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You Know That The Word Has Become Meaningless When…

September 11, 2009

I’m not sure if y’all know this, but during the primary season I was much more of a Paultard than an Obamacon. Drawn to Ron Paul’s principled stances and promised reduction of the military industrial complex (though not buying his stances on immigration or the Fed), I even donated a tiny sum of money to his campaign.

One of the major influences he cited as the basis for his libertarian philosophy was Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek’s book The Road To Serfdom, which essentially is to socialism what Noam Chomsky’s work is to capitalism.

Which is why I found it quite surprising when I stumbled upon this passage in the book (emphasis mine):

Nor is there any reason why the state should not assist the individuals in providing for those common hazards of life against which, because of their uncertainty, few individuals can make adequate provision. Where, as in the case of sickness and accident, neither the desire to avoid such calamities nor the efforts to overcome their consequences are as a rule weakened by the provision of assistance – where, in short, we deal with genuinely insurable risks – the case for the state’s helping to organize a comprehensive system of social insurance is very strong

…Wherever communal action can mitigate disasters against which the individual can neither attempt to guard himself nor make the provision for the consequences, such communal action should undoubtedly be taken.

Friedrich Hayek, The Road To Serfdom (Chapter 9)

Republicans call universal health care ‘socialism,’ a radical expansion of government into the lives of private citizens. But if Hayek, one of the founders of modern libertarianism, in a book which operates on the thesis that any socialism or unreasonable restrictions on economic liberty at all leads us down the road to totalitarianism, says that communal social insurance is not only legitimate but a state obligation, in 1944 for God’s sake, you know that the word socialism has lost all meaning.

By the way, Hayek makes a great case here.  The reason intellectual conservatives oppose transfer payments like welfare is that they destroy incentives to work, and may encourage attitudes of entitlement which undermine the moral strength of the country.

But universal health care does no such thing.  Being provided security against the risk of cancer doesn’t make us less likely to avoid getting cancer.  It doesn’t create incentives to be less healthy (more wasteful perhaps, but in the interest of health not pecuniary gain).  Catastrophic disease could befall any individual at any time, nearly any of whom could not possibly prepare for it with only his or her personal wealth.  Pooling the risk among everyone is of course the most efficient and humane solution, whether done through a public option, all through private insurers, or a competition between the two (this is why mandates are necessary).

There is a legitimate debate to be had about which of the three options above make the most sense for America.  All of them, however, jive with classically liberal principles, and none of them have much of a spillover effect on the free market system we’ve built for our society.  Unfortunately arguments to justify health care reform to conservatives are unfruitful because the Republican Party isn’t run by intellectuals, but reactionary politicos who murder language and truth to blindly oppose whatever the Democratic president supports.  In wartime, might I add!

(Update — new post at 8:00PM – a response to a thoughtful comment by Mike)

22 Comments leave one →
  1. Al Swearengen permalink
    September 11, 2009 3:57 pm

    Well said and good catch.

    I’m constantly struck by the impression that those that oppose universal healthcare don’t seem to understand that insurance is most efficient with the most people covered and paying premiums. Our broken system gets around this by cherry-picking the healthy through pre-existing condition denials and caps after illness is found.

    Probably the most depressing thing about the whole argument is that the rest of world had this debate decades ago and almost unanimously decided universal healthcare was for the greater good. Meanwhile, we’re acting exactly like surly teenagers who won’t take their parent’s word that doing homework will pay off in the long run.

    • September 11, 2009 4:05 pm

      It doesn’t help that a very sizable contingent in this country reflexively opposes anything Canada or France is doing.

  2. Russell permalink
    September 11, 2009 3:58 pm

    Good post. But you cannot hold a mirror to those whose eyes are blinded by ideology.

  3. teoc2 permalink
    September 11, 2009 3:58 pm

    The legacy of a Conservative philosophy crafted by William F. Buckley that didn’t (and doesn’t today in a very radical way) subscribe to the Christian Democratic philosophy of the conservatism of Europe and the welfare state going back to the time of Kaiser Wilhelm II .

    Oh for the days of rational politics when the state was valued by both left and right.

    Today’s conservatives (loosely defined) have more in common with nihilism and anarchy than any brand of conservative philosophy.

