TGIF: Fins Left, Right, and Center

Th[e] central question is not clarified, it is obscured, by our common political categories of left, right, and center.

–Carl Oglesby, Containment and Change

You got fins to the left, fins to the right
And you’re the only bait in town.

–Jimmy Buffett, “Fins”

Champions of individual liberty and its prerequisites can’t help but be disheartened by today’s political landscape. For decades the Respectable Center has delivered perpetual war, domestic surveillance and secret police, a national vice squad on steroids, uncontrolled spending, soon-to-be-insolvent “entitlement” programs, sky’s-the-limit borrowing, Fed monetization, alternating inflation and recession, at-best-sluggish economic growth, impediments to economic mobility, and other bad things.

That’s what the “adults in the room” have given us, and that’s what they will keep on giving us. The remarkable improvement in living standards that has reached virtually all levels of American society has occurred demonstrably in spite of, not because of, the government.

No wonder many people are looking for an alternative. So what about the most prominent alternatives? Those would be the nihilist identitarian left and the angry populist, or class-oriented, right and left. The outlook is no less good there.

We can dispatch the identitarians quickly. This is the group whose members think that what matters most about people is their membership in tribes defined by unchosen incidental characteristics. Actual liberals — those who favor individualism and individual freedom  — can muster no enthusiasm for a program that holds the pseudoscientific category of race, the reality-based categories of sex and sexual orientation, or the abused and worse-than-worthless category of gender as central both to personal identity and social status.

So let’s turn to right and left populism. Class leftism may seem promising, but when class analysis comes from ignorant prejudice against commerce and contract, it’s fraught with danger. Class populists (left and right) have never learned that the bogey “corporate power” requires the state‘s power and can’t exist without it. I call it “the most dangerous derivative.” (See my “Wall Street Couldn’t Have Done It Alone.” For an alternative, pro-market class analysis, see Social Class and State Power: Exploring an Alternative Radical Tradition.”)

If populism simply meant the rejection of rule by elites, what sensible person could object to it? Over the last few years we’ve seen what elites with political power can do when they control public health.

Unfortunately, we cannot judge political movements only by what they oppose. What do they favor? Aye, there’s the rub. The populists on both sides will say they favor freedom and democracy, but those two standards clash with each other. If the majority rules, what happens to the minority’s rights and freedom? The populist might concede that some matters ought to be beyond the reach of the majority — political expression, for example — but what and how many matters? The committed democrat will want to keep those matters to the barest minimum — in the name of freedom. It’s a scam.

So again, what about the freedom of the minority, the smallest of which is the individual? Populists evade the question by resorting to what the classical liberal Benjamin Constant called the “liberty of the ancients.” In his 1819 essay, “The Liberty of the Ancients Compared with that of the Liberty of the Moderns,” Constant pointed out that our notion of liberty has changed since antiquity. For the ancients, liberty consisted exclusively of the freedom to participate directly in the political process. As Constant went on:

But if this was what the ancients called liberty, they admitted as compatible with this collective freedom the complete subjection of the individual to the authority of the community. You find among them almost none of the enjoyments which … form part of the liberty of the moderns. All private actions were submitted to a severe surveillance. No importance was given to individual independence, neither in relation to opinions, nor to labor, nor, above all, to religion. The right to choose one’s own religious affiliation, a right which we regard as one of the most precious, would have seemed to the ancients a crime and a sacrilege. In the domains which seem to us the most useful, the authority of the social body interposed itself and obstructed the will of individuals. Among the Spartans, Therpandrus could not add a string to his lyre without causing offense to the ephors. In the most domestic of relations the public authority again intervened. The young Lacedaemonian could not visit his new bride freely. In Rome, the censors cast a searching eye over family life. The laws regulated customs, and as customs touch on everything, there was hardly anything that the laws did not regulate.

