to Serfdom illustrates this problem (Note: Quotes from Hayek’s book are taken from F.A. Hayek The Road to Serfdom: Texts and Documents, the Definitive Edition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007 [1944])). Hayek is one of the most influential economists of the 20th century, winner of the 1974 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics.  Born and educated in Austria, Hayek is a major figure of the Austrian School and an ardent defender of free market capitalism.  Immigrating to Britain in 1931 to serve on the faculty of the London School of Economics, Hayek wrote The Road to Serfdom as a prophetic warning to British (and later, American) politicians enamored by the promises of socialism.

71fdior4jzl

Hayek’s argument in Serfdom is relatively simple to summarize. Western societies value individual liberty.  In their quest to promote social justice liberal progressives have embraced socialism, a program that threatens to undermine individual liberty. Socialism threatens democracy, and the utopianism that advocates of socialism embrace is totalitarian at its core. A capitalist system built on free markets and private enterprise preserves individual liberty and in the long run will be more effective in furthering the social ends that progressives desire.

For Hayek then, states function properly when they preserve space wherein individuals are free to make their own choices, live their lives without external interference, and engage in uncoerced exchanges in a free and open market. States overreach when they interfere with markets in the name of “preserving equality” or “promoting social justice”:

“The dispute between the modern planners and their opponents is, therefore, not a dispute on whether we ought to choose intelligently between the various possible organizations of society; it is not a dispute on whether we ought to employ foresight and systematic thinking in planning our common affairs. It is a dispute about what is the best way of so doing.  The question is whether for this purpose it is better that the holder of coercive power should confine himself in general to creating conditions under which the knowledge and initiative of individuals are given the best scope so that they can plan most successfully; or whether a rational utilization of our resources requires central direction and organization of all our activities according to some consciously constructed ‘blueprint.'” (85)

At first glance, then, The Road to Serfdom appears to offer up an alternative vision of a minimalist state: the community we should want is a liberal community in which the state exists solely for the purpose of protecting individual liberty, protection embodied in the state’s commitment to preserving the freedom of market exchange. Says Hayek, “[i]t is necessary…that the parties in the market should be free to sell and buy at any price at which they can find a partner to the transaction and that anybody should be free to produce, sell, and buy anything that may be produced or sold at all” (86).  Hayek also argues that a free market will ensure that all trades are open to individuals on equal terms and will prohibit all efforts to control prices or quantities of particular commodities in ways that interfere with competition.

But having offered up what first appears to be a textbook example of a Night-watchman state, Hayek proceeds to defend a much more expansive role for the state in community life. While free competition precludes setting prices or interfering with quantities, Hayek insists that there might be good reasons for other sorts of intrusions into the free market. He argues in support of restrictions on “the allowed methods of production,” for example, so long as these restrictions apply equally to all producers:

“Though all such controls of the methods of production impose extra costs (i.e., make it necessary to use more resources to produce a given output), they may be well worth while.  To prohibit the use of certain poisonous substances or to require special precautions in their use, to limit working hours or to require certain sanitary arrangements, is fully compatible with the preservation of competition.  The only question here is whether in the particular instance the advantages gained are greater than the social costs which they impose.” (86-87)

But Hayek’s claim here begs the question: on what grounds are these intrusions in the free market justifiable?  If a factory owner is able to find individuals who consent to work 80 hours per week at an agreed upon wage, why is Hayek’s claim that it is acceptable to limit working hours not just another example of an overbearing state infringing on individual liberty? If a laborer is willing to accept a higher wage from an employer knowing that he will be required to work with a poisonous substance for which there are limited safeguards, what basis does Hayek offer for saying it is acceptable for the state to interfere with this transaction? Hayek’s suggestion that we simply weigh costs and benefits begs yet another question: why not simply subject other market interventions–those price controls and minimum wage guarantees that Hayek rejects, for example–to the same calculus?

Hayek’s minimalist state does not stop at simply regulating the workplace. Hayek also asserts that there are some goods for which a competitive free market is ill-suited for coordinating the costs and benefits of exchange:

“Thus neither the provision of signposts on the roads nor, in most circumstances, that of the roads themselves can be paid for by every individual user. Nor can certain harmful effects of deforestation, of some methods of farming, or of the smoke and noise of factories be confined to the owner of the property in question or to those who are willing to submit to the damage for an agreed compensation. In such instances we must find some substitute for the regulation of the price mechanism.” (87)

Hayek concludes that in such cases we may well need “the direct regulation of authority.” This is a conclusion that any progressive could love! There is a pragmatic edge to Hayek’s minarchist vision.  He speaks out against what he calls “the wooden insistence of some liberals” to the principle of laissez faire (71); for Hayek, social ends might well dictate some modest interventions are necessary.  But finally,  what can be charitably described as an intellectual “pivot” (or, less charitably, as a glaring contradiction), Hayek himself leaves the door open for something resembling a state-subsidized social welfare system in his minimalist state. In chapter nine of Serfdom, Hayek outlines two types of security that individuals seek: “first, security against severe physical privation, the certainty of a given minimum of sustenance for all; and, second, the security of a given standard of life, or of the relative position which one person or group enjoys compared with others; or, as we may put it briefly, the security of a minimum income and the security of the particular income a person is thought to deserve” (147-148). While no society can promise the second type of security to its members, Hayek insists that the first kind of security can be guaranteed:

“There is no reason why in a society which has reached the general level of wealth which ours has attained the first kind of security should not be guaranteed to all without endangering general freedom. There are difficult questions about the precise standard which should thus be assured; there is particularly the important question whether those who thus rely on the community should indefinitely enjoy all the same liberties as the rest. An incautious handling of these questions might well cause serious and perhaps even dangerous political problems; but there can be no doubt that some minimum of food, shelter, and clothing, sufficient to preserve health and the capacity to work, can be assured to everybody. Indeed, for a considerable part of the population of England this sort of security has long been achieved.” (148)

hayek-small2

Hayek proceeds to advocate for a state-sponsored system of comprehensive social insurance, insisting that there is no incompatibility between such a scheme and “the preservation of individual freedom.” But here again, Hayek’s argument begs the question: if a state-subsidized social insurance system is justifiable as a legitimate function of the minarchist state, what are the libertarian grounds for such a conclusion? The conclusions that Hayek reaches here overlap with the conclusions of liberals influenced by thinkers like John Rawls, but Rawlsian liberalism offers a theoretical basis that allows us to answer why the state may rightly intervene. On what basis does Hayek reach this conclusion? Hayek is silent.

