Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Health Care Law Signals US Empire Decline?

I found David Murrin's comments on CNBC very interesting:

The passage of the health care law shows that the US empire is declining because it illustrates the fact that people expect the state to take care of them, David Murrin, the co-founder of Emergent Asset Management hedge fund manager, told CNBC.

...In their expansionary phase, empires force people to go out, seek risks and fend for themselves, Murrin said, reminding of the dismantling of the British empire after the war, when the National Health Service, which ensures universal health coverage in Britain, was created."This (empire decline) is actually a dead-set course that societies get into and it will happen very quickly I'm afraid," he told "Squawk Box Europe."

I believe Murrin is absolutely right although he is only observing a symptom of a deeper cause. The idea of the individual seeking risk and fending for themselves implies a certain metaphysical and epistemological view of man which translates into a particular political relationship between individuals and the state.

Historically, periods in which man views himself as fundamentally efficacious are periods of great human progress. These are periods where the world is thought to be intelligible, i.e., subject to natural law, and in which it is believed that the human mind is capable of grasping these laws. As men build confidence in their own ability to grasp truth and to apply this knowledge practically and successfully, they not only progress materially, they begin to demand the political pre-conditions necessary to successful thought and production - they demand freedom of action or individual rights. Ancient Greece was such a period. The Enlightenment was such a period.

Notice that periods in which the human mind is thought to be capable, in which the mind is revered, phenomenal technological progress ensues while political movements develop to free men from political tyranny. In the epistemological realm, men replace superstition with reason, and in the political realm, they seek to replace tyranny with freedom. The phenomenal intellectual achievements of Ancient Greece coincided with the first democracy in Athens and the Roman Republic. The Renaissance ultimately led to the Enlightenment which led to the American Revolution and the Industrial Revolution.

Unfortunately, the opposite is also true. Periods like the Dark Ages where men abandon their minds and turn to various forms of unreason such as mysticism and superstition are periods characterized by stagnation, misery, and tyranny. When men abandon their capacity for independent thinking, they must turn to a group for protection and guidance. They turn to their tribal chieftain, their priest, their king, their Party official, or their Fuhrer who gladly define for them how they may serve the tribe, god, kingdom, state, or race.

In Closing of the Western Mind, author Charles Freeman discusses the rise of Christianity and the beginning of the Dark Ages:

Intellectual self-confidence and curiosity, which lay at the heart of Greek achievement, were recast as the dreaded sin of pride. Faith and obedience to the institutional authority of the church were more highly rated than the use of reasoned thought. The inevitable result was intellectual stagnation.

Ultimately, a culture's view of reason, man's very instrument of survival, is what determines political trends. Consequently, when we see masses of individuals turn to the state, not for protection of their right to think and produce, but to take care of them materially - it is a sign that a culture is approaching a dead end. It is a sign that men are giving up their independence, i.e., abandoning their minds and willingly becoming wards of the state - demanding the use of physical force to expropriate the rightful earnings of one member of the group for their own unearned benefit. It is the sign of a culture ripe and begging to be ruled by a gang or a dictator.

The fact that America is approaching this dead end coincides with a two hundred year assault on reason by philosophers. The intellectual trend rejecting reason gave the world the bloody reign of socialists, communists and fascists in the 20th century (see The Ominous Parallels). In America, its influence has not been as extreme, yet it has still led to the mixed economy, a combination of socialism and the remnants of our Enlightenment pro-reason, pro-freedom tradition.

Has this bill pushed us across the collectivist Rubicon as Victor Hanson has suggested? The same could have been said after the income tax amendment in 1913, the Federal Reserve takeover of the monetary system in 1913, the repeal of the gold standard in 1933, social security, medicare, etc. Certainly this is a major step politically, but we can still stop it from happening. In order to restore freedom and individual rights, a key principle to understand is this very idea that reason and freedom are corollaries just as faith and force are corollaries. To dramatize this point, let me leave you with a haunting quote from Freeman:

The last recorded astronomical observation in the ancient Greek world was one by the Athenian philosopher Proclus in AD 475, nearly 1,100 years after the prediction of an eclipse by Thales in 585 bc, which traditionally marks the beginning of Greek science. It would be over 1,000 years -with the publication of Copernicus' De revolutionibus in 1543 - before these studies began to move forward again.


Jeff Sanders said...

The technological advances and production under Hitler's National Socialism were some of the most impressive and massive in human history. There isn't necessarily a causal correlation between unregulated economies and technological progress in history.

Doug Reich said...


You are dropping the wider context.

It is true that under a tyrannical regime, certain technological advances can be made over a short period. The Russians launched sputnik and the Nazi's and Japanese empire made huge advances in jet technology, etc.

However, these regimes existed in the midst of the industrial revolution that followed from freedom and civilization in the West over the preceeding centuries which led to fundamental discoveries like electricity, the automobile, aviation, etc.

Over time, tyrannical regimes, left to their own devices, will stagnate and actually devolve. Observe the Dark Ages, Soviet Russia, Communist China (up until they adopted capitalist policies), North Korea, Cuba, etc.

The statement that "there isn't necessarily a causal correlation between unregulated economies and technological progress in history" represents a massive evasion of history and logic. The history is somewhat obvious (industrial revolution, 19th century) but the logical connection is that massive technological progress requires freedom of thought, private property and/or the rule of law to uphold business contracts and allow a profit motive.

Jason said...

Short range context dropping if I ever saw it.

Excellent response Doug. I'll add my two cents.

You can't just look at one or a few isolated sectors of an economy, and you can't just look at the economy over a short span of time. You must look at the whole economy over the long run.

If tomorrow the American government decided to rabidly pursue a cure for cancer, and forced doctors, pharmaceutical companies, and scientists at universities to devote almost all their time and money to searching for a cure, we might indeed get a cure soon. But violating individual rights on a such a massive scale would destroy the economy as a whole, as well as requiring the government to imprison (and possibly kill) citizens who refused to cooperate, and to shut down universities and businesses who refused to comply.

All other sectors of the economy would collapse from the lack of investment, talent, and resources that were diverted to cancer research. And we would get a prison camp for "non-cooperators". Maybe the government would even force the men of ability who refused to cooperate to work under the threat of torture, seeing as the "common good" depended on their production.

So even if you tossed man's right to his life aside and even if men were able to produce under such barbarous conditions, the economy would collapse. Also, any semi-free country would boycott you or attack you in self-defense (given that you don't protect private property, can't produce, and would eventually attack other countries in an attempt to steal their goods and enslave their people).

There can never be a point in man's history when he does not have to produce his values. All production, especially computer systems and factories of advanced industrial economies, requires constant updating, maintenance, and supervision.

All values have to be maintained. Shoes, pipes, houses, books, and kitchen sinks break down, decay, and rust. Massive computer databases, one's personal collection of Word Documents, and an MP3 collection will crash, operate very slowly, or become too large to search through unless there is constant progress in memory space, search algorithms, and hard disk space amongst other things. Medicine needs to be produced, stored, and distributed in a very specific way to be safe and free from contaminants, and must be meticulously checked for defects and labeled properly.

Life requires constant progress, which requires a social system that allows man to reason and profit--capitalism is that system.