The world of 1800s modernity, Constant continued, had a different notion: liberty consisted not only of the freedom to participate in governance but also of the right to live a private life, including the right to use one’s property unmolested. As he put it:

First ask yourselves, Gentlemen, what an Englishman, a French-man, and a citizen of the United States of America understand today by the word “liberty”. For each of them it is the right to be subjected only to the laws, and to be neither arrested, detained, put to death or maltreated in any way by the arbitrary will of one or more individuals. It is the right of everyone to express their opinion, choose a profession and practice it, to dispose of property, and even to abuse it; to come and go without permission, and without having to account for their motives or undertakings. It is everyone’s right to associate with other individuals, either to discuss their interests, or to profess the religion which they and their associates prefer, or even simply to occupy their days or hours in a way which is most compatible with their inclinations or whims.

Clearly, the populists subscribe to the ancient notion of liberty, and they may not take umbrage at that statement. Whether left or right, they prefer the coercive communitarian politics of antiquity to the individualism and voluntaryism of Enlightenment liberal modernism.

So no wonder they support restrictions on imports and exports, which interfere with our freedom to trade with whoever is willing to trade with us; immigrant restrictions, which interfere with non-Americans’ freedom to improve their situation and Americans’ freedom to associate with them in all kinds of fruitful ways; and antitrust prosecutions of private tech companies, which interfere with freedom of enterprise and private property.

In each case the populists reject the proven bountiful spontaneous order of markets in favor of collectivist answers both to real and imagined problems. That is, instead of opposing government policies that create and exacerbate problems that are mistakenly attributed to free trade, the free movement of people across arbitrary national borders, and Big Tech as such, they propose that “we” directly address those problems at the ballot box and in the halls of Congress and the offices of unaccountable regulatory agencies. It’s social engineering plain and simple.

However, contrary to populist fantasies, there is no “we” that actually rules. For one thing, who is to be included in — and excluded from — the “we”? That’s a political, not a metaphysical, decision. At best, it’s an exercise in question-begging.

Moreover, the voters’ diverse views and feelings are always filtered through politicians and bureaucrats, whose frame of reference is partly defined by well-connected special interests. Those are the people who will say what if any products we may buy from and sell to non-Americans; which non-Americans we may and may not socialize with, hire, sell to, and rent to; and what disfavored private companies may do with their own assets.

In other words, populism in the end resembles elitism — except, as Bryan Caplan argues, at least elites tend to be more economically literate than the masses and so might be “the lesser poison.” In public opinion polling, the more-educated respondents are more likely to be favorable to trade with foreigners and immigration. Caplan credits elites with watering down the masses’ most extreme demands for protectionism and closed borders, if not quashing them entirely. As he once tweeted, “Elites’ problem isn’t being ‘out of touch’ with masses. Elites’ problem is denying how irrational masses really are.” For any card-carrying populist, this is heresy. (See Caplan’s book, The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies. I review it here.)

To their credit, the populists of left and right support free political speech (although they erroneously apply the same standard to the government and to private firms) and oppose foreign military intervention. But this group — which comprises such otherwise diverse people as Batya Ungar-Sargon of Newsweek, Glenn Greenwald of System Update, Brendan O’Neill of Spiked, and Tucker Carlson of Fox News — would have the government spend the savings due to a noninterventionist foreign policy domestically rather than leaving it in the pockets of the taxpayers, who after all are the ones who earned it through the production of wealth for consumers.

Contrary to the populists, the alternative to democracy is not some flavor of authoritarian elitism. It’s what’s F. A. Hayek called the market order, which is rooted in individual freedom — in a word, libertarianism.

Black History Month?

If a Martian social scientist were to visit America, he surely would assume that Black History Month had been concocted by racists. And he’d be right — for a racist qua racist need not bear ill will toward a particular group. What makes someone a racist is the very concept of human groupings, in this case, persons of African ancestry. In other words, what all racists have in common most fundamentally is the scientifically baseless idea that the species homo sapiens is divided into three (or more) segments that differ significantly at the genetic level. Like so many things we “know,” this one ain’t so.

The myth of race is what Barbara Fields and Karen Fields call “racecraft,” and yes, they do mean to analogize it to witchcraft (Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life). What most people, benevolent and malevolent, mean by race could not differ more from what biologists mean by race. As the Fieldses write:

Race in today’s biology is not a traditionally named group of people but a statistically defined population: “the difference in frequency of alleles between populations (contiguous and interbreeding groups) of the same species.” Unlike the units of bio-racism, these populations are not held to be visible to the naked eye [emphasis added], or knowable in advance of disciplined investigation. [Link added. The internal quote is from Anthony Griffiths et al., Introduction to Genetics.]