All of this points toward my own conclusion: I believe that minarchism is self-defeating. To illustrate what I mean, recall the conversation from my last blog post, the libertarian critique of the federal SNAP program. Libertarians argue that when the state taxes some people to pay for benefits other people receive that the state is redistributing private property in a way that violates the rights of taxpayers; this is institutional theft (once again, the Society for the Care of Cute and Furry Creatures looms large).  But if this is so, it is exceedingly difficult to figure out why the minimalist state that Hayek himself envisions is not itself subject to the same judgment.  Set aside SNAP for the moment, and set aside Hayek’s own fairly expansive (at least by libertarian standards) state.  Imagine  a minarchist state that is much narrower, that Night-watchman state that is responsible only for protecting individual property rights.  Even with this extremely circumscribed state, this is the exchange that minarchists are defending:

Minarchist: “Citizen X, we are requiring you to submit to the authority of the state, which will be taking responsibility for providing for your personal protection and upholding your right to your property.  This state will provide protection to you and to all other individuals who live in your geographic area. For this service you and other individuals will be required to pay a tax that will go to cover the cost of military defense and the police protection that the state guarantees to you. The taxes you pay will also go to cover the administrative costs of a legal system that will adjudicate any conflicts over property rights should they occur.”

Citizen X: “I don’t want to submit to your authority.  I’m perfectly willing to purchase my own protection, and I’m more confident that a private personal defense contractor will provide better protective service to me than a bloated, inefficient state.  Further, I object to your demand that I pay taxes to subsidize the cost of the protective services you are providing to others.  If other people want your police protection, make them pay for it.  I see no reason why I must pay so that other people get access to the services you are offering.”

Minarchist: “We are imposing only a minimal burden on you, Citizen X.  We aren’t asking you to provide welfare benefits.  We’re telling you that you are required to fund a police service and military that will be responsible for protecting your liberty. This burden won’t be yours alone.  All community members who pay taxes will fund this service. But to be clear, if you refuse to pay we will send the police to your door, and they will arrest you.  Our legal system (which your tax funds will also subsidize) will hold you financially liable for your refusal to pay.  You’ll end up paying even more than what we are telling you to pay. Better to accept this burden now and pay up.”

Citizen X: “I don’t care how minimal you think this burden is.  It’s an unjustifiable burden.  If I don’t want to pay to fund this military and police service, what is that to you? If other members of the community are volunteering to pay these taxes, why should I care?  I do not consent, and I consider your threat of imprisonment and financial penalty to be an unjust act of aggression.”

What is the minarchist reply?  Minarchism itself offers no obvious way to explain why even the limited role that the minarchist state plays is not just another example of unjustifiable aggression. If aggression is defined as threatening or committing violence against another’s person or property, how is the minarchist exchange above not aggressive? If the injustice of SNAP is that it is a program that redistributes the resources of some citizens in a way that benefits others, how is a universal system of police protection not just as redistributive when it guarantees that all individuals in the community will have access to police services irrespective of their ability to pay? The state is mandating that citizen X pay taxes to fund a service that citizen X does not consent to.  The fact that most of us might find his preference for a private defense service  to be unwise does not make this act unaggressive. A free society does not protect individuals from their foolishness, does it?

While I do not think that minarchists like Hayek offer a compelling libertarian reason for affirming the actions of the minimalist state they defend, this is not to say that minarchists have neglected this challenge.  In my next blog post I’ll be digging into Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Nozick has gone further than anyone in trying to make the case that a minimal state can exist that does not violate the rights of individuals.  Following that, I’ll be turning my attention to anarcho-libertarianism, a perspective that does not face the same self-defeating problems I’ve described here.

 

 

 

 

 

Libertarianism 2: Understanding the Non-Aggression Principle

This post is the second in my series on Christian libertarianism.  The first post in this series can be found here.

I have not yet mapped out a clear thread to this series, so I apologize in advance if at the end this series comes across as a scattershot discussion of libertarianism instead of a coherent argument.  Some of my posts in this series I intend as educational summaries of ideas critical to understanding libertarianism.  Eventually I do intend to offer up comments and criticisms of my own.  I hope that readers find this series helpful.

For this week’s blog post I’m going to offer up a working definition of a key term that is critical to understanding libertarianism. At its heart, libertarianism is a moral theory founded on a commitment to a single maxim: the Nonaggression Principle (NAP).  In his 1963 essay, “War, Peace, & the State,” Murray Rothbard offers a succinct definition of this moral norm:

“No one may threaten or commit violence (‘aggress’) against another man’s person or property. Violence may be employed only against the man who commits such violence; that is, only defensively against the aggressive violence of another. In short, no violence may be employed against a nonaggressor. Here is the fundamental rule from which can be deduced the entire corpus of libertarian theory.”

xduan

To get at the meaning of the NAP, let’s consider once again the Society for the Care of Cute and Furry Homeless Creatures (hereafter known as SCCFHC).  Recall from my previous post the details of the scenario: the Society has accosted you outside of your workplace and threatened you with a gun. You feel compelled to give the Society members the $75 they request, money that they will use to fund a homeless shelter for cute and furry homeless creatures. According to the NAP, in threatening to act violently against you the SCCFHC has aggressed against you; they have violated the NAP. Your decision to give them your money was not voluntary. Your money was stolen from you under threat of potentially lethal violence. According to the NAP it would be within your rights to resist this group’s unjust aggression, even to the point of using violence against them for the sake of self-defense.