    William F. must be spinning in his grave given recent events on the right (but wrong).

    • September 11, 2009 4:03 pm

      Well put on nihilism. Power for its own sake, winning just to win. I would have a lot more understanding for the dishonest rhetoric if I had any inclination that the people using it had a conception of an end-state better than the one that currently exists.

      I also agree that their current tactics are anarchic but since they are doing them to support warrantless wiretapping and the decriminalization of torture, it’s hard to imagine them politically as anything but the precise opposite of that spectrum.

  4. Mike permalink
    September 11, 2009 7:13 pm

    I think you miss something very important. The danger of government-run insurance is not that it will encourage people to get cancer. It’s that it will — as all such systems have — encourage them to overuse the system. Indeed, this is precisely the problem with the system we have now. Since third parties pay the bills, there is zero incentive or the consumer not to get every fancy test, every exotic procedure and every expensive prescription they can.

    This is why socialized medical systems have always had to impose rationing. Because it quickly becomes the only way to hold back costs from growing indefinitely.

  5. Sophomore permalink
    September 11, 2009 7:53 pm

    Mike – The US pays much more than any other country for health care, and gets no better results. And private insurers and providers in the US are the worst offenders.

    David – it’s a fascinating passage, but it’s hard to believe Hayek didn’t change his mind over time. I’d be interested in hearing from you or your commenters about it.

    • September 11, 2009 8:09 pm

      Well, he certainly wouldn’t be for a single-payer system, but it seems like his opposition to even that proposal is based on policy, not ideology.

      I think what he was trying to get at is: government action to ensure universal care is legitimate, though he preferred to allow private competition to take the lead and only utilize the government when markets failed to achieve the goal of baseline care.

  6. Siddhartha Vicious permalink
    September 11, 2009 7:59 pm

    I am not sure when (or how) “the case for the state’s helping to organize . . .” morphed into mandatory insurance even for those who do not want (or need) it, complete with penalties for non-compliance, and controls on all facets of medical care.

    This is not an ‘obligation’ by any means.

    It is most especially not an obligation in a nation where the founding documents do not allow such a thing to be done by the federal government.

    Your claims for Hayeks meanings are wrong, at the very least.

    • September 11, 2009 8:20 pm

      Well, Hayek would certainly oppose Obama’s plan (not as socialism, but as ineffective), but I don’t think he’d have a problem with other ways of pooling risk among all citizens.

      Where does the Constitution bar the federal government from mandating health insurance? It mandates payment into Social Security and mandates payment of income taxes with severe penalties. I don’t see how mandating payment for a national health insurance program would be seen differently by the courts.

      • Miguel permalink
        September 16, 2009 10:42 am

        You’re going to have to cite where the constitution mandates the Social Security system. Considering that it did not exist until 1935 and there certainly was not a constitutional amendment mandating such a system.

        A nationalized health system as well as social security are unconstitutional because they are not listed as authorized powers of the federal government in the constitution of the united states.

        The post office is an authorized power, printing money is an authorized power, the power to collect income taxes was established by a constitutional amendment. But nowhere in there is the establishment of social security or a nationalized health care system.

        Much of what the federal government is unconstitutional, it’s just that neither the politicians or the courts care anymore.

  7. Sophomore permalink
    September 11, 2009 8:02 pm

    Looks like Hayek was at least a stern critic of the universal health care plan that Britain actually adopted.

    No idea how he’d feel about a system where government provided only insurance, like Canada, or a mixed system like in Switzerland, Germany, or France.

    I should say I don’t think Hayek’s criticisms are generally persuasive, but it’s clear he didn’t leave off with The Road to Serfdom. Somebody who knows his works better would probably be able to dig up more. Not trying to be critical – it’s a very interesting find! – just that it needs a little more context.

  8. September 11, 2009 8:10 pm

    You guys beat me to it. I didn’t mean to imply that Hayek would be for a single payer system, only that the goal of using government to ensure universal access is an obligation. Check out my new post for a clarification:

  9. Steve McErleane permalink
    November 11, 2009 10:12 pm

    “Unfortunately arguments to justify health care reform to conservatives are unfruitful because the Republican Party isn’t run by intellectuals, but reactionary politicos who murder language and truth to blindly oppose whatever the Democratic president supports.”