Racecraft saturates the language of even well-intentioned people, which is why the Fieldses’ book is so damn important.

TGIF: The Tyre Nichols Atrocity

The brutal killing of Tyre Nichols literally at the hands (and feet) of several Memphis police officers might be a source of cognitive dissonance for some people. But before we get to that, let’s begin at the beginning.

To start with the moral basics, the officers who initiated force against Nichols, a 29-year-old father, and the others who joined in once the assault was in progress, had no apparent reason to believe Nichols posed any danger to them or the public. Judging by the body-cam video, the first officers to stop and approach Nichols’s car were exceedingly hostile from the start. It would be wrong to say they escalated the situation — rather, they appear to be in high confrontational mode from the get-go.

Some might say that Nichols failed to comply with the officers’ angry orders to get out and on the ground as they pulled him from his car. From the video, it looks more like Nichols was shocked and disoriented by what was happening. “What did I do?” he asked. He didn’t strike the officers; he asked a question. I suspect that police culture doesn’t cotton to such impertinence even when a suspect appears unthreatening. Yes, he ran away when he got the chance (and was soon caught and brutally punched and kicked again), but that was after being assaulted, tased, and pepper-sprayed. Watch the videos from the police body cams and pole-mounted surveillance camera for yourself. They’re not easy to view.

Simply put, this has all the looks of an atrocity by members of the now-“permanently deactivated” SCORPION (Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods) unit, who knew they were being videoed.

The sheer brutality will confirm many people’s beliefs about the police. But there are problems with what many people think they know. As the saying goes, we often know things “that ain’t so.” Here’s where the dissonance sets in.

Five officers have been fired and charged with second-degree murder and other serious offenses. Others, including three onlooking fire department paramedics, are being investigated and have been dismissed. The street demonstrators who are demanding accountability may have missed the reports. Or they can’t take yes for an answer. Never let the facts get in the way of a good slogan: “Accountability now!” Should the cops be lynched? (Other cops who killed citizens in recent years have been convicted and imprisoned.)

This accountability is good, but prevention is needed too. Police departments must examine their hiring and training procedures in order to exclude bullies and bullying tactics as much as humanly possible. Police should not be taught that they are an occupying army. It would help if they were not furnished military gear by the national government and if they did not think of themselves as paramilitary rather than civilians. Moreover, offending police officers must not be able to take refuge in things like qualified immunity. You and I are liable for the damage we do, even unintentionally. So should the cops be.

As noted, the SCORPION unit, set up to focus on “high-crime spots,” is now history. Such things exist in other American cities. Forming the unit presumably was well-intended because, throughout the United States, most violent crime occurs in a relatively small number of areas, largely lower-income black and Latino communities. As Rafael Mangual, author of Criminal (In)justice: What the Push for Decarceration and Depolicing Gets Wrong and Who It Hurts Most, points out, if you were dropped into a random location in America, chances are you would land in a low-crime area. Note who would suffer from a reduction in policing in high-crime areas: the poorest, most vulnerable Americans; they would be black and Latino. That’s probably why, when polled, black Americans overwhelmingly oppose shrinking the police presence.

It thus seems reasonable for the police to focus on where the crime is: resources are not unlimited. But that shouldn’t be a carte blanche for cops or — and this needs more attention — national and state legislators, who tell the cops what to treat as crimes. The police problem would be far smaller if governments did not prohibit drug use, manufacturing, and sales. That’s because a “war on drugs” is necessarily a war on consensual transactions, which have no complaining witness. That fact prompts the police to use tactics — undercover operations, reliance on dodgy informants, no-knock raids — that create sure-fire conditions for violent confrontations and lethal errors involving innocents. (See the Breonna Taylor killing for an example.) In sum, terminating the drug war (and other wars on vice) would reduce the number of potentially dangerous contacts between the police and lower-income people, as well as improve the quality of the remaining contact. It would also rid the drug trade of the thuggish gangs that run black markets. Prohibition kills. (Much else must be done: for example, end occupational licensing and barriers to small-business formation, and let lower-income kids escape the government’s schools.)