7433837198_a4bfd842d2_z

That the SCCFHC is violating the NAP should be clear enough, but the more interesting point–the real import of all of this for understanding libertarianism–is that libertarians believe that modern states regularly violate the NAP too in ways that are just as difficult to justify as the acts of the SCCFHC.  Consider just a few examples:

  • From 1940 to 1973, the United States enacted a system of conscription mandating that all male citizens between the ages of 21 and 35 register for potential mandatory service in the U.S. military. While the United States does not currently conscript individuals into military service, male citizens between the ages of 18 and 25 today are still legally required to register for selective service in the event that the federal government decides to reinstate a draft.
  • Since 1964, the U.S. federal government has funded the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) that use taxpayer funds to subsidize the food budgets of lower income Americans.
  • In 2010, President Obama signed into law the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”).  Among the numerous changes wrought by Obamacare, the law prohibits insurance companies from denying coverage to persons suffering from preexisting conditions and mandates that all citizens be enrolled in an insurance plan.  Individuals whose income falls below an income threshold may qualify for taxpayer-funded subsidies that reduce the cost of their insurance premiums.

As outlandish as the SCCFHC illustration is, these three examples are not extraordinary in the least.  These are things that our state has done and is doing.  In each of these cases, libertarians argue that the State is violating the NAP. Imagine that you are citizen X of the United States, and consider each of the examples above as an actual exchange between parties:

Conscription

State representative: “Citizen X, we are requiring you to register for selective service.  Our country is at war, and there may come a time when our volunteer system does not provide enough persons to satisfy our need to successfully prosecute this war. If this occurs the law will require you to serve. This may mean that you will end up facing the threat of grave bodily injury, even death.  If you do not register for selective service you will be subject to felony prosecution and face imprisonment and/or a financial fine.”

Citizen X: “I have other things that I want to do with my life than participate in a war that you want me to fight, a war that I myself find morally dubious.  I don’t object to risking my body or my life for the sake of a cause I believe in, but that cause is not what you are asking me to fight for. If you cannot find enough volunteers to fight this war, perhaps this should give you reason to reflect on the merits of the war you are telling me I am required to fight.  It is unjust for you to threaten me with imprisonment simply because I am asserting my right to choose for myself how I live my life. I reject your attempt to force me to risk my life for a cause that I do not consent to uphold.”

112

SNAP

State Representative: “Citizen X, your yearly income is such that you are legally obligated to pay a portion of that income to fund services provided by the federal government.  One of these services is a program that subsidizes the food budget of Americans not as fortunate as you.  The annual tax revenue provided by you and other taxpayers will help ease the financial burden experienced by these poorer families. Should you refuse to pay your legal share of taxes, the State will confiscate money from your paycheck and will add a financial penalty to your tax bill as long as you fail to pay.  You may also be subject to imprisonment.”

Citizen X: “I have nothing against families that are struggling to get by.  In fact, I donate regularly to a local aid organization that is working to help lift families out of poverty. However, I do not consent to give you, the State, my money for this purpose.  I believe that programs like SNAP breed dependency, and I fear that the bureaucracy of this system is inefficient and wasteful.  Even if cared nothing for poor families, what of it?  My money is my own, isn’t it?  What right have you to force me to help these families by threatening me with financial ruin and imprisonment should I decline your request?”

food20stamps_1463098761570_1304722_ver1-0_640_360

Obamacare

State Representative: “Citizen X, we have good news for you.  because of a new law that we have passed, Aetna, Blue Cross, and every other insurance provider that services your local market is now required to provide healthcare coverage to you. And here is some more good news: in order to make the cost of health insurance more affordable for you, you may be eligible for a tax subsidy that will reduce your monthly premium. Here is the website where you will need to go to select your healthcare plan for the year.”

Citizen X: “I’ve looked at the plans available on the website, and I’m not really interested in purchasing coverage.  I don’t drink or smoke.  I’m young and physically very active, so I don’t think I’m going to need health insurance this year.  I appreciate the offer, but I decline.”

State Representative: “No, you can’t decline coverage.  Or technically, you could, but then you are going to be subject to a financial penalty that is only slightly less than the cost of the insurance.  The law requires that you purchase a healthcare plan unless you have health coverage through an employer. Our system needs young, healthy people like you to pay for insurance.  This is how insurance systems work; when healthy people pay into the system, you subsidize the coverage of sicker individuals in the system.  You do this knowing that in the future when you are the one who is sick and in need there will be other healthy people paying into the system so that you can get the care that you need.”

Citizen X: “Wait, you are telling me that I must purchase a product from a private insurance company because the rest of you need to me to pay money into the insurance system?  Why should that matter? My money is my own, and it is immoral for you to force me to purchase insurance when I do not consent to this exchange.”

hayek

I hope the examples illustrate the crucial point.  According to libertarians, states almost by definition are in the business of acting aggressively. The fact that it is an IRS bureaucrat threatening you instead of a masked gunmen does not make the threat less aggressive, nor does it make the violation of the NAP justifiable. The fact that our politicians insist that a war is just and necessary, or that poor families will benefit greatly from the SNAP program, or that other sicker people need me to pay for insurance to keep their healthcare costs down does not make the aggression of the state justifiable, anymore than SCCFHC’s insistence that wellbeing of cute and furry homeless creatures justifies their  aggression.  The NAP renders in philosophical form a principle that most of us find intuitively compelling, at least when we think about our interactions with other individuals.  Libertarians argue that these intuitions should apply equally to those institutions that are part of our life together.

If the NAP is valid, and if libertarians are correct that states regularly violate the NAP, it begs us to ask a question: is there an alternative to the State?  What would it look like to live in a community committed to upholding the NAP?  Is it possible to live without a state?  Or if this seems utopian, could we perhaps realize a community that minimizes the role of the state in our lives?  That’s the focus of my next blog post.

On Fluffy Animals, Armed Bandits, and the Inner Logic of Libertarianism

12495074

What I am Doing

This semester I an enjoying a research sabbatical away from teaching.  While away from the classroom I’ll be spending time in coffee shops and research archives reading and writing with an eye toward my next project.  Today I am starting a new series on my infrequently updated blog site, Christian Ethics Bites. My plan is to post semi-regularly here on some of the things I’m thinking about.  Broadly speaking, I’m studying libertarianism. More specifically, my project explores Christian libertarianism.  As with other threads that I’ve started on this blog my goal here is to take some of the ideas that interest me and present them in a way that is accessible to those who live outside the walls of the Academy.

