Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Thomas Sowell Regurgitates Tea Party Hysteria Regarding Rights and Liberties

Thomas Sowell is a conservative economist, which does not bother me at all. His misguided effort to identify "rights" that politicians are taking away from the people, however, is exceedingly troublesome.

Autonomy Over Medical Decisions
The first stolen right that Sowell identifies is personal autonomy over medical decisions. Sowell argues that:
One of the most audacious attempts to take away our freedom to live our lives as we see fit has been the so-called "health care reform" bills that were being rushed through Congress before either the public or the members of Congress themselves had a chance to discover all that was in it.

For this, we were taught to resent doctors, insurance companies and even people with "Cadillac health insurance plans," who were to be singled out for special taxes. Meanwhile, our freedom to make our own medical decisions-- on which life and death can depend-- was to be quietly taken from us and transferred to our betters in Washington. Only the recent Massachusetts election results have put that on hold.
Sowell's argument that members of Congress did not have a chance to review the healthcare bills is somewhat laughable. The bills been available for some time now on legislative services accessible by the public.

Sowell's claim that the pending legislation would deprive people of the freedom is equally false for several reasons. First, Sowell's suggestion that people have an unlimited right to exercise control over their own medical decisions is not a right that most conservatives embrace. Conservatives tend to abhor abortion. President Bush signed the federal law prohibiting partial-birth abortions, which Clinton twice vetoed. The five conservatives on the Supreme Court defied precedent and affirmed the statute -- even though it interferes with a woman's control over her medical decisions. Justice Kennedy argued that Congress has the right to protect women from a decision they might later regret. So much for freedom.

Also, as demonstrated by the Terri Schavio case, many conservatives are uncomfortable with private control over end-of-life decisions. I suspect that a good majority of conservatives and liberals oppose physician-assisted suicide, but this is also a limit on personal autonomy. Federal law regulates the types of medical products and naturally occurring agents (like marijuana) that doctors can prescribe. Sowell's suggestion that we have an unlimited right to autonomy regarding medical treatment is false.

Furthermore, the healthcare legislation does not curtail personal freedoms. In fact, it enhances liberty. One of the most pernicious aspects of unregulated insurance markets is the exclusion of "pre-existing conditions" from coverage. The proposed legislation would end this practice, which would augment individual freedom.

The legislation also does not restrict consumer choices over specific medical decisions. First, people can keep their existing policies. The pending legislation, however, would create "insurance exchanges" that allow individuals and companies to shop for competitive prices. The pending legislation would require that participating companies offer a minimum level of benefits, but it would not establish maximum coverage for individuals. Sowell's failure to deal with the reform proposals honestly undermines his entire argument.

Ironically, Sowell does not discuss the "insurance mandate," even though this is probably his strongest argument. Although President Obama does not want to concede this point, the proposed legislation structures the mandate as a tax on uninsured people. Because the Constitution does not give people a right against taxation (see below), attacking the insurance mandate on grounds of constitutional liberty is a dead end.

The "Right" to Be Rich
Sowell's second argument is a bit convoluted, but it appears that he believes the government is trying to outlaw wealth:
Another dangerous power toward which we are moving, bit by bit, on the installment plan, is the power of politicians to tell people what their incomes can and cannot be. Here the resentment is being directed against "the rich."
Sowell, however, only engages in anti-tax rhetoric, rather than trying to prove his point:
You can see the agenda behind the rhetoric when profits are called "unconscionable" but taxes never are, even when taxes take more than half of what someone has earned, or add much more to the prices we have to pay than profits do.
Sowell hates taxation. He is not alone. But because the Constitution explicitly endows Congress with the authority to tax, no person or business can claim a "right" to be free of taxation.

Sowell's argument echoes many of the bald assertions of Tea Party participants, who contend that the government has taken away their freedom. I hold Sowell to a higher standard than the Tea Party crowd -- a standard he fails to reach.


Anonymous said...

As an economist, by academic training if not practice, I detest the notion of conservative and/or liberal economists. True practitioners of this most important science are not afforded the simultaneous luxuries of their political beliefs and credibility. Further, the least he could do to mollify true economists would be to couch his arguments in terms of economic theory rather than knee-jerk and uninformed partisan attacks.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

RR: I understand you point. To the extent that economics or other disciplines are based in sciene, then labels "liberal" or "conservative" are unimportant (or out of place). My biggest argument against Sowell, however, is that regardless of whether he is a conservative or liberal, he failed to approach the subject as an academic. The "rights" he describes are fictitious.

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