Here’s another possible source of cognitive dissonance: the Nichols case shows us what we already should know. Police brutality is not about race — it’s about police brutality. Nichols was black, but so are the five dismissed and indicted officers. Two of the three fired EMTs are black. One white officer is being investigated, and another cop under investigation has yet to be identified. The Memphis chief of police is a black woman. It is hard to see how this is a racial atrocity. Logic will be twisted to make it appear so, but it will not wash. To attribute the black cops’ conduct to white supremacy is to deny them agency — which strikes me as patronizing — not to mention racist.

To the extent we have a police problem, it’s everyone’s problem — but especially lower-income people no matter their skin tone. They have more contact with the police than higher-income people. Lighter-skinned lower-income people are also beaten, shot, and killed by police, but they apparently aren’t newsworthy in our race-distracted era.

To see how wrong the Black Lives Matter narrative is, read this paper by Zac Kriegman, the top Reuters data analyst who was fired simply for showing his bosses that their crime coverage was wrongly premised on BLM’s narrative, which is unsupported by the data. (Kriegman wasn’t refuted; he was summarily dismissed.) The historian Barbara Fields, coauthor of Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life, asks if you really cared about police brutality, why would you lead white people to falsely believe that only black people need to fear the cops?

Next, as bad as police aggression is, its frequency should not be exaggerated. Dishonesty is a bad policy; it discredits efforts to reduce that aggression as much as we can. In 2022, says Mapping Police Violence, about 1,100 Americans (of all colors) were killed by police, most of them by firearms. That’s down not up over the last several decades. (The Washington Post says the shootings alone numbered 1,096.) That’s all killings, including justifiable ones. The number of killings of unarmed Americans is in double digits (about 40 in 2020), although unarmed people can be dangerous too, especially when they reach for a policeman’s gun. The 1,100 figure is nothing to be complacent about, but perspective is necessary.

Police make 10 million arrests every year in a country of over 330 million. So let’s not exaggerate the problem. What we cannot truthfully say is that it’s police open season on a certain group of Americans. Are black men killed disproportionately? Black people make up 13 percent of the American population and by that benchmark are overrepresented among victims of police killings. But is that the right benchmark? Kriegman writes,

The correct benchmark for measuring bias in police use of lethal force is the number of high risk encounters for each group, and not the population of each group…. [O]n average, violent crime rates are dramatically higher in predominantly black communities than they are in predominantly white communities…. Therefore we should expect there to be more encounters in those communities for the purpose of achieving entirely legitimate and laudable policing objectives.

When we use the appropriate benchmark, Kriegman writes, “the supposed anti-black bias disappears completely, and possibly, even reverses.” (By analogy, men make up almost 50 percent of the general population, but over 90 percent of the prison population. Does that prove the criminal justice system guilty of misandry? Not if you use the proper benchmark: the population of people who commit violent crimes.)

As I’ve suggested, policing could be improved in various ways through better screening and training, and full transparency and accountability. It’s got to happen — and soon. Poor policing harms the most vulnerable in two ways. It directly victimizes people through police brutality, and it indirectly victimizes people by leaving them at the mercy of street criminals. Both ways are intolerable.

Yet we should understand that no matter how much better policing could be, it won’t be good enough. The reasons are simple: policing today is a monopoly of governments, and it is politicians who define the crimes that the police are mandated to combat. We all know what coercive monopolies produce: shoddy products and services at unnecessarily high prices. We certainly need policing because some people will be inclined to have their way by force. To get better policing, then, we must insist that the politicians and bureaucrats step aside and let competitive free enterprise — with full transparency and accountability — deliver high-quality and affordable services, just as it has done with the other services it delivers.

TGIF: Don’t Blame Wokeism on the Unfinished Liberal Revolution

The National Conservatives are not only wrong about genuine liberalism — that is, libertarianism — they also apparently haven’t bothered to read up on what they think they’re attacking. Take Yoram Hazony, author of Conservatism: A Rediscovery, who recently appeared on the YouTube show Triggernometry. As Hazony makes clear, for him it’s straw men all the way down.

