Getting Cloudy

Brink Lindsey raises a valid issue — the public’s demand for more health care benefits seems to be colliding with its distaste for a large increase in tax revenues. The circle could be squared by having Medicaid and Medicare implement cost-saving measures, but that seems unlikely as well. And it’s true, none of the possible approaches to health care — price controls, entitlement cuts, or substantially higher taxes — seem especially likely. I’m far from certain as to which path the country will take.

The least-likely path of all, however, is the libertarian one in which the government steps back from a commitment to ensure the health of its citizens. As I speak, the president is threatening to veto a popular bill to expand the SCHIP health insurance program for children, a measure that will certainly become law if the Democrats win in 2008 and that it seems unlikely a Republican president would be willing to veto if he weren’t a lame duck. The political struggles in this area will, no doubt, become extremely intense in the future, but I’m reasonably confident that the predominant approach will be some combination of higher taxes and price controls. Lindsey mentions Tyler Cowen’s observation that it is precisely the prosperity generated by a well-functioning capitalist system that makes higher tax levels affordable which is, I suppose, “ironic” to a libertarian expecting to find Marxists beneath the bedsheets everywhere, but fairly unsurprising from a liberal perspective. Indeed, I’m not really sure why someone with Lindsey’s outlook would find this prospect threatening — entitlement spending has, after all, grown steadily over the past thirty years and Lindsey is enthusiastic about that period, why should the future be any different?

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

Response Essays

  • National Review Online editor-at-large and LA Times columnist Jonah Golberg offers a critical assessment of what he calls “the Brink Lindsey Project” — “a new fusionism which will make us stuffy conservatives lighten up and make pie-eyed liberals give up their enduring weakness for Gosplans.” According to Goldberg, Lindsey’s “libertarian centrism” involves a suspiciously convenient confluence of forces. “His definition of libertarian centrism is really Lindseyan centrism,” Goldberg argues. “And by writing his own priorities into the grand sweep of history, he misdiagnoses the nature of the liberal-conservative divide.”

  • Atlantic Monthly associate editor Matthew Yglesias joins Brink Lindsey in thinking that the relaxation of traditional social strictures over the past few deacades is a good thing, but he doesn’t see anything libertarian about it, citing the role of Civil Rights Act and other intrusive anti-discrimination laws in bringing about the shift. Yglesias concedes that the economy has in some ways become less regulated, but argues that this didn’t signal an “ideological triumph.” Furthermore, he argues, “libertarians interested in practical politics might want to consider that a federal commitment to health security and retirement security isn’t going away,” and suggests that Lindsey himself may have explained why.

  • Reason contributing editor Julian Sanchez spots several ambiguities in Brink Lindsey’s argument leading him to doubt the conclusion that America has become more libertarian in a meaningful sense. “To speak confidently about America’s growing libertarianism,” Sanchez writes, “we need to establish that at least some of the changes Lindsey lauds are driven by a shared conception of justice” that leans increasingly libertarian. Yet Sanchez is unimpressed by the polling data Lindsey recruits to his cause. There is no doubt we now have more choice due to increasing abundance, but “the conception of freedom that has always centrally concerned libertarians has been the freedom from restraints on choice, not the variety of available options.” But, Sanchez argues, “much of the plausibility of Lindsey’s thesis relies on [the] conflation” of these two conceptions of freedom.