But what is libertarianism? In his book Anarchy, State, and Utopia Robert Nozick famously defines libertarianism as a social philosophy committed to a simple maxim: “from each as he chooses to each as he is chosen.”  The maxim well captures the moral ethos of libertarianism. What is mine is mine. What is yours is yours.   I have the right to labor and to risk, to reap the rewards of my labor or suffer the consequences of my foolish wagers. Individual liberty–my right to my body, my property, my future–is the primary value that just societies strive to protect.  By extension, those policies, practices, and programs that infringe on my right to my property are unjust.  Thus, libertarians are some of the most zealous advocates for individual autonomy, and some of the most vocal critics of “socialism,” “collectivism,” and the welfare state, which in their view regularly infringe on individual liberty.

There is a lot to unpack here, but for this post I want to explain the essential logic of libertarianism by way of a thought experiment, one that I frequently employ in my social ethics course. Over the years, I’ve lost track of precisely where this illustration originated. I vaguely recall coming across it on the companion website to Michael Sandel’s Harvard Justice course. I can no longer find reference to this illustration there, so I’ll claim partial credit for it until someone can point me to where it originated.

Libertarianism: An Introduction

So now, the thought experiment. Consider these two scenarios:

Scenario 1: Imagine that you work 40 hours per week, a full-time job for which you earn $1000 per week.  Every Friday you receive your $1000 paycheck in cash from your employer in an assortment of $100, $50, $10, and $5 bills.  As you are leaving work on Friday with your cash in hand you are approached by a menacing group of masked armed men who are all wearing black “Society for the Care of Cute and Furry Homeless Creatures” polo shirts.  The men approach you with guns drawn and tell you that you must give them $75.  You consider declining this request, but you feel threatened, so you begin counting out the money for them.  While you are handing the armed men your $75 the group leader apologizes to you for the inconvenience.  He informs you that you are not alone, that they have approached a lot of people in this same fashion and that virtually every person is giving them money.  They also tell you that the money they are collecting will be put to good use.  These funds will go toward the construction and maintenance of a permanent adoption center for cute and furry homeless creatures.   With your money in hand, the armed men in black polo shirts enter their car and drive away.

getting-up-to-mischief-cute-kittens-9820830-1024-768

Scenario 2:  Imagine that you work 40 hours per week, a full-time job for which you earn $4000 per month.  At the end of every month your monthly paycheck is deposited electronically in your bank checking account.  Prior to the money entering your account, however, federal and state government offices withhold the following from the $4000 you have earned:

  • Social Security/Medicare Tax: $248
  • Income Tax: $75

Every other person you know of has their paycheck deposited electronically, and every other person you know similarly has some of their money withheld by federal, state, and local offices. You would prefer to spend this money in your own way, but you  fear the consequences of resisting, knowing that if you fail to have this money withheld you are likely to be taken from your home by strangers and imprisoned. You say nothing.

irs-agents-ar-15s-400x211

Consider both scenarios closely. Now consider this question: in scenario one, should the armed gunmen be arrested? Why or why not?

When I introduce the first scenario in my ethics class, the vast majority of my students conclude that the armed gunmen have acted unjustly. How about you?  Given the circumstance, would you not feel that the gunmen have harmed you?  Isn’t this money yours? Yes, the gunmen have promised you that your money will be put to good use, but what of this?  The social benefits borne from this theft do not justify the theft.  Yes, you may have a deep affection for cute and furry homeless creatures. You may even be willing to contribute charitably to shelter them. What you resent is that these armed gunmen are coercing you to give your property for their good cause. In so doing, the gunmen are violating your rights.  They are treating you unjustly.

Now consider the second scenario. Here we have another example of a forced transaction. However, this transaction is commonplace.  I receive my monthly paycheck and know that the state will confiscate a portion of what I have earned before it ever makes it into my bank account. It happens every month; I see evidence of this transaction every time I glance at my pay stub. I have many things I might otherwise do with this money.  I might prefer to spend it on my hobbies or my children.  I might prefer to contribute to my favorite charity or to invest in my future retirement. I might prefer to gamble this money away at a casino, an unwise choice to be sure, but a choice that I could have made.  In scenario two I can make none of these choices.  I never see this money. I know that I could protest, and I might even be able to find a way to circumvent this withholding, but I don’t.  I know that others are also forced to pay their taxes, and I know that the consequences of not paying are severe, so I pay. I say nothing.

A curious thing happens when I introduce these scenarios to my students.  While most students argue that the forced transaction in scenario one is unjust, these same students believe that the forced transaction in scenario two is perfectly acceptable. But isn’t scenario two just another example of armed robbery? Shouldn’t our moral objections here be just as strong as the objections we raise to the armed gunmen in scenario one? In reply, my students often argue that scenario two is not armed robbery. This forced transaction is facilitated not by armed gunmen but by the state, after all. The state has legitimacy in a way that armed gunmen do not. But why should we believe that this is so?   From the libertarian perspective, scenario two is no different than scenario one. Both scenarios offer up examples of unjustifiable coercion in which individuals are compelled to give up something that belongs to them without their consent. The fact that those taxes we pay go to fund really good things–public schools, public parks, children’s healthcare, a state system of highways, a social safety net, and the like–does not justify this forced transaction, anymore than the good of the shelter for cute and furry homeless creatures justifies the coercion in scenario one.  The state is just another armed robber.  Moreover, libertarians might even argue that scenario two is worse than scenario one to the extent that some of us are so willing to mask this robbery behind a veil of legitimacy. The fact that so many of my students are so willing to give the state a pass illustrates just how far gone most of us are, morally speaking.

