Wednesday, April 14, 2010

American political debates and (world) history

I often have trouble restraining myself from commenting on US politics in this blog. The USA is a big, important country and no matter what definition of "world history" you adhere to, just ignoring it would wildly distort my commentary. On the other hand, we have so much American news available that it's easy to look at everything from a US point of view.

Sometimes, however, internal historical-political debates in the USA are really important for outsiders to have some acquaintance with, simply because some positions adopted by Americans are a little hard to believe. And American readers of this blog may find it interesting to consider why outsiders might feel that way.

So much for prologue. Today's example comes from the debate over health insurance reform in the USA (I consider that a more accurate term than "health care reform.")
Opponents of HIR have made all sorts of dire claims for the evil consequences of the Obama program, to the point that some of them are harking back to the policies of nullification and secession that defenders of slavery championed, in the name of liberty, in the early 19th century. Some justify their hostility by appealing not so much to "conservative" principles (since many American "conservatives" have proved to be pro-big government) but to "libertarianism."

Self-proclaimed libertarians tend to be cranky individualists, so it's hard to say how much common ground any group of libertarians have. So maybe some of you readers will find it interesting to look at a debate that has spilled out over some forums in the last little bit.

It started at with David Boaz writing an article on the theme "There's no such thing as a golden age of lost liberty," which the editors of Reason paired with a critique by Jacob Hornberger which included this passage:

Let’s consider, say, the year 1880. Here was a society in which people were free to keep everything they earned, because there was no income tax. They were also free to decide what to do with their own money—spend it, save it, invest it, donate it, or whatever. People were generally free to engage in occupations and professions without a license or permit. There were few federal economic regulations and regulatory agencies. No Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, welfare, bailouts, or so-called stimulus plans. No IRS. No Departments of Education, Energy, Agriculture, Commerce, and Labor. No EPA and OSHA. No Federal Reserve. No drug laws. Few systems of public schooling. No immigration controls. No federal minimum-wage laws or price controls. A monetary system based on gold and silver coins rather than paper money. No slavery. No CIA. No FBI. No torture or cruel or unusual punishments. No renditions. No overseas military empire. No military-industrial complex.

As a libertarian, as far as I’m concerned, that’s a society that is pretty darned golden.

And that really got people going. There were a number of responses, notably at Crooked Timber in this post and its many comments. I think the critics have the better arguments, but whatever you think you may find the debate itself instructive.

Let's go back to the moment to nullification and secession. Some state governors in the USA have found this an appropriate moment to celebrate or even revive Confederate History Month, while of course doing their best to disengage their proud heritage from slavery and Jim Crow. Of all the responses, this one byTa-Nehisi Coates, "The Ghost of Bobby Lee," may be one of the best possible. It's very thoughtful and no one passage can catch its high quality and complexity, but here's one I put on Facebook because I felt it had something to say about how the living use all kinds of history:

What undergirds all of this alleged honoring of the Confederacy, is a kind of ancestor-worship that isn't. The Lost Cause is necromancy--it summons the dead and enslaves them to the need of their vainglorious, self-styled descendants. Its greatest crime is how it denies, even in death, the humanity of the very people it claims to venerate. This isn't about "honoring" the past--it's about an inability to cope with the present.

Image: Politics in the American golden age (it actually is called The Gilded Age): "Bosses of the Senate" by Joseph Keppler, 1889. Click for a larger, more legible image.

Update: a punchy cartoon comment on Confederate History Month.


  1. US politics is very important to the rest of the world, and Canada in particular. It has been rightly compared to sleeping with an elephant.

  2. The inside/outside perspective is very hard to get a hold of, also. At Cliopatria, and in other places less loudly, I perceive a great disappointment in the liberal USA with Obama, who has failed to do a great deal that was expected (starting with "actually be Superman", as far as I can tell...) and not done so much of anything really. And this is all true, but he has (even if only lately) established two hugely important arms limitation treaties and has from the first been much more internationally friendly and respectful than Bush II was, with the effect that now the prophet is honoured nowhere less than in his own country. (Similarly, the UK is at élite level none too happy with him as far as I can tell because he's refused to maintain the fiction of the Special Relationship and treats us no more or less civilly than any other European state. This is also a hard perspective to get round and may influence my assessment above.) But I think it is one of the peculiar problems of his presidency that his greatest successes have all so far been outside the US (as indeed have many of his failures). I don't see much sign that this is appreciated inside...