    What are you basing this on? What conservatives are you referring to?

    And are you suggesting that the Democratic party is run by intellectuals and not by reactionary politicos?

    • November 12, 2009 12:37 am

      1) Yeah you are right, it’s a generalization. The New York House race I think lends credence to my position. There is very little room for heterodoxy, which suggests to me Bolshevik tendencies rather than careful policy analysis.
      2) No, I’m not suggesting that. I can see where you’d pick that up from the language. Neither party has a monopoly on idiocy.

  10. Steve McErleane permalink
    November 12, 2009 12:48 am

    “Democratic Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu is out as keynote speaker for the Palm Beach County Democratic Party’s annual fund-raising dinner next week because party leaders dislike her stance on health care reform, county Democratic Chairman Mark Alan Siegel said today.

    Landrieu, a moderate who recently described herself as “extremely concerned about a government-run, taxpayer-funded, national public plan,” has not committed to voting to cut off a likely Republican filibuster and forcing a vote on the legislation.

    Democrats need 60 votes to invoke “cloture” and force a vote.

    “We just didn’t want to have a keynote speaker who’s not committed to cloture. It would have just been wrong,” said Siegel, who said party higher-ups and rank-and-file members had voiced displeasure with the choice of Landrieu as a keynoter.”

    I think your attribution of “Bolshevik” tendencies to American politics is being too kind. But attributing it one party and not the other is absurd.

    • November 12, 2009 1:25 am

      Look I’m not going to defend the Democratic Party. But a reasonable assessment of the two parties shows much, much more tolerance for stepping out of line on the left side of the aise. Lieberman still caucuses with the Democrats and he endorsed McCain for God’s sakes. There are certainly lots of voices on the left calling for the heads of people like Ben Nelson, but for the most part the Blue Dogs are safe from the netroots. Not so for Republicans like Charlie Crist.

      It’s not a right versus left issue for me, but the non-marginalized right has been explicit about its desire to muddle and distort the debate on this issue. Many people are guilty of starting with the position and finding the facts to support it on each side. The difference to me is that the left’s distortions are at least honest differences of opinion on projections or values, whereas this “government takeover of health care” “socialism” “death panel” talk being espoused on the floor of the House is of an entirely different character. It’s fear mongering plain and simple. Attack the policy on its merits not as an unthinking reaction that every government action is necessarily evil.

      As for the libertarianism stuff, I definitely lean that way on a lot of issues. I’m pretty sure they’d expel me from the University of Chicago otherwise. Please read my other post about how I support Milton Friedman’s ideas on health care.

      Thanks for contributing 🙂

  11. Steve McErleane permalink
    November 12, 2009 1:04 am

    Also… the debate going on in Washington is virtually worthless. It will do very little, if anything, to bring down costs no matter what they do to the proposed plans. Isn’t that the objective?

    I am a libertarian. And I’ll be honest. I’m torn.

    If someone gets cancer should they be refused treatment? Hell no…. But that’s not the end of the debate. It’s the beginning.

    I recommend reading Michael Cannon from the Cato Institute. He has done a great job discussing costs. If costs are brought down it makes the larger objective of universal coverage that much easier.

  12. Chiara permalink
    February 6, 2012 2:13 am

    I want to emphazise that Friedrich Hayek stressed that all interactions in the market place where done so on a voluntary basis. That is not at all in contradiction with Ron Paul’s stances whatsoever. The basic premise of both Ron Paul and Friedrich Hayek is that nothing is done by force through government, especially economic decisions. Friedrich Hayek is a gem and nobody has addressed the plentyful questions that arise when true free market capitalism is examined as he has. His work ‘Road to Serfdom’ should be a must read for every American.

  13. Alexander permalink
    April 5, 2014 12:10 pm

    Hey, well put. I really like the fact you added that quote from Hayek’s book. That is my reasoning behind why I agree with a form of universal healthcare. Not to be a spelling Nazi, but it’s jibe not jive. I used to get that wrong all the time. Jibe means to be in accordance with. It’s kind of funny that the first definition I found for jibe meant to change course as in sailing, while using it in this context meant to agree or go along with. Either way, our opinions on this subject jibe. 🙂


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