It has occurred to me -- recently, but also several times in the past -- that many of our political ideas are shaped far too strongly by what we see about us. That is, our ideas about what is possible, what is impossible, and most important, what is right, are based, not so much upon theories, or logical assessments, but simply upon what is being done at present, or, in a few cases, what was done in the recent past. In other words, existing circumstances, or recent history, shape our political views much more than any other influence.
There are numerous examples, from all areas of government, as we shall see shortly, but let us start with some examples where the established perspective is held by a smaller subset of the population, that is, where enough people see the established system as troubling that there is a chance that the average reader will see how the claims made are based, not in fact, but in intellectual inertia which sees the current situation as the only possible solution.
Let us start, then, with welfare programs. Whenever these programs are attacked, the claim is made by those who support them -- and even by a fair number of those who don't have strong opinions in either direction -- that eliminating these programs will leave people starving in the streets, dying for lack of medical care and otherwise suffering horrible privation. A few of these may be motivated by some personal agenda, but, by and large, there is little reason to doubt that most truly believe what they are saying. Looking at the welfare system that exists today, seeing it as the natural and sensible way of solving various problems, they honestly cannot conceive of its elimination resulting in anything other than the horrors they describe.
Unfortunately for those holding such beliefs, the great society is recent enough that historical evidence exists to undermine such claims. Prior to the institution of medicare/medicaid, for example, there was no mass exclusion of the poor from medical care, charitable care was, in fact, more common than today. You can see this in the case being made for Medicare/Medicaid. It was not proposed to eliminate a lack of care, but instead to eliminate the stigma of asking for charity. In short, even then, no one claimed care was lacking, just that it was embarrassing to have to ask for free care. So, why would we think, were we to revert to the pre-Medicare/Medicaid system, suddenly the world would be different, and people would die in the streets?
Similarly, monetary aid is a relatively new invention, at least on a federal level. And even state aid is not exactly an age old institution. However, looking at history, it seems, when there was no government aid available, there was quite a lot of private aid available. Perhaps not as much as the state provides, but still, various ethnic and religious groups tended to band together to support their own, and other charities, funded by everyone from affluent businessmen to those taking contributions from among the poorest of immigrants, put together aid for the poor, with or without various conditions. Doubtless it was not as constant as government aid, it was not a reliable monthly check, but then again, that may in fact be a plus. If you can count on a regular check for doing nothing, it tends to make you continue in poverty, while aid that is less consistent and reliable may provide you with a little relief, but the uncertainty also motivates you to move along and find a way to support yourself. (And, of course, all of this also ignores the larger role families played in supporting their own, when they knew there was no state aid to take the burden off them.)
Now, some may argue that this is all obvious, but hardly shows that established conditions blind us as to possibilities, after all, this example also has a strong component of political ideology. So, let me look at a second example, public education. Or, to be precise, public education as a government function.
I have to make this distinction, as many arguments in favor of public education lump together two very different circumstances and treat them as the same. You see, an activity can be undertaken by the citizens of a town, for example, and yet not be a government action. For example, if everyone in a town organizes a Halloween party, is that a government activity? Of course not. And similarly, many historic schools were funded by voluntary collection and administered by an elected board, selected by those who contributed, but that does not make them government schools, even if the pool of contributors was identical to the pool of voters.
Some may ask why I bother to make this distinction. The answer being that, thanks to our current system, we have a tendency to think of all education in terms of government, but that perspective is actually what results in so much trouble. You see, there is a difference between taking a collection and coercive taxation, or between a school made available for all who wish to attend and a school with mandatory attendance enforced by law. And the difference between the two is significant, yet both types are often called "public schools" in history books, and the difference is lost, leading us to think only the tax funded, mandatory, state controlled schools are possible, that all public education, all efforts to provide any sort of free schooling, must be run by today's system and no other. And thus, whenever I argue against public schooling, everyone responds that I must want only the rich to learn to read, or some other nonsense, ignoring the historical fact that even in the middle ages many guilds, townships and others sponsored schools for --if not the whole public -- at least the children of guild members, or townspeople of a certain class. If that was possible during a quite impoverished era such as the middle ages, why would we not be able to voluntarily provide schooling for all who want it today? Especially if the overhead and waste of government management were removed? Yet, again, because we are blinded by our present system, everyone imagines the choice is between state run and funded schools or some system where only the rich can add and read.
Another example can be found in our attitude toward banks and money. Thanks to the victory of those who favored centralized, state run banking, the "State Banking System" that predominated after the Civil War eventually grew into the Federal Reserve System, eventually even divorcing the concept of money from that of precious metals, or anything else of inherent value. Yet, because we have become used tot his system, and have been told repeatedly that the old system did not work (largely without any historical proof), any proposal to return to a gold backed currency, much less elimination of the Federal Reserve or privatization of banks, is treated as a fringe belief, something inherently impossible.
Yet the evidence all points the other way. The Fed was created to ensure "continual growth" and "end the boom-bust cycle". Of course, the "boom-bust cycle" only existed because of the State Banking System and its predecessors in the two Banks of the United States, and thus was a result of intervention, not the free market, but that claim went unchallenged, even as the creation of the Fed was met with the worst depression in our history, followed, to this day, by an ever accelerating cycle of boom and recession or depression. Even without these crises, the fact remains that during our short periods of free banking, there was a supposedly impossible phenomenon, falling prices coupled with rising real wages, while, ever since the Fed has been in existence, there has been nothing but continual inflation, eroding our savings, undercutting faith in our currency and generally increasing uncertainty in our economy. And yet, whenever one questions this system, the immediate response is that any alternative is a certain disaster. This is, perhaps, the best example of a case where our current circumstances blind us to any alternative.