Throughout the interview he uses the word liberalism for the philosophy he blames for saddling the West with wokeism. That’s unfortunate because people use that term in many ways. What definition does he have in mind? I think we can infer that he means something like libertarianism (and not, say, Nancy Pelosi’s “liberalism”) since he faults the philosophy for its powerful commitment to free markets. Although he’s not thoroughly opposed to free enterprise, he favors a government strong enough to step in when the “national interest” (ascertained by whom?) requires it. National conservatism without a commitment to government power to override the free market would be like a square circle.

Like other right-wing critics of libertarianism, Hazony believes that Western societies are in the woke soup because Enlightenment liberalism is intrinsically prostrate before its leftist adversaries. Why would that be? In his eyes, it’s because liberalism’s only message is this: do your own thing. He told Frances Foster and Konstantin Kisin:

If you [liberals, presumably] raise children and you tell them, “Look, do whatever you want. Do whatever feels good. Use your own reason, exercise your own thinking, and come to your own conclusions, and you don’t give them anything else, a great many people, maybe the majority, end up stuck and unable to make the decisions among, you know, what exactly is it I’m supposed to do and what is it I’m supposed to believe.

I have no idea why Hazony thinks that liberalism teaches people to do whatever feels good, or that, as he says elsewhere, that freedom is “all they need.” One of the first things liberal parents would teach their children is to respect other people’s rights: specifically, don’t hit other kids and don’t take their stuff without asking.

By the way, “do whatever feels good” is hardly the same as “use your own reason, exercise your own thinking, and come to your own conclusions.” How does Hazony not see that?

Further, using your own reason does not mean: don’t read history, don’t learn from others’ experiences, don’t absorb the moral and political lessons of those who came before. Liberalism is not about the individual’s starting from scratch and reinventing the wheel. Rather, it means that you shouldn’t blindly accept what others tell you. Use your head. We have much to learn from other people and other ages. So what’s Hazony’s real beef with liberalism?

As this makes clear, he clearly doesn’t know what liberalism is, but he’s certain he knows what it has wrought:

Liberalism is what brought woke neo-Marxism. Every single institution that the woke neo-Marxists are running now was a liberal institution 15 years ago. So if liberalism had the antibodies, if it was enough to say let’s just be free, if that was strong enough to be able to defeat woke neo-Marxism we wouldn’t be where we are today….

Liberalism brought Marxism.

Have you noticed how everything the woke left favors these days — to be sure, genuinely abhorrent stuff — is reflexively condemned by the right as “neo-Marxist” — even when the idea in question has nothing to do with the material forces of history and economic classes? You’d think Marxism was the only evil in the world. Actually, It’s not.

Sometimes, when Hazony thinks he’s scored points on liberalism, he sounds a bit like a liberal, such as when he reminds us that each individual is born into a culture, which ought not to be automatically rejected. The reason he doesn’t realize that liberals can agree with this is that he thinks — wrongly — that liberals are Jacobins, who aspire to wipe the social slate clean and start over. Some liberals have occasionally sounded like they’re saying something like that, but to suggest that Jacobinism or utopianism is intrinsic to liberalism is to do a disservice to an honorable and valuable — yes — heritage.

While Hazony concedes that it might be okay to reject some inherited traditions, he seems uncomfortable with that prospect. As he puts it, your forebears “hand[ed] down things [and] you have a responsibility to fight for those things.” Why? Because they were handed down?

I prefer Thomas Sowell’s take: another culture may well have features that are better than one’s own — superior at dealing with an aspect of life.

The entire history of the human race, the rise of man from the caves, has been marked by transfers of cultural advances from one group to another and from one civilization to another….

Cultures exist to serve the vital practical requirements of human life — to structure a society so as to perpetuate the species, to pass on the hard-earned knowledge and experience of generations past and centuries past to the young and inexperienced, in order to spare the next generation the costly and dangerous process of learning everything all over again from scratch through trial and error — including fatal errors.

Cultures exist so that people can know how to get food and put a roof over their head, how to cure the sick, how to cope with the death of loved ones, and how to get along with the living. Cultures are not bumper stickers. They are living, changing ways of doing all the things that have to be done in life. [Emphasis added.]

Every culture discards over time the things which no longer do the job or which don’t do the job as well as things borrowed from other cultures. Each individual does this, consciously or not, on a day-to-day basis. [Watch the video; read the text.]

