Tracing consequences both seen and unseen.
Wirkman VirkkalaA growing incredulity
Posted at 7:27 pm on March 23, 2010, by Wirkman Virkkala

The passing of the Democrats’ medical institution reform package, by clever and opaque political maneuvering, has angered many people. Though all ancient sages unite to advise us not to lose composure about things we cannot change, I, too, have been a bit angry about the recent events regarding what is popularly (and nauseatingly) called “health care reform.”

But what interests me at the moment is how risky the Democrats’ maneuvers are. We often say that politicians can’t accomplish much. Washington is riddled with gridlock; its prime movers are not merely dishonest and petty, but unable to take stands.

Here, however, regarding the nationalization of medicine in the United States of America, the Democrats have taken a daring stand. They are bucking the growing incredulity amongst Americans that government can solve our problems by taking control. For the past few decades, the long-term trend has been towards skepticism about large-scale government efficacy.

But this long-term trend has had its set-backs. The three biggest counter-trends to growing anti-statist opinion have pertained to

  1. War — There was a lot of support, early on, for the conquest of Iraq;
  2. Anthropogenic Global Warming Catastrophe — There was a huge surge, in recent years, in the belief that there had been recent global warming, that this was in some sense unique, that human civilization had caused it, that this would only grow more dangerous, and that government could (and must) solve it; and
  3. “Health Care” — A rising number of people had begun to see rising costs and spotty insurance for medical care as a problem requiring a national solution.

In each of these three counter-trends to the rising general incredulity over government efficacy, the wave of pro-government sentiment has recently waned. Spectacularly.

Regarding the advisability of conquering Iraq, the widespread support for this had ended before the end of George W. Bush’s final term in office. Even Republican legislators, today, are almost unanimous in realizing that the war was a mistake. The general consensus, now? War and conquest and remaking other polities is tough work, and we should always be super-cautious about engaging in such action.

AGW catastrophism hit its peak popularity in 2008, and is now in steep decline. The leaked emails from Britain were in no small part responsible for this. Careful criticism also had an influence. And, finally, the silly folk sayings confirming global warming itself probably did the most to undermine the position. People can only speak risible nonsense so long before laughing. (Al Gore and media folk were largely responsible for encouraging the idea that every storm, every heat wave, and every exceptional weather event provided “more evidence” that global warming was happening. Record-breaking cold spells and blizzards heralded as signs of “global warming” became a popular folk joke in 2009 and 2010.) The hard rhetorical barrage Americans had been hit with for years — from scientist-advocates, media folk, popular entertainers trying to look serious, and Al Gore — appeared to toughen them up, not convince them.

Finally, support for new national programs for medical insurance peaked last year. By the beginning of this year, popular support had dropped to below 40 percent.

And here’s where courage comes in. It is now risky for Democrats to unite around an unpopular issue.

What could they be thinking? I mean, we expect politicians to rally around popular causes, not unpopular ones. Politicians have demonstrated a rather consistent desire to get re-elected. So what gives? What do they hope for?

I can think of a few possibilities:

  1. Democrats hope that, like Social Security, the new program package will grow in popularity over its first 20 years after implementation. Social Security became the infamous “third rail” of politics, which one dare not be seen to criticize, from the ’60s though the ’80s and beyond. They hope for a similar effect with health care regulation and nationalization.
  2. Democrats know that they have only a limited time in majority, in united government, and feel they have to do what their core constituency really wants, before they lose control. They are hoping that it will be harder to repeal the medical reform package than it was to pass. (It is harder, in America, to repeal programs than it is to create them. This is fairly well established.) Think of it as their “Final Solution.”
  3. They know that it will likely be struck down in courts, and that this will rally their supporters to take on a new, bigger fight, which they can make hay over for years.
  4. They really are (or, perhaps more likely, want to be seen as) ideologues, to appeal to their core supporters in the government unions, people who by their nature think that government is the key to all progress (the sole sense in which they can be called “progressives” . . . that is, they believe only in the eternal progress of increasing size, scope, and efficacy of political and bureaucratic governance).

In these four scenarios, they come out as risk-takers. People of courage.

But, when you look at the hodge-podge of proposals that make up the reform package, they come off as something else again. I’ll let the reader name that “something else.”