  3. Anonymous5:39 am

    re. "Politics in the golden age" If this cartoon is supposed to be an indictment of the libertarian economic philosophy, it is ludicrous. The trusts (monopolies) only came into existence because the government created and permitted them to exist.

    And in regards to Obamacare, how can any intelligent individual actually believe that by adding another 30-40 million? to medicare and medicaid (which in essence is all that this program will do) will some how lower costs. Ludicrous. The forecasts of what medicare and medicaid would cost in the future when first proposed of course were ridiculously wrong! But of course this time it is different. Ya right!!

    The reality is that the medicare and medicaid system is not affordable right now, and will lead the U.S. into bankruptcy, or alternatively for you critics of the cranky libertarian gold and silver based sound money, I suppose the answer is to just print up the money to pay for it.
    But unfortunately Keynesian money printing does not actually create greater production just inflation. Historians remember 1923 Weimar Germany!

  4. The cartoon indicates a weak spot in the identification of the 1880s as the good old days.

    As for health care, I live in Canada and you can neither scare me nor convince me with the evils of national health insurance. It can lead to lower costs. Here, our costs are lower.

  5. Anonymous4:19 pm

    I live in Canada. I was born and raised in Toronto so the "your not Canadian" argument does not apply here.

    The cartoon in question was presumably a response to refute David Boaz's assertion that the 1880's were the "golden age of liberty". Well it is certainly debatable whether it was a "golden age" or not, the point that Mr. Boaz is making and is apparently being missed by his critics is that in comparison to today’s standards it was a time of incredibly high personal and economic freedom and liberty. This is what Mr. Boaz means by his term "golden”. The degree of freedom was unprecedented and for freedom loving people like Mr. Boaz this was indeed "a golden age”.

    There is no claim being made that everything was absolutely perfect in all social and political contexts. The critics are arguing from one or more particulars and rejecting the general premise. This is fallacious. It would be as if to say that (e.g. Stalin could not have been a bad man because he treated his wife splendidly). The cartoon (as it is purported by Prof. Muhlberger) is supposed to refute the idea that the 1880’s were the "good old days". But this is the straw man argument. Mr. Boaz did not assert that everything in the society of the 1880's was idyllic. He merely asserted that it was "golden" strictly in terms of liberty.

    Indeed the irony is that the cartoon that Prof. Muhlberger uses to refute the 'good old days" of economic libertarianism is precisely the monopolies (trusts) that only came into existence because of government intervention. Prof. Muhlberger criticizes (indirectly) economic libertarianism by utilizing an example of what libertarianism argues against (i.e. Government created monopoly).
    Attention all socialists! Libertarian economics rejects government created monopolies!!

    In regards to the health care debate.

    1) To call it “national health insurance” is disingenuous. In Canada at least it is not insurance, there are no premiums paid, there is no quantification of risk (in that everyone pays the same ‘insurance premium’ with the respect of income). If I am 25 years old and make x amount of income I pay the same amount of health insurance” premium” as a man with the same income who is 75 years old even though any actuary would say the probability of utilizing the heath care system by the 75 year old man will be much greater than the 25 year old man. (Ceteris paribus)

    2) Apparently there is an economic theory let us call it “the new economics” that allows you to have more guns and more butter at the same time!
    We can have more people covered by ”heath insurance” and can have lower costs too! The reason Canada has lower health care costs vis-à-vis the U.S. is numerous. But the essential reasons are that doctors and nurses in Canada are paid much less, and the health care services are rationed with fewer procedures available and with much longer waiting periods in Canada. If health care is cheaper in Canada it is only because we pay less and get less. In economics there is no free lunch! You get what you pay for. The laws of economics cannot be transcended by the wishes of central planners.

    Question: Would Prof. Muhlberger and his colleagues be willing to take a reduction in pay and benefits to lower the average cost of university education in Canada? If not, why should doctors and nurses in Canada?

  6. My comment about being Canadian was not meant to disqualify your opinion, but to indicate that I have experience that makes me favor what I consider a better system. My family has had serious health problems and the health system has performed well for us. If my wife and I were in the USA we'd probably not be able to afford insurance because of pre-existing conditions. For us, case closed.

