Saturday, December 19, 2009

Stossel's Blues

TIbor R. Machan

John Stossel is a fine journalist with a serious libertarian political orientation. (I once worked with him on his ABC-TV Special, "John Stossel Goes to Washington," broadcast a few years ago and still in circulation.) He has just moved to the cable station, Fox Business News, where he hosted a pretty good program on the health care and insurance topics recently. Stossel and Whole Foods owners John Mackey were quite effective in laying out the case for a free market in the fields of both health care and health insurance, at least until they came up against a rabid and smart enough statist, Russell Mokhiber, who demonstrated that if you aren't fully consistent in your support of human liberty, you are going to be utterly vulnerable to the arguments of the detractors.

If you have been around the block a while trying to show folks that living in a fully free society is not only more economical but also more just than living in alternative systems, you will know that if you give even a millimeter to a statist, he or she will grab your arm and swallow it up good and hard. So when Stossel and Mackey insisted that there is plenty wrong with the prevailing approach to health care and health insurance in these United States, and that no Canadian system can compare to one based on the principles of the free society, this well prepared adversary, activists Mokhiber, stopped them in their tacks by asking such questions as, "Would you privatize the national forests?" "How about a free market in education and roads?" and "What about the public funding of thousands of parks across the country?"

Stossel may be a libertarian in the depths of his mind and heart but he is working at what is in the end still a mainstream TV network. And extending the principles of the free society to education, parks, forests, roads and the like is so way out there for most people, even those most loyal to the principles of the Declaration of Independence, taking on these rebuttals is just too taxing. And Mokhiber knew this very well and never let go of the idea--so that in the last analysis John Stossel and John Mackey were trapped in a dilemma: they either embrace a pure libertarian position in which there is no room for any wealth redistribution and public works--everything must be privatized apart from the judicial system and the military--or they have to accept the socialist health care proposals of the liberal Democrats, better known as Obamacare, as just another task the government can take over.

Stossel tried to escape his dilemma by saying that the issue is big versus limited government but this won't work. It isn't the size of government, really, that is of concern but its proper scope. Matters pertaining to the protection of the basic and derivative rights of the citizenry are the government's purview but nothing else, including parks, forests, lakes, roads, and so forth. But this consistent libertarian idea, implicit in the Declaration of Independence but not explicated by the American Founders--indeed, compromised by them when they wrote the Constitution and tolerated slavery, for example--still doesn't sit well with most Americans, including the audience that watches John Stossel on the Fox Business Network. The sad truth is that millions of people around the globe, including in America, want to be free up to a point but not completely. They will sell their right to liberty for some allegedly guaranteed security by way of Medicare, unemployment compensation, social security, etc. and so forth.

And once these compromises on the right to liberty are accepted, it becomes impossible to give liberty a principled defense. "How come you are willing to tolerate coercing people to pay for public parks and forests and Medicare but not Obamacare?" Indeed, how come. Once the principle is abridged, those who don't want any liberty at all for anyone have a clear path before them. Sure, they might like some liberty for themselves but for that all they need to be is pragmatists, just as Mr. Obama and those with him proudly claim to be.

I do not envy Mr. Stossel who I am sure would gladly go all the way with liberty but working in a more or less mainstream industry he feels he cannot do so. Maybe he ought to try anyway.

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