One of the uglier moments during last night’s Republican primary debate came when, in response to Ron Paul’s claim that the government should not be in the business of providing health insurance, Wolf Blitzer asked, “are you saying that society should just let [a sick person without insurance] die?” and some knuckle-dragging spectators enthusiastically whooped, “Yeah!” Ron Paul responded, more reasonably, that private charities should support people who fall through the cracks.

Jacob Weisberg, writing in Slate, responds,

This was indeed an appalling, mob-mentality moment—more medieval, even, than the crowd applauding Gov. Rick Perry for winning the death-penalty derby at the previous debate. What it clarified, however, was less the cruelty of the Tea Party crowd than the absurdity of the health-care positions of all of the Republican candidates. The GOP contenders relentlessly attack “Obamacare” as “socialized medicine.” But they won’t speak up for either of the other two choices available to them: the arguably more socialized system we have hitherto lived with or the Blitzer option of letting the uninsured die in the streets.

What about private charity?

“[W]e no longer have an extensive system of charity hospitals. If emergency rooms treat the uninsured, whether because of a legal requirement or because they are good Samaritans, they will be passing the bulk of the cost along to the rest of us—and we’re back to our current system of socializing the costs of treatments for the uninsured.”

I just can’t help but feel frustrated when “the government shouldn’t provide x” is conflated with “society shouldn’t provide x”. Idiot spectators notwithstanding, saying that society should not provide health care to people who can’t afford it and will die without it is plainly absurd and immoral. Saying that the government shouldn’t provide health care because health care is better provided by institutions other than the government is an empirical claim.

Now, although Weisberg conflates these two positions throughout the article (for example, that our two health care policy options are the  “socialized system we have hitherto lived with or the Blitzer option of letting the uninsured die in the streets”), he clearly understands this, because he spends a couple of sentences arguing that the empirical claim is false. I’m skeptical myself that private charities would necessarily be better health care providers of last resort than the government, and clearly we couldn’t just take the government out of health care overnight without some pretty disastrous humanitarian consequences. But there is some evidence that private mutual aid societies did a decent job of providing basic necessities in the past. At the least, Weisberg and many other progressives are giving short shrift to what is actually a fascinating and difficult empirical question.

Empirical issues aside, I think that it’s usually harmful to the cause of constructive political discourse when empirical disagreements are misconcieved as disagreements over principle. Two people who disagree about whether health care would be better without government involvement at least have a chance of having a productive discussion. Dialogue isn’t really possible, on the other hand, when an entire ideology is understood to be arguing that society should let uninsured sick people rot in their gurneys.

Matt Welch disapprovingly reports on Gary Johnson’s consequentialist approach to drug policy:

At the first presidential debate of the 2012 campaign, former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson implored Republican voters to conduct a “cost-benefit analysis” of the criminal justice system…. [C]onditions are becoming increasingly ripe for a Johnsonian cost-benefit analysis to conclude that drug prohibition needs to go the way of alcohol prohibition. It remains my hope, even my conviction, that these hardheaded arguments will reverse this evil policy during the next decade or two.

Yet we can’t assess the corrosive and life-destroying faults of the criminal justice system—and our complicity in creating them—merely by looking at the bottom line of a spreadsheet.

Americans have created a system in which criminals who have served their sentences can still expect to remain incarcerated for life. Voters continue to reward prosecutors who are notorious for locking up innocent people. Our periodic national panics about terrorism and immigration have created a system where defendants do not have access to a public lawyer, prisoners can rot indefinitely, and 30-year residents of the U.S. can get deported for Reagan-era misdemeanors.

Why did all this happen? Because we let ourselves be OK with the ends justifying the means.

Welch prefers the Ron Paul approach:

I’m grateful that Gary Johnson wasn’t the only libertarian-leaning candidate at the first GOP debate in South Carolina. Before the former New Mexico governor gave his hardheaded consequentialist answer to the drug war question, Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), who has always been more interested in principle than pragmatism, gave perhaps the most unusual answer in presidential campaign history. When asked about legalizing heroin, Paul analogized personal drug use to freedom of religion. When the stunned panelist asked him whether he had indeed just cited heroin use as an example of liberty, Paul said yes.

Contra Welch, I’m especially grateful to have Johnson involved in this debate. It’s widely accepted that, when deliberating about whether a policy is good or bad, consequences are important. They may not be the only important metric with which to judge policy, but they matter a great deal. This is, for most people, just common sense, and I happen to think it’s also correct.

Libertarians, however, like Welch, tend to have an aversion to consequentialist thinking. They often prefer to evaluate policy based on how well it aligns with libertarian first principles like the non-aggression principle. The problem with this is that a lot of libertarian-ish policies make sense from a consequentialist standpoint, but they fail to receive the serious consideration they deserve partially because their most vocal advocates are libertarians who make first principles-based arguments that are only convincing to other libertarians. When Ron Paul compares the freedom to use heroin with freedom of religion, his libertarian base eats it up, but most other people find it at best unconvincing and at worst ridiculous.

So it’s nice to have an advocate of libertarianism like Gary Johnson who makes arguments that appeal to values held by a wide range of people and contribute to giving libertarian policies the intellectual support they deserve


I’ve been hearing a lot of libertarians and conservatives raising alarm bells about inflation recently. According to Ron Paul, a prominent critic of Bernanke’s job as chair of the Fed, the coming currency crisis “won’t be as bad as Zimbabwe… but perhaps something like 1979 or 1980.” Conservative rising star Paul Ryan told Bernanke recently that “Our currency should provide a reliable store of value—it should be guided by the rule of law, not the rule of men… there is nothing more insidious that a country can do to its citizens than debase its currency.”

There is evidence that Paul and Ryan’s concerns about inflation are misplaced.  Here’s a graph from David Leonhardt:

Kind of seems like there are other priorities that should take precedence over fighting inflation right now, no?

Ron Paul has nutty views on a lot of things, including monetary policy, and is a fairly fringe political figure. But Paul Ryan is a mainstream republican (he even gave the State of the Union rebuttal), which indicates how this inflation anxiety has permeated the thinking of right-leaning American political figures.

Of course, inflation is bad, and it should be a priority to keep it low. In the early 1980s, as you can see from the graph above, inflation was very high, and the Reagan/Volker tight money policy was exactly the right response. But the economic context is very different now, and instead of recognizing that, politicians like Ryan continue to keep pushing the same crude version of Reaganomics. In the absence of evidence indicating future increases in inflation, this dogmatic obsession with inflation just impedes economic recovery.