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Walter E. Williams: Government-sponsored health care can be used to restrain liberty

Published: Wednesday, June 17 2009 12:23 a.m. MDT

"Live Free or Die" is the title of author and columnist Mark Steyn's speech at Hillsdale College, reproduced in Imprimis (April 2009), a Hillsdale publication that's free for the asking. Canadian born, now living in New Hampshire, Steyn has had firsthand experience with socialist tyranny in his home country that is rapidly becoming a part of America. Commenting on one of his run-ins with Canada's human rights commissions, Steyn points how it might seem bizarre to find the progressive left making common cause with radical Islam. One half of that alliance is pro-gay, pro-feminist secularists and the other half is homophobic, misogynist theocrats. Steyn argues what they have in common overrides their differences, namely, "Both the secular Big Government progressives and the political Islam recoil from the concept of the citizen, of the free individual entrusted to operate within his own societal space, assume his responsibilities, and exploit his potential."

I doubt whether there are many Americans who think Congress has either the right or competency to choose where they live, what clothes they wear or what cars they drive. Yet many Americans stand ready to allow Congress to decide what doctors they go to and what treatments they receive. We forget that once we have government-sponsored health care, it can be used to justify almost any restraint on liberty. That's the justification behind helmet and seatbelt laws. Britain is well along the road toward totally controlling health care. Steyn says, "Under Britain's National Health Service, for example, smokers in Manchester have been denied treatment for heart disease, and the obese in Suffolk are refused hip and knee replacements. Patricia Hewitt, the British Health Secretary, says that it's appropriate to decline treatment on the basis of 'lifestyle choices.'" Steyn adds, "Smokers and the obese may look at their gay neighbor having unprotected sex with multiple partners, and wonder why his 'lifestyle choices' get a pass while theirs don't. But that's the point: Tyranny is always whimsical."

In most of the developed world, the government has gradually taken over many of the responsibilities of adulthood from health care, child care, care of the elderly and other responsibilities formerly seen as individual or family. Nobel laureate economist Paul Krugman suggests that American conservatives preaching "family values" is hypocrisy while Europeans live it. On the continent, Krugman says, "Government regulations actually allow people to make a desirable tradeoff — to modestly lower income in return for more time with friends and family." Steyn insightfully observes, "As befits a distinguished economist, Professor Krugman failed to notice that for a continent of 'family friendly' policies, Europe is remarkably short of families. While America's fertility rate is more or less at replacement level — 2.1 — 17 European nations are at what demographers call 'lowest-low' fertility — 1.3 or less — a rate from which no society in human history has ever recovered. Germans, Spaniards, Italians and Greeks have upside-down family trees: four grandparents have two children and one grandchild." Steyn asks, "How can an economist analyze 'family friendly' policies without noticing that the upshot of these policies is that nobody has any families?" My answer to Steyn's questions is: the kind of economist that looks at the seen and ignores the unseen.

Mark Steyn provides us with a historical tidbit. "Live Free or Die," which graces New Hampshire's license plate, are the words of John Stark, New Hampshire's Revolutionary War hero. He uttered those words decades after the War when he was 81 years old, the complete sentence being: "Live free or die: Death is not the worst of evils." Steyn says these words should not be interpreted "as a battle cry: We'll win this thing or die trying, die an honorable death. But in fact it's something far less dramatic: It's a bald statement of the reality of our lives in the prosperous West. You can live as free men, but, if you choose not to, your society will die."

Walter E. Williams is a professor of economics at George Mason University.

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