Republicans have a huge opportunity for a comeback, here, but only if they stick to the theme that nurtures Americans’ justified incredulity. And the only way to make this stick is to attack the package not for such things as Death Panels and Abortion support — proof positive that Republicans tend to be a rather brain-dead group, so off-point are most of these issues — but for its long-term and wide-spread negative consequences.

This is hard work. I have not done it here. We have only just begun. Thinking “beyond Stage One” (as Thomas Sowell puts its), identifying the “unseen” as well as “the seen” (as Frédéric Bastiat put it), striving to discover the long-term effects as well as the near-term effects (as Henry Hazlitt put it) — these critical modes of thought aren’t easy. They require effort. They rub against the grain of enthusiasm. They seem treasonous to people who demand symbolic action, and identify themselves chiefly by the “good deeds” they do by merely supporting a political party.

Ah, and there’s why we don’t see Republicans normally taking to this agenda. The technique of honest and thorough social thought cuts both ways. It cuts against the right as against the left. It makes hash of simplistic arguments for war as it does against simplistic arguments for government handouts and regulations.

But there is one thing we, who try to practice economic criticism, can take solace in: Our agenda may not be the mainstream political agenda, but it does fit in, very nicely, with the common sense of the American people. Americans’ native skepticism over government may be superficial, but it is strong, and it is growing.

By applying economic thinking, and publicizing this thought, we strengthen the growing incredulity to statism in American culture, and prepare the way, perhaps, even for an eventual political success.

Filed under: Health Care
Comments: 3 Comments


  1. Why is the criticism of death panels and funding for abortion proof that the Republicans are brain-dead? I don’t see the foolishness in recognizing that end-of-life care will be one of the forms of medical care rationed under a government system (as it has been in Great Britain). If the consequences of socialized medicine for you or a loved one as old age overtakes are not part of the long-term consequences, what could be? As for government funding of abortion, while I don’t oppose abortion on principle, I can understand why those who do oppose it on principle do not want their taxpayer dollars used to fund it. I agree that these should not be the exclusive objections to Obamacare. But at National Review and other conservative publications, these are hardly the only objections to Obamacare that have been presented.

    Comment by David M. Brown — 2010-03-27 @ 4:54 pm

  2. Okay, I didn’t close the italics properly after “long-term.” This is why I say that formatting methodologies are brain-dead.

    Comment by David M. Brown — 2010-03-27 @ 4:58 pm

  3. Your formulation of the “Death Panel” issue, in your brief statement, shows far more plausibility than Betsy McCaughey’s and Sarah Palin’s “Death Panel” criticisms. They pointed to specific language in specific provisions of one bill, and said it would lead to “death panels,” etc. The response from the sponsor of that bit of legislation, Earl Blumenauer, seemed reasonable and blew their hysterical formulations out of the water.

    There is rationing by any means selected. The McCaughey/Palin contribution was a typical Republican move: pump up the paranoia, play loose with the facts, forget about the logic that would lend most credence to their views. Instead, they rested their idea on the notion — commonly accepted by current Medicare recipients — that everyone has a right to soak the system for every tens and hundreds of thousands (even millions) and not ever prepare to die. Never give up. Rage against the dying of the light . . . with other people’s money.

    The discussion was generally brain-dead, and rested on status quo assumptions. (And as I say, YOUR short take was far better.)

    As for abortion, that was taken care of, and now we have a socializing medical institution bill. And the anti-abortionists didn’t try to stop it. They just got abortion off the government menu. Whooppee. They aren’t on my side. They are concerned only for their single little issue.

    Ruination for all? That’s not on their radar! This is my main beef with evangelicals in politics at all. They’ve so far narrowed their concern they’ll pretty much accept anything but abortion and homosexual sodomy.

    As I say, brain dead. Though, that’s not fair, concerning evangelicals who are activists in the Right-Wing Style. They are morally corrupt, for the most part.

    Comment by Wirkman Virkkala — 2010-03-27 @ 5:42 pm

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Henry Hazlitt"[T]he whole of economics can be reduced to a single lesson, and that lesson can be reduced to a single sentence. The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups."
Henry Hazlitt, Economics in One Lesson






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