    I don't know if you've noticed, but the average cost of university education in Canada, like the average cost of health care, is a lot lower than in the USA. And many qualified "sessional" and "part-time" university profs are poorly paid. But that applies in the USA, too.

  7. Anonymous11:24 pm

    Firstly, it is with admiration and respect that I view Prof. Muhlberger’s World History Blog. Prof. Muhlberger allows for a meaningful dialogue of dissimilar views. I find myself in disagreement with most of Prof. Mulhberger’s political views, but it is commendable that he allows views that are opposed to his.

    As a former student of Prof. Muhlberger I can certainly attest to his comprehensive knowledge of History. But the study of economics is not the study of history and when Prof. Muhlberger makes questionable philosophical suppositions and unsupported economic claims I will challenge them.

    For instance Prof. Muhlberger makes the standard, (“accepted wisdom”) claim “I don't know if you've noticed, but the average cost of university education in Canada, like the average cost of health care, is a lot lower than in the USA.” Yes indeed Prof. Mulhberger I have noticed, but as in many things in this life appearances can be deceiving.
    But is Prof. Muhlberger’s claim really true? What economic theory accounts for why the cost of a medical procedure is intrinsically cheaper in say Fort Erie, Ontario then it is in 10 miles away in Buffalo, New York? Or the cost of a BA degree at Brock U in St. Catherines, Ontario is inherently cheaper then at SUNY? While apparently Prof. Muhlberger validates my earlier point regarding the wages of nurses and doctors being lower in Canada and presumably the wages paid to Professors etc. are also lower, this premise if accepted, would certainly account for only a small amount of the cost discrepancy. But nevertheless it certainly cannot account for “ a lot lower average cost” (Prof Muhlberger’s words) in education and heath care.

    But of course as the 19th century French economist Frederic Bastiat implores us to remember, it is necessary to identify ‘what is seen’ and ‘what is not seen’. Indeed what Prof, Muhlberger sees is the relatively ‘low’ tuition fees and the lack of heath insurance premiums that ‘is seen’ in Canada.

    But ‘what is not seen’ is the huge government subsidies to both education and health care and of course drastically higher taxes. If these are added in then the claim that there is “a lot lower average cost” in Canada (in education and health care respectively) disappears notwithstanding the lower salaries alluded to earlier. Economic theory and simple common sense would suggest that the cost of producing a ‘widget’ in Fort Erie and the cost of producing a ‘widget’ in Buffalo could not be much different theoretically. That is the capital utilization and rates of return would not be radically different in either Canada or the U.S. Thus the apparent differences in cost are mostly superficial.

    In Canada the actual costs of education and health care are mostly paid out of general tax levies and thus not by the individuals directly. But, individuals most assuredly pay them, indirectly by the high rates of taxes. Now this system may be more beneficial to certain individuals than other individuals. A case in point would be Prof. Muhlberger and his family with their unfortunate health problems. But in essence this is just an argument for progressive taxation. It does not mean that the ‘actual costs’ are lower. Subsidization has to be paid by the general revenues. And it is precisely because of this that it is not possible for everyone to be subsidized (who would pay the subsidy?)
    Thus the reality is that when individuals argue for the superiority of the Canadian health care system, their position is based upon whether it is better for them financially or not. Thus to speak of the “general” benefit of the health care system is in a sense meaningless. For it is only as individuals that the question of whether the system is beneficial has meaning. If you are wealthy it is not a ‘beneficial’ system to you because you are subsidizing others at your expense. If you are being subsidized then of course the system is superior.

  8. Glad to be exchanging views with a former student.

    I won't try to address every point.

    There are hard figures on the cost of health care and US costs are way higher than everybody else's. OECD derived figures for 2000:

    At the same time US health outcomes are poor, given the amount of money spent:

    That analysis shows Canada's performance is not exactly stellar, but the USA's is abysmal. Where did all the money go?

    So it's not, as far as I can tell, a matter of quality or cost -- unless you can cite more convincing figures and analysis.

    Is it a matter of subsidy?

    In the USA, lots of people have health care costs subsidized, while others are cut off, or subsidized inefficiently. In Canada, coverage is pretty even and pays for early stages of detection and treatment when they may do more good and cost less.