Problems with change occur not when people are free to adopt “the stranger’s ways” (the supposedly scary phrase is from Fiddler on the Roof); they occur when those who favor change have access to state power — especially when government controls or strongly influences education, the media, and other commanding heights. Then some people, however well-meaning, can potentially impose their preferences on the rest.

Without access to power, people are free to adopt changes for themselves and try to persuade others, but then they would have to wait to see if the new ways catch on. Change, under those circumstances, tends to happen at the margin, although exceptions can’t be ruled out. (Social contagion is possible.) But even then, free people would have peaceful consensual ways to protect themselves and their children from unwanted change. This is where freedom of association kicks in.

In general it seems reasonable for individuals to provisionally defer to tried-and-true ways because they have apparently passed the cultural natural selection test. Yet one also ought to remain open to demonstrations of better alternatives. Liberalism delivers the best of both: stability without stagnation and dynamism without chaos. But individual rights must be respected.

As a national conservative, Hazony of course favors nationalism. If all he means is that a world of many nation-states is preferable to a global empire, then libertarians stand with him. If we can’t get rid of power, at least let’s disperse it among small competitive jurisdictions. But he means much more than that since he and his fellow National Conservatives favor trade restrictions and other forms of welfare-state industrial policy. And I presume he would oppose secession, at least from nation-states he approves of. (He is an Israeli.)

Hazony commits a major blunder when he says that liberalism is inherently imperialist and that nationalism is inherently anti-imperialist. How does he figure that? Since liberals believe they have identified universal principles, he says, it is committed to imposing those principles on everyone. If you fail to see his logic, I imagine you’re not alone.

Contrary to Hazony, liberalism doesn’t says it has the one true way for everyone to live. Rather, it says all people ought to be free to decide how to live. Liberalism, which seeks to limit state power, doesn’t entail imperialism because that would expand state aggression both domestically and abroad. Thus “liberal imperialism” is a contradiction in terms. Nationalist imperialism, however, is not.

While I wouldn’t expect Hazony to be persuaded by what I’m about to say, I will point out that the alarming and long-standing decline of liberalism can be plausibly explained by its initial incompleteness politically, economically, legally, and even morally. Twentieth-century liberal writers, scholarly and popular, pointed this out repeatedly and tried to do something about it. That’s why they wrote so much. These included Ludwig von Mises, F. A. Hayek, Murray Rothbard, Leonard Read, Henry Hazlitt, Milton Friedman, and most fundamentally, Ayn Rand, who argued persuasively (to me at least) that as long as a secular or religious ethics of self-sacrifice predominated in a culture, the political-economic-legal system rooted in individualism and private property would never be whole-heartedly embraced because it would be tainted by the alleged sin of “selfishness.”

Even the doctrine of limited government kept liberalism from fully blossoming because, as we’ve learned so often the hard way, limited governments don’t stay limited. (See my article “Anthony de Jasay on Limiting Power.”)

Thus liberalism didn’t yield because it was inherently weak. It yielded because it was fatally compromised from the start. That’s my answer to Hazony’s question of why wokeism has succeeded. We don’t need illiberal national conservatism to win back our freedom.

TGIF: The Mythical Right to Medical Care

This clever video juxtaposes footage of Bernie Sanders and the late Milton Friedman to create a debate over whether the central government should take over medical care in America. Sanders condemns as a “national disgrace” the lack of a medical care guarantee for all — rich, poor, and in between. Medical care, he insists, should be “a right of citizenship.” Then, echoing someone in the audience, he changes that to “health care is absolutely a human right.”

The remarks by Friedman from the ’60s and ’70s chosen for the video address the efficiency problems with government-run medical services, including the inevitable restrictions on consumer choice. Politicians and activists may feel good when they passionately declare that the government should guarantee all people medical care. Unfortunately, such declarations neither create nor deliver quality care justly or efficiently. Friedman was a long-time advocate of the separation of medicine and state. In his 1962 book, Capitalism and Freedom, he called for, among other things, the end of medical licensing, and he defended that view in these recorded remarks before a group of presumably uncomfortable doctors at the Mayo Clinic.