Conclusion

So that’s my first crack at introducing libertarianism.  I’m interested in studying libertarianism for a variety of reasons.  I have a number of friends who identify as libertarian, and our ongoing conversations have piqued my interest in digging further.  Beyond these personal relationships, my sense is that libertarian rhetoric–appeals to limited government, objections to the perceived encroachment of a paternalistic nanny state, etc.–has become more commonplace in contemporary political debate in our country even among those who do not explicitly identify as libertarian.  In engaging libertarianism I hope to have something relevant to say about broader public debates about social justice and the role of the state. Having said all of this, I should be clear that I do not identify as a libertarian, and I remain unpersuaded, more or less, by the appeals of my libertarian friends and colleagues. I engage libertarianism as a critical voice, though one that fears that the criticisms of colleagues with whom I am close too often rely on caricatures of what libertarians actually believe. In studying libertarianism more closely I hope to lay to rest these caricatures, to offer up a fair picture of what libertarians actually believe in order to offer a more substantive critique of problems intrinsic to this perspective.

This post has gotten long, so I’ll conclude.  Next week I’m travelling to the University of Oregon library to check out their Special Collection on the Conservative and Libertarian Movement. I’m focusing some of my research on the work of Edmund A Opitz (1914-2006), Christian minister and longtime staff member at the Foundation for Economic Education, an influential libertarian think-tank currently based in Atlanta, GA. Eventually I hope to dig more deeply into the ways that Christians like Opitz distinctively merge Christian theology and libertarian discourse.

 

Books I’m reading:

Is Healthcare a Right?: A Reply to Jeff Hammond

The following is my reply to Jeff Hammond’s latest blog post, available here.  

9ba16_s_500_worldnewstrust_com_0_health-care-photo

There is a lot in Jeff’s latest blog post that I appreciate.  Something readers can learn about Jeff from his most recent submission: Jeff is a gifted teacher.  He does a fine job explaining an important concept that bears on our discussion about healthcare ethics: the difference between positive and negative rights. Jeff does this in a way that draws on his own expertise without speaking down to readers who are not legal scholars. In future discussions with my own students I could easily see myself turning to Jeff’s comments to help my students better understand the philosophical issues that inform contemporary debates about social justice and healthcare.  I’m always grateful for examples like this, even if the conclusions the author reaches do not match my own.

Furthermore, I think Jeff has done well to  draw attention to a real area of philosophical difference between us. Jeff indicates that I explicitly claim healthcare as a positive right.  Jeff denies that healthcare is a positive right.  To put this in terms often employed in contemporary healthcare debates, Jeff believes that healthcare provision is a privilege, a good that one may purchase freely, but not a good to which individuals are entitled.  Government should not be, in his words, in the “give-me-goodies” business. Government should be in the “keeping-out-of-my-business” business. In this respect, I think Jeff is absolutely correct when he identifies the critical difference in our positions: when I say that I prefer the NHS to our system of healthcare, one can take that to mean that I prefer a healthcare system that presumes access to healthcare to be a positive right.  Jeff does not see healthcare as a positive right, so our different postures reflect this important philosophical difference.

So is there a way forward for our conversation? I think so. Let me offer a few comments that extend on Jeff’s illuminating discussion of positive and negative rights:

(1) I think Jeff is essentially correct when he describe the United States Constitution as a document that embraces a robust vision of negative rights but does not offer a substantive account of positive rights.  However, to end our conversation of positive and negative rights there is to tell only half the story.  In her 2014 book Looking For Rights in All the Wrong Places: Why State Constitutions Contain America’s Positive RightsEmily Zackin offers a helpful corrective to the argument that the concept of positive rights is alien to the American experience. As Zackin argues:

Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and across the United States, activists, interest groups, and social movements championed positive rights, and built support for their inclusion in state constitutions. As a result of these political campaigns, state constitutions have long mandated active government intervention in social and economic life, and have delineated a wide array of situations in which government is not only authorized, but actually obligated to intervene. (2-3)

51ongbgboml

Positive rights are not foreign to the American rights tradition. Says Zackin, “State constitutions contain a plethora of positive-rights provisions that cover a wide range of topics. In fact, these constitutional provisions closely resemble the positive rights in constitutions all over the world” (11). These provisions point us to a more complex portrait of rights and American tradition than the one Jeff is offering, one that is more amenable to positive rights claims than conservatives want to admit.

(2) To elaborate on the previous point it will help to return once again to education as an example.  By Jeff’s logic we should be just as willing to say that no child has a “right” to an education.  If positive rights are foreign to “the best vision of America,” as Jeff argues, then why not treat state-funded public education as just another example of government getting into the “give-me-goodies” business? Zackin points to the common school movement as perhaps the best example of the development of a positive rights tradition among the states, devoting an entire chapter to this claim:

Chapter 5, a study of constitutional education rights, focuses on the common school movement, which originated in the Jacksonian period and continued through the Reconstruction era. The common school movement successfully established the states’ constitutional duty to provide education, and its leaders argued that government had a moral duty to expand opportunities for children whose parents could not otherwise afford to educate them, and insisted that state legislatures should be legally obligated to fulfill it. This movement was quite clear that the value of constitutional rights lay in their potential to promote policy changes by forcing legislatures to pass the kinds of redistributive policies they generally avoided. This chapter provides what may be the strongest evidence for an American positive rights tradition that exists primarily at the state level. Throughout American history and even in the face of federal involvement, state and local governments have been responsible for establishing and maintaining public school systems. Furthermore, every state constitution currently includes a provision about public education, and many state supreme courts have explicitly declared these provisions to be educational rights.” (16)

I gather that Jeff himself is amenable to the existence of state-funded public schools; he has already said as much (Note: a detailed summary of the state-level constitutional provisions mandating the creation of public schools may be found here). My question for Jeff: do you see public education as just another example of government overreach, or do you believe that all children have a “right” to an education such that the state plays a legitimate role in ensuring the existence of educational opportunities for all children?

(3) In the end, our disagreement about whether or not access to healthcare is a “right” or a “privilege” may be moot.  To this point we have not discussed at any length the existence in the United States of programs like Medicare and Medicaid. I don’t think that Jeff is claiming that the existence of Medicare/Medicaid itself constitutes a violation of constitutional principle (correct me if I’m wrong, Jeff). Thus, even if healthcare is not a “right” in Jeff’s eyes, I gather that Jeff is not arguing for the elimination of programs like this that provide some level of healthcare to the poor and elderly.  If Medicaid is a program that passes constitutional muster, then liberals like me would be fine with simply expanding Medicaid to cover as many people as possible, setting aside the philosophical question of whether or not access to healthcare is a “right.” The pragmatic goal of ensuring access to healthcare takes priority over the task of working out the semantics behind this goal.