    But let's just pretend that Canada subsidizes (on the backs of the wealthy) and the USA does not.

    Fine with me.

    In fact, although neither you nor I would probably not count me as wealthy, by one measure I am: I am in the top income tax bracket, which in Canada kicks in pretty low. So "wealthy me" has benefited from the existing system.

    Furthermore even if our health had been perfect over the last 10 years, I'd gladly pay the same taxes so other people wouldn't be financially ruined by bad luck. I don't consider this a subsidy, but insurance. This is what insurance is all about. This is not altruism, either; this kind of stability has benefits for us all. Everybody pays for insurance hoping they will never need it.

  9. When I was a teenager, I encountered the Libertarian movement, when I had already worked out my most general principles of liberty. At first, Libertarians sounded like they were on the right track. But I was quickly disillusioned as I discovered that: 1)the vast majority of Libertarians didn't understand their own ideas; 2)like Marxists, Libertarians reduced everything to economic formulae, and were not much interested in in individual human beings or their rights; 3)99% of purported "Libertarians" were actually Conservatives, and it didn't take a genius to figure out that Conservatives were, always had been, and always will be the mortal enemies of liberty; 4) the vast majority of "Libertarians" rapidly sold out to Conservatism, in a manner EXACTLY parallel to the 1930's "Parlor Pinks" who sold out to Stalin. Because of these observations, I have since NEVER identified myself as a "Libertarian". Instead, I pursue my interest in the philosophy of human freedom.

  10. Anonymous7:15 pm

    I feel I must respond to Phil Paine’s comments. It seems to me that certain observations of Mr. Paine are irrelevant to what ‘libertarianism’ is. Now anyone can call themselves whatever they want, after all did not the Marxists and Communists call themselves ‘social democratic’ and their countries as ‘peoples republics’. The point is it does not matter what you call yourself, it is the philosophy and ideas that you stand for that matter. If people call themselves ‘libertarian’ and are actually ‘conservative’ this does not refute the philosophy of ‘libertarianism’. Now of course the philosophy of libertarianism is not precisely this or that, there are different subtle variations of ‘libertarian philosophy’ as it were. But of course there are general beliefs like (do what you want but do not hurt others)(I am the owner of my own body) etc. that would be consistent in most views of what is called libertarianism.

    Mr. Paine’s Comment 1) ‘The vast majority of libertarians didn't understand their own ideas’. Just who are the vast majority of libertarians? Do the vast majority of Marxists understand their own ideas? Regarding libertarians this is at best anecdotal, but even if it was true it is irrelevant in any case. The point being is that just because some individuals, or the ‘vast majority do not understand' does not refute the truth of the philosophy. The majority of physicists did not understand Einstein’s general theory of relativity when it was first published but this did not mean it was not true.

    Comment 2) ‘Libertarians reduced everything to economic formulae’. It is true that the great "libertarian" philosophers have tended to be economists: Bastiat, vonMises, F.A.Hayek, Rothbard. Perhaps I misunderstand the context that you are using “economic formulae” in but to claim that these libertarians reduced everything to economic formulae is simply not the case. Show me where vonMises or Hayek reduced everything to, or even used economic formulae in their works. And to say that libertarians were ‘not much interested in individual human beings or their rights’ is quite simply bizarre. Their whole philosophy is built on the premise that only the individual chooses and acts to improve his or her life; and that value and thus action, is based on individual, subjective value (preferences). Libertarian philosophers have been concerned with economics because the ‘state’s’ greatest usurpation of individual freedom is primarily in economic matters.

    Comment 3) Again I say irrelevant! Call yourself what you want, if you do not follow libertarianism you are not libertarian. Just what were these ‘purported libertarians’ advocating that made them conservative? If they disagreed with for example the legalization of drugs they were not libertarian.

    Comment 4) similar in content to comment 3. With respect to ‘selling out’ I think it may be the case that for libertarians, economic freedom (that is less government, distorting intervention in the economy) is weighted to higher degree than e.g. (the right to use drugs). So this would result in ‘libertarians’ leaning to more ‘conservative’ political parties who tend to be less interventionist in the economy than ‘social democratic’ or ‘socialist’ political parties.

    Glad to see that Mr. Paine pursues his interest in the ‘philosophy of human freedom’ just do not call it libertarianism but call it what?