Since Friedman spoke as an economist, not a political philosopher, in his remarks, I thought I’d say something about the rights issue that Sanders raises. To pick a nit: Sanders needs to make up his mind. Is medical care a right of American citizenship or a human right? I don’t see how it can be both. The term human right suggests universality, while a right of American citizenship does not.

But let’s leave that and look at this purported right. The first thing that occurred to me is that this “right” doesn’t match its billing. Medical care is not like air or water; it doesn’t appear naturally. On the contrary, the many services and products that constitute medical care must be created through human effort.

This ought to pose a problem for the right-to-medical-care set. A declared right to medical care would camouflage something even more ominous: a right to the labor of doctors, nurses, technicians, developers of medicines, inventors and producers of medical devices, and so on.

That raises a question: do those people have a say in the matter? If the answer is yes, then there goes the purported right; they would be free to decline to go along. But if the answer is no, they are no longer free people, but slaves. Don’t we all agree that slavery is bad? (Well, almost everyone. Slavery still exists today, including in Libya, thanks to the U.S.-led regime change in 2011, and many other places. The number of slaves today is larger than in previous times, but it gets nowhere the attention still given to American slavery, which was abolished 158 years ago.) Abraham Lincoln correctly said that “if slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.” It follows that if self-ownership — the opposite of slavery — isn’t right, nothing is right.

Is Sanders calling for slavery?

No, no, he and his allies will protest. No one is talking about slavery. No one wants anyone compelled to produce medical services and products. (I’m not entirely sure about that. Would they not endorse conscription for doctors if enough of them opted out of Medicare and Medicaid because of the bureaucratic intrusions?)

If they don’t favor slavery, what do they mean? They mean that the government should guarantee payment for medical services for all. (As if the government would pay for something without dictating terms.) But how can the government guarantee payment? Society’s medical bill is huge (partly because of government intrusion on both the supply and demand sides), and politicians and bureaucrats certainly don’t personally have that sort of money. So they’d have to get it from somewhere else, and we know where that is: the pockets of the people living in America. All that politicians and bureaucrats can do is rearrange existing wealth according to their own preferences. (Actually, it’s worse than that; by intervening, they impede the creation of new wealth and innovation in the medical field.)

One way or another, the government would have to transfer wealth from the people who create it to bureaucrats. If the chosen method is taxation (and if it didn’t create a tax revolt), the transfer would be straightforward. The dollars the government takes and spends are dollars surrendered under duress by the individuals who earned them. Okay, taxation is not slavery, but it is extortion.

On the other hand, if the government borrows the money, the Federal Reserve would monetize the debt by inflating the money supply, driving up prices (and distorting the structure of production). Depreciation of the money would constitute a transfer of purchasing power from consumers to bureaucrats. That’s just a hard-to-see form of taxation. (By the way, without the power to tax, the government would be unable to borrow.)

Sure, everyone theoretically would eventually get some kind of medical attention (if they lived long enough; you know how government monopolies are), but would the system be worth it in terms of lost liberty and utility? It’s not as though free people wouldn’t arrange for decent medical services, insurance, mutual-aid associations, and philanthropy if liberated from government domination. (Bulletin: we don’t have a free medical system.)

Sanders and the Medicare-for-all brigade endorse an untenable situation in which two or more sets of people are in a conflict over the same money: those who earned it and those whom the legislators and bureaucrats claim to be serving. We ought to be able to agree that they can’t both have a valid claim to the same money. (How could the earners, who include entrepreneurs, business owners, managers, and employees, not be entitled to their earnings?)

For a rights theory to do its job — which is to define the moral-political zone in which each individual can act and flourish in peace — rights must be mutually consistent, or compossible, as the political philosopher Hillel Steiner puts it. That means the test of any rights theory is this: could all people exercise their rights simultaneously without conflict? Under classical-liberal natural-rights theory, they could. Under the progressive theory, they could not. Thus the progressive theory fails.

Sanders’s view would eviscerate the Lockean principle that each person is an end in himself and not merely a means to other people’s ends. Sanders & Co. effectively repudiates self-ownership and the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, which is really a single right: the right to be free from aggression.

No right to medical care exists. Everyone has a right to engage in peaceful and consensual cooperative activities aimed at obtaining medical care. But a right to medical care per se? No way, not if we value liberty — and quality medical care.


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