(4)  Jeff’s discussion of the “give-me-goodies” government makes it sound like he envisions liberals like me as advocating an Oprah-style government that is dispensing out Lexus sport cars to every citizen in the name of promoting equal distribution (“You get a sports car! And you get a sports car! And you get a sports car!”).

oprah-free-car

This caricature doesn’t reflect my own thinking, nor does it reflect the position of John Rawls, the philosopher that Jeff points to. Jeff and I already agree that it is just to ensure that children have access to education.  We agree that it is in our collective interest that the state redistribute resources so that this happens.  We also agree that Lexus sports cars are not public goods, that using the power of the state to ensure access to a Lexus the way that we ensure access to an education would be inappropriate.  Our difference here, I think, is that I see healthcare as a good that belongs in the same category as education. Jeff sees healthcare is something that is closer to a Lexus sports car. I don’t see healthcare as a “goody.” I believe it is in our collective interest that every person have access to at least a basic level of healthcare in the same sense that I believe it is in our collective interest that every person have access to a basic level of education.

(5) Jeff understands my vision of the world to be one that values equality “for its own sake.”  I must confess that I have no idea what it means to value equality for its own sake. Jeff observes (correctly) that I have been influenced by the work of the American philosopher John Rawls.  Rawls doesn’t value equality for its own sake either.  In fact, Rawlsian liberalism declare certain kinds of inequality to be just–namely inequalities that are organized so as to provide the greatest benefit to the least well off members of society. Related to healthcare, the liberal perspective does not deem it unjust that doctors receive substantially more compensation than restaurant employees. In a society in which every member has access to healthcare, all of us benefit from a system of inequality in which doctors are well compensated for their labor. We would all be worse off in a system that creates disincentives for people to do the hard work necessary to become well-trained, excellent doctors. Some of us also need more healthcare than others.  A woman born with Crohn’s Disease will need a level of healthcare during her life that a healthy person like me will not. In short, inequality itself is not unjust, at least from the liberal perspective that I defend. Some people will have more, others less.  Some people will also need more.  Inequalities are permissible. Sometimes inequality is itself desirable.

That’s my first crack at responding to Jeff’s lucid discussion of rights.  I’ll close this post with a few shorter comments in response to the last half of Jeff’s last post:

(1) I asked Jeff if he would be okay with maintaining the ACA requirement that health insurance providers provide insurance access without regard to pre-existing conditions.  Jeff replied that if we do this then we should stop calling the product “insurance” and should call it instead health care “coverage.”  My followup question for Jeff: Okay, so would you be okay with maintaining the ACA requirement and relabeling the product a “health care coverage” plan, not insurance?  Attaching a new label to the product doesn’t really address the important question of whether or not you support the mandate.

(2) I agree with Jeff that we probably need to adopt a wait-and-see approach to the current system.  The politics of healthcare reform are always messier than the principled discussions of liberals and conservatives.  Regardless, I am still interested in hearing from Jeff about his idealized alternative.  That is, if he could fashion an ideal system of healthcare provision, what would that system look like?  I’m inviting Jeff to set aside the difficult question of what is possible and to help us envision what is desirable from his vantage point.

(3) I was surprised at how mild Jeff was in his criticism of the NHS.  I agree with Jeff that implementing an NHS-style healthcare system in the United States is not feasible.  I’d also argue that it is not desirable given the circumstances we are in. The obstacles that would attend moving from a healthcare system consisting primarily of private contractors to one in which doctors become employees of the state would be substantial, and the collateral damage of such a move would be grave.  Of course the NHS offers only one example of how to socialize a healthcare system.  There are plenty of other industrial democracies that maintain a system consisting primarily of private healthcare providers while socializing or regulating the provisioning system that compensates them for the care they provide.  I really appreciate Jeff’s appeal to T.R. Reid’s book The Healing of America: A Global Quest for Better, Cheaper, and Fairer Health Care. Reid’s book is a great introduction to how other countries are addressing the healthcare needs of their citizens in ways that are more cost-effective and fairer than in the United States.

51k0evre10l

(4) Jeff may well be correct that U.S. citizens are less amenable to the intrusions of the state into healthcare than their British counterparts. This is why conversations of this sort are so important.  Minds need to change.  As for the “bureaucratic queues” of the NHS that worry Jeff so much, anecdotal appeals can be misleading.  Jeff speculates that his 7 week wait to have non-emergency gall bladder surgery would have been much longer in the United Kingdom.  It’s hard to render this speculation concrete, but in 2013 the Commonwealth Fund conducted an extensive survey of healthcare consumers from 11 nations, including the United States and the United Kingdom.  Among the findings of the survey:

  • The United States spent roughly $8508 per capita on healthcare during the calendar year. The United Kingdom spent roughly $3405 per capita during the same time.
  • 37% of Americans surveyed indicated that they had experienced a”cost-related access problem.” In the United Kingdom, 4% indicated this experience.
  • 23% of Americans surveyed indicated that they had a “serious problem paying or were unable to pay medical bills in the past year.” In the UK: 1%.
  • 48% of Americans surveyed indicated that they were able to schedule a same-day or next day appointment with a doctor.  In the UK: 52% indicated this.
  • 26% of Americans surveyed indicated that they had to wait 6 or more days for an appointment. In the UK: 16% indicated this.
  • What about waiting times for specialist appointment? 76% of Americans surveyed indicated that they waited less than 4 weeks.  In the UK: 80% indicated that they waited less than 4 weeks.  Alternatively, 6% of Americans surveyed indicated that they had to wait two or more months.  In the UK, 7% of survey respondents indicated that they had to wait this long.