Let us move on to another example, our current liability laws. I will admit, the cases which led to the first changes in our laws were problematic. The original attacks on caveat emptor were based on real problems, cases where the new mass production economy, and new methods of mass sales led to a few bad situations. However, the problems were not impossible to solve, once the public was aware of this sort of problem, there would inevitably been a backlash in the market, with people insisting on contracts providing more protection, or else paying premiums and favoring sellers who offered such, and thus the system of caveat emptor would have reformed itself, with the principle remaining untouched, yet the market adjusting contracts and seller behavior. However, as it was an era of activist government, and the first gasps of the modern attitude demanding immediate government action when any problem arose, the market was not given time to correct itself, the government dove in with both feet and began making changes, changes which led, inevitably, to the broken system we have today, where liability is almost inevitable for any manufacturer or seller, where certain professions are almost driven out of business by expansive views of liability. And yet, whenever the suggestion is made to consider reforming the system, returning to a more stable system, perhaps even allowing for the primacy of contract (which is all caveat emptor truly is), these too are rejected as impossible and certain to bring disaster.
I could go on, and likely will at some later time, but I think I have made my case, at least laid the groundwork. I am leaving home again tomorrow for several days, so I doubt I will write more for a while, but when I return I will try to return to this topic, perhaps look at a few more examples, and offer up some thoughts on why this issue arises, and what can be done about it.
For those interested in my earlier writing on these topics, the following links may be of interest:
Government Health Care-"High Cost of Medical Care","Government Efficiency", "Medical Reform, An Overview", "The Absurdity of Mandatory Insurance", "Clarification of my Argument for a Free Market in Medicine", "Preexisting Conditions", "Misunderstanding Profits", "Government Quackery", "Two Examples of "Inefficiency" in Capitalism", "The Devil is in the Definitions (And Assumptions)", "Bad Economics Part 10", "Bad Economics Part 18", "Cutting "Costs"", "A Different Look at "Health Care Reform"", "Reviving Nonsense in the White House", "The Problems With "Safe and Effective"", "Again?", "Collective Ventures Versus Government"
Public Schools-"Reforming Education", "You Don't Drown in a Glass of Water - Vouchers Revisited", "Why Vouchers are not the Answer", "Never Ascribe To Evil, A Discussion of Education", "A Few Thoughts on Charter Schools"
Gold Standard/Banking-"Monetary Issues Made Simple Part I", "Monetary Issues Made Simple Part II", "Inflation and Uncertainty", "Bad Economics Part 7", "Bad Economics Part 8", "What Is Money? ", "What Is A Dollar?", "The Gold Question, Not "Why?" But "When?"", "Bad Economics Part 19","Fiscal Discipline", "Putting the Bull in Bull Market", "Why Gold?".
Caveat Emptor-"You've Come a Long Way, Baby!","Consumer Protection", "Utopianism and Disaster", "Guns and Drugs","Contracts and Freedom", "In Praise of Contracts"
The Free Market-"Greed Versus Evil", "Competition", "The Basics", "The Triumph of Good", "The Limits of "Scientific" Management", "Planning for Imperfection", "Misunderstanding the Market", "How to Blame the Free Market", "How to Blame the Free Market Part II", "Contracts and Freedom", "Unfair Advantage and Foreign Trade", "In Praise of Contracts", "Third Best Economy"
Activist Government (General)-"Consumer Protection", "How the Government Corrupts Relationships", "Consumer Protection, Cartels and the Failure of Regulation", "Consolidation and Diffusion", "For Your Own Good", "Business Licensing and Regulation", "Inspections, Regulations and Bans" "On the Side of the Angels... Yet Completely Wrong", "Common Sense,Philosopher Kings, Arbitrary Law and Dictatorship", "The Dishonesty of Transportation Spending", "The Glory of Eisenhower?", "Non-Governmental Communal Solutions", "In a Nutshell", "Inconsistent Understanding",
The Historical Growth of Regulation-"The Political Spectrum", "A Timeline Part One", "A Timeline Part Two", "A Timeline Part Three", "Mistaken Perceptions of the Industrial Age", "Child Labor and the Industrial Revolution", "A Passing Thought", "Rethinking the Scopes Trial"
Government Minimalism-"Minimal Reforms", "The Case for Small Government", "Never Ascribe to Evil, A Discussion of Education", "Why Vouchers are not the Answer", "You Don't Drown in a Glass of Water - Vouchers Revisited", "In Loco Parentis", "Harming Society", "Hard Cases Make Bad Law", "The Sexual Revolution and Prostitution", "Another Look at Exploitation", "The Glory of Eisenhower?", "The Magic Bureaucrat", "Inconsistent Understanding", "Of Wheat and Doctors", "A Few Passing Thoughts", "De Gustibus Non Disputandum Est"
I am sure I only scratched the surface with the links provided, but hopefully they will provide at least a rough picture of my thoughts on each issue.