The Corner

Taking Liberties

A book-themed op-ed in today’s LAT. A long excerpt:

Much of this, as Reason magazine’s Jacob Sullum has long argued, stems from the “totalitarian” temptation inherent to seeing healthcare as a sub-category of politics and policy. When government picks up the tab for health costs, it inevitably feels it is responsible for curtailing them through “prevention,” which can often elide into compulsion. As Faith Fitzgerald, a professor at the UC Davis School of Medicine, put it in the New England Journal of Medicine: “Both healthcare providers and the commonweal now have a vested interest in certain forms of behavior, previously considered a person’s private business, if the behavior impairs a person’s ‘health.’ Certain failures of self-care have become, in a sense, crimes against society, because society has to pay for their consequences.”

But there’s another factor at work as well. We are seeing a return to the idea — first championed by social planners in the progressive era — that government can and should play the role of parent. For instance, Michael Gerson, once a speechwriter for President Bush, advocates a new “heroic conservatism” — an updating of his former boss’ compassionate conservatism — that would unleash a new era of statist regulations. On the stump, Hillary Clinton refers to her book, “It Takes a Village,” in which she argued that we all must surrender ourselves to the near-constant prodding, monitoring, cajoling and scolding of the “helping professions.” Clinton argues that children are born in “crisis” and government must respond with all the tools in its arsenal from the word go. She advocates putting television sets in all public gathering places so citizens can be treated to an endless loop of good parenting tutorials.

Mike Huckabee, who represents compassionate conservatism on steroids, favors a nationwide ban on public smoking. Everywhere, from Barack Obama to John McCain, we are told that our politics must be about causes “larger than ourselves.” What we used to think of as individual freedom is now being recast as greedy and selfish.

We’ve seen this before. The original progressives — activist intellectuals, social reformers, social gospel ministers and other would-be planners in the late 19th and early 20th centuries — touted “social control” as the watchword of their movement. One reason the progressives supported World War I so passionately was not because they supported the aims of the conflict but because they loved domestic mobilization. John Dewey, the American philosopher and educator who sang the praises of the “social benefits of war,” was giddy that the conflict might force Americans “to give up much of our economic freedom. … We shall have to lay by our good-natured individualism and march in step.” The progressives believed that people needed to be saved from themselves. Journalist and commentator Walter Lippmann dubbed average citizens “mentally children and barbarians.” “Organized social control” via a “socialized economy” was the only means to create meaningful freedom, argued Lippman, Dewey and others. And by free, the progressives meant free to live the “right” way.

A similar dynamic defined much of Nazi Germany. Nazi Youth manuals proclaimed that “nutrition is not a private matter!” “Gemeinnutz geht vor Eigennutz” — essentially, all for one, one for all — was the rallying slogan of the Nazi crackdown on smoking, the first serious anti-tobacco campaign of the 20th century. The first systematized mass murder in Nazi Germany wasn’t of the Jews but of the “useless bread-gobblers” and other lebensunwertes leben (“life unworthy of life”). The argument was that the mentally ill, the aged, the infirm were too much of a drain on the socialist economy.

Now, nobody thinks anything like that is in store for us these days. But we can come far short of that and still overshoot the mark of what is desirable by a wide margin.

 

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