This data suggests that appeals to long wait times in the NHS can be misleading.  Even Jeff’s experience in the American system illustrates that waiting for non-urgent care is a reality that American patients experience. We should be careful not to read too much into a single survey, just as we should be careful to avoid reading too much into individual stories of a healthcare consumer’s bad experience in the American healthcare system or in the NHS. Having said this, the survey provides some evidence against the overwrought angst of conservatives fearful of the specter of socialized medicine.

 

 

 

“Right, Rights, Everywhere There Are Rights”: Jeff Hammond on Healthcare and the NHS

The following is Jeff Hammond’s latest contribution to our ongoing discussion of healthcare ethics.  This post is part 2 of Jeff’s reply to my earlier blog posts, available here and here. The first part of this post replies to my post, “Conservatives are ‘Collectivists’ Too.”

brookes_06_01_2015_1029430c

Let’s see if I can tackle some of the points Vic makes in the last one-third of this essay.

Rights, Rights, Everywhere There Are Rights

The first thing I want to emphasize comes not from Vic’s penultimate essay, but his last one.  Vic explicitly claims healthcare as a positive right.  He enthusiastically endorses Great Britain’s system of socialized healthcare, as delivered through the National Health Service, as the type of taxation, payment, and delivery system that he would like to see implemented in the United States.  More on the NHS later in this essay, but I have to make my most important point about it first.   I forthrightly deny that healthcare is a right in the sense that I perceive Vic to be using the word: as a fundamental claim for a particular benefit to be provided by the government.

To be succinct, I do not believe that positive rights, including a positive right to healthcare from cradle to grave, tracks with the best vision of America, from its founding to today.  Our founders believed that rights were venerable.  Rights were granted by God and recognized (yet not granted) in the Constitution.  That rights are innate and merely recognized in our central charter should cause the government charged with protecting those rights to be circumspect and respectful of them.  But more importantly, it should cause that same government to be humble in its role, recognizing that it (the government) did not create anything.  Its role is only to recognize and protect.

The framers of our Constitution (and here I’m including the state ratifying conventions, the first Congress that framed the Bill of Rights, and the states that ratified the Bill of Rights), erected a charter of negative rights – things that the government could not do to the citizen.  [Let’s just grant, without explanation, that many provisions of the United States Constitution have been incorporated against the States.]  Congress cannot abridge your right to freely speak, or mess with your right to practice your religion as you see fit, or interfere with your right to stand up and petition the government for a redress of (your) grievances, among other things.

That all of these rights, and others, have been interpreted and limited by the Supreme Court does not vitiate the basic point: as stated in the text of the Constitution, the government does not give you anything that you can put in your pocket.  One of the central points of our Constitution is about what the government can’t do to you, the citizenBy extension, another essence of our Constitution is that it is not about what the government must grant to you.  Therefore, government is in the keeping-out-of-my-business business.  It is not in the give-me-goodies business.

I do not think that I am out of turn by stating that Vic’s vision of the world in which equality is a fundamental norm that is prized for its own sake.  That is inline with Vic’s worldview that adheres to the teachings of John Rawls.  My worldview is different:  government exists, not to guarantee equality for its own sake, but rather to guarantee equality of opportunity so that the citizen, who is ultimately sovereign, may choose according to his reason and will what is best for him.

So, if government is in the keeping-out-of-my-business business, then I should have the freedom to buy health insurance or not buy it.  I should reap the rewards of having health insurance when I need to use it.  I should reap the consequences of not having health insurance when I need to use it but don’t have it.

At this point, let me anticipate one counterargument.  What about EMTALA, you say?  To that I answer: the right to be treated in the emergency room for an “emergency medical condition” is one that is limited by statute.  It does not extend from the cradle to the grave like (presumably) a constitutional right to healthcare would.

What About the Affordable Care Act?

 Now, let’s pivot to the heart of the last one-third of Vic’s essay in which he touts the virtues of the Affordable Care Act.  Vic asked me for the “conservative” response to (1) the individual mandate; (2) the ACA prohibition on refusing to write individual insurance policies based on the applicant’s pre-existing conditions; and (3) income subsidies so that people can buy health insurance.  Let me answer these seratim.

(1)  The Individual Mandate – there isn’t a truly conservative version of this mandate for all the reasons I’ve previously stated.  It offends my most deep-seated conservative inclinations for the government to tell me that I must buy a particular product.  This mandate can’t be made more palatable by putting some conservative veneer on it.  And, yes, I know that Vic will harken back to his first post in this debate in which he refers to the Heritage Foundation scholar who first ginned up the Individual Mandate lo, these many years ago.  The mandate’s patrimony makes it neither right nor conservative.

(2)  The ban on insurers refusing to write individual health insurance policies based on the applicant’s pre-existing conditions.  This is easy.  If this is to remain in whatever is left of the ACA, we should call the “product” that is the focus of the ACA not health “insurance” but health care “coverage” because the product is not bona fide insurance.  By definition, insurers make contracting decisions on applicants based on the applicant’s prior history.  Don’t be surprised if your auto insurer drops you after your third fender-bender.  Don’t be surprised if your home insurance drops you after your fifth claim in two years.  And don’t be surprised if you can’t find an another auto or home insurer to pick up your account based on your pre-existing condition (your claims history)!  That’s just how insurance works!  If insurance is to be something we’ve always known as insurance, then the insurer will have to have some leeway in picking among the risks that it wants to insure.  Otherwise, it’s not really insurance.

(3)  Tax subsidies – I’m sort of ambivalent about this.  It’s certainly not very conservative to tax the rich(er) to redistribute to the poor(er), but it happens with such frequency that I’ve become numb to this forced redistribution.  To the extent that I have to pay for a lot of things that I wouldn’t necessarily prefer just goes to show that Congress has taken a very broad view of its taxing and spending power.  Do I hate the fact that people not as well off as I am are getting subsidies from the government to buy health insurance?  I do not.  Do I love this fact?  I do not.  I do wish, however,  the government wouldn’t tax me for anything that falls outside the any of the essential functions of government.

