October 4, 2008 10:56AM

Reagan (and Hayek), Not Entirely Off‐​Base

Left-wing blogger Jonathan Chait and others have been knocking Gov. Sarah Palin for quoting Ronald Reagan in the vice-presidential debate.  Palin said:

It was Ronald Reagan who said that freedom is always just one generation away from extinction. We don't pass it to our children in the bloodstream; we have to fight for it and protect it, and then hand it to them so that they shall do the same, or we're going to find ourselves spending our sunset years telling our children and our children's children about a time in America, back in the day, when men and women were free.

Chait noticed that Palin pulled that Reagan quote not from The Speech, nor from Reagan's 1987 remarks at the Brandenburg Gate, but from this 1961 AMA-sponsored effort to block the enactment of Medicare:

It is notable that neither Chait nor the others took issue with Reagan's claim that Medicare is a step toward ushering all Americans into a socialized health-care system.

Instead, they seized on Reagan's argument that Medicare -- and then fully socialized medicine, plus a few other steps -- would lead the United States into totalitarianism.  Matthew Yglesias truncated Reagan's argument in the title of his blog post, "Palin: Medicare Leads to Totalitarianism."

To a supporter of Medicare, this is patently absurd.  Providing health care to grandma is going to turn us all into Nazis?  Puh-lease.  One blogger wonders, "So what's worse; overwrought bullshit, quoting overwrought bullshit, or improperly using a quote that is overwrought bullshit?"

Essentially, Chait and Yglesias are resurrecting a debate that goes back at least to 1944, when economist (and later Nobel-laureate) Friedrich Hayek argued in The Road to Serfdom that a democracy that pursues socialism will end up with totalitarianism.  Hayek warned "the socialists of all parties" that government is institutionally incapable of planning economic activity, and that the resulting failures would draw into government characters who promise to use increasingly repressive measures to get the job done. 

At the time and since, socialists and skeptics have mocked Hayek's prediction, noting that Sweden isn't exactly governed by goose-stepping morons.  A fair point, I suppose.

And yet...

The very political movement that praises Medicare and ridicules Hayek and Reagan has a bit of a pet peeve.  It's the health-care industry, you see.  Those industry rascals just won't leave their beautiful, beloved Medicare program alone.  If it's not the doctors and hospitals wasting one-third of Medicare outlays on useless services, then it's the private insurers stealing from the public purse.  Or the durable medical equipment manufacturers charging Medicare more than they charge Wal-Mart.  Or the drug manufacturers legislating themselves a sweetheart deal and blocking price controls.

And every time Medicare's virtuous supporters try to stop those venal vermin from desecrating their pure, precious, pristine program, what happens?  The industry runs to Congress.  The industry knocks off or buys off as many congresscritters as they need to preserve their special subsidies.  There's no telling how well Medicare's supporters could plan this sector of the economy if only they didn't have to worry about the industry undoing their handiwork.  If they could shut up the industry, why, Medicare could start actually paying for quality!  Or it could start providing coordinated care!  Or fer chrissake, could we at least stop rewarding doctors for medical errors!?!?!?

That's when something occurs to them: maybe we can shut up the industry.  Maybe the government should limit what the industry can say, to Congress and to the voters, about Medicare.  Do that, and Medicare's supporters would have the running room to remake the world according to their ideals. 

We call those efforts to shut up the industry "campaign finance reform," whereby this political movement seeks to "ration the amount and control the timing and content of political speech," so as to restrict the ability of those with disagreeable views from influencing the political process. 

And so, because some people frustrate its high-minded efforts to manage our lives, including its beloved Medicare, this political movement chips away at the freedom of speech and the freedom to petition the government for a redress of grievances.  Cross those campaign finance laws -- say the wrong thing about a political issue at the wrong time -- and your government will put you in jail.  And our nation becomes just that much more repressive a place to live.

It's not that Chait and his fellow travelers have proven Hayek and Reagan wrong.  They just haven't yet proven Hayek and Reagan right.

And what do the devotees of this political movement call themselves?