My thoughts on the constituent parts of the ACA are academic at this point because I would be shocked if the law were repealed in its entirety.  I would love to see that done, but I have no confidence that will happen.  Instead, I think that congressional Republicans’ calls to “repeal and replace” the ACA will ultimately amount to a targeted repeal and replacement.  President Obama focused on shepherding the ACA through Congress in his first term because (a) rationally, he did not know that he would be elected to a second term; and (b) passing the bill in 2010 gave the country, and more importantly, the Executive Branch bureaucracy almost seven years to write tens of thousands of pages of regulations implementing the statute.  The statute itself, as passed by Congress and signed by President Obama, is anywhere between 900 and 2000 pages, depending on how the text is printed.  The implementing regulations, when printed, pass the statute’s page count by orders of magnitude.  It will be terribly hard to undo what has already been done.  I think that was by design.  In other words, I think that the ACA’s proponents wanted to so completely reconstruct the American healthcare system through the ACA and its implementing regulations that the task of deconstructing this new system would not be worth the trouble.

Hence, as I stated above, I believe that the ACA will be partially repealed and replaced.  It’s obvious that President Trump has quite a bit of energy to act.  (Whatever you might think of the soundness of the President’s actions is a different story.)  It’s instructive that the President and the congressional Republicans have not acted yet with respect to the ACA.  I think that’s because they don’t know yet what they are going to do.

We’ll see what happens.  Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky and Congressman Mark Sanford of South Carolina (yes, that Mark Sanford) have proposed a plan that would repeal the ACA and in its stead replace it with tax credits and a modified version of the pre-existing condition coverage mandate. Nevertheless, I maintain my argument.  Once Congress gets serious about “making the sausage,” Rand Paul or anyone else’s plan will very likely look nothing like what he originally proposed.  That’s just what happens when crafting important legislation.

Now, Onto the National Health Service

I have time for just a few thoughts about Great Britain’s National Health Service (NHS) before I wrap up this essay (actually before my self-imposed 10 A.M. deadline of getting my essay to Vic.  LOL).  Anyway, here goes:

In Great Britain, healthcare is a “claim” right against the government from cradle to grave.  The vehicle that was chosen to deliver this lifelong care is the National Health Service.  Britain chose the NHS model of socialized healthcare in the aftermath of World War II, when the country was in desperate straights.  The British people were more or less united in wanting a tangible representation of their social solidarity, and the NHS was such a vehicle.  The NHS has become so entrenched in British culture and political consciousness that attempts to “repeal and replace” it have uniformity failed, as Vic has noted.

T.R. Reid, a correspondent for the Washington Post, wrote a fascinating book entitled The Healing of America: A Global Quest for Better, Cheaper, and Fairer Health Care.  In this book, Reid surveys the health systems of several Western-style, modern democracies, including France, Germany, Japan, and Great Britain.  The point in telling you about this book is not to summarize each country’s model of health payment or delivery but rather to point out that all of these countries, including Great Britain, have a much more cohesive society that truly wanted, and still wants, health reform.  In several of these countries, including Great Britain, this health reform takes the form of government-led, top-down approach to the citizen’s most important health decisions.  Each of these countries, including Great Britain, has a society that is willing to get behind the sacrifices of whatever stripe that are needed in order to make a nationalized health system work.

My point is this: America does not have such a cohesive society.  Bernie Sanders’ health reform ideas mirror the NHS the most of any candidate in the 2016 election.  Let’s say that Bernie runs again in 2020.  He would first have to win the Democratic nomination (by peeling off more moderate Democratic voters), then he would have to convince a significant number of Republican voters to vote for him to give him the type of popular mandate that would allow him to force through Congress a revolutionary health plan mirroring, in part, the NHS.  Plus, Congress would have to flip to Democratic control.  I don’t see it happening soon.

Our nation is too divided.  There are enough people like me who do not want to be stuck in bureaucratic queues to receive our healthcare, that I believe popular opinion would effectively kill any attempt to implement a NHS-style plan in America.

Even though there is a lot that can be said about the NHS, let me say one last thing for right now.  In his last essay, Vic mention NHS’s queues (waiting lists) as an example of the type of “moderate scarcity” that he supports (or is comfortable with).  The existence of these queues, of all the features of the NHS, would kill its ascendency in the United States.  Let me give you a personal example.  I mentioned in a previous essay that I was hospitalized in 2016.  I had stable gallbladder disease.  My pain was severe enough at the onset of an episode that I had to take an ambulance ride to the hospital and spend about 36 hours there.  That’s where the bills totaling over $14,000 came from.  Even though my pain was severe, my case was stable, so I didn’t need surgery right away.  I ended up having surgery, on an outpatient basis, about seven weeks after my initial hospitalization.  Could I have waited longer than seven weeks if I needed to?  Probably so, in my layman’s opinion.  As far as I know, my health was not compromised by waiting, and I could have waited a little longer.  Did I want to wait any longer?  Absolutely not!  My gallbladder disease was significantly affecting the way I went about my day.  [It was a gastrointestinal disease.  Just think about how my day was affected, including, but not limited to, what I had to eat. :)]

Who knows how long the planners at NHS would have made me wait?  I’m inclined to think I would have had to wait longer than seven weeks for my surgery.  But look at all the tumblers of the lock, as it were, that fell into place that resulted in my getting the care I needed, when I needed it: (A) I went to the emergency room and got great care there, including, importantly pain medicine.  (B) I was admitted to the hospital, and I received excellent care from the hospital-based doctors, nurses, and technicians.  I received the medicines and imaging studies I needed.  (C) I was referred back to my family doctor.  Of the problems noted on my discharge summary, he honed in on the most important, and most likely diagnosis – gallbladder disease.  (D) He (or his staff) called over to the surgeon’s office and scheduled an appointment for me to see the surgeon.  (E) The surgeon saw me immediately, counseled me on my disease, told me the number of like surgeries he had done (thousands!!), and scheduled surgery.  (F)  Surgery was done, and I went home the same day.

I have no doubt that at least part of the reason I received such excellent care was because I have excellent health insurance.  Again I wonder whether I would have received such excellent care if I lived in Birmingham, England rather than south of Birmingham, Alabama.  I doubt it.

That’s about all I have time for right now.  I’m up against the clock.  More on the NHS in a subsequent essay.