Monday, January 08, 2007

Hippocrates Shrugged

I've finally taken the time over winter break to finally read Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, which has been previously recommended to me on numerous occasions. For those of you who may not know, Atlas Shrugged is a very long novel about the death and rebirth of man's spirit. It is, essentially, Ayn Rand's philosophy of objectivism hashed out in epic form. I won't get into it here, but objectivism shares much in common with modern libertarianism. Most importantly for my purposes here, the two philosophies share a strong moral belief in the free market and a strong belief in the power and morality of the individual. Fifty years later, much of the novel still seems relevant. In particular the cluelessness of academics and the media seems to be right on target, as both institutions continue to degrade business and wealth even as America decays into a dark age. I'm about half way through and I've enjoyed every moment so far. Future readers should be warned that the characters exist to push the philosophy and there are a number of long-winded speeches.

But despite how enjoyable the novel is, just like Hayek's The Road to Serfdom, which I finally read this past fall, it seems obvious that the very worst predictions of free market defenders have not come true. On one hand this is a triumph of mankind- we have not decayed into slavery and poverty and the human spirit, the human will to succeed has not been crushed. We have not descended to communism or collectivism, and the idea of the free market has been accepted, in theory, by the powers that be in the world today. Today, the debate we face is over regulation, and even opponents of the free market tend to frame their arguments in market language in order to make their arguments more palatable.

Today we have a new enemy of freedom and that is the pursuit of environmental health and more recently the pursuit of the nebulous concept of public health. This is an enemy that is more invidious than the collectivists of yesterday. As opposed to any notion of "the common good" we're specifically told "the individual good" - that is, we're told to do things not because it's for the good of society, but because it's for our own good.

This is particularly invidious because the logical premises behind what we're told is usually true. Yes, smoking is bad for us. Yes, it's unhealthy to be obese. But based on these premises, we're told to forgo making individual choices and succumb to the will of democratic majorities- Submit to anti-smoking and anti-obesity programs!

The sad thing is, society as a whole has generally rejected these notions when it comes to spiritual and moral issues. Government shouldn't tell us what kind of family we should have, how we worship, and who we should have sex with. Yet when such demands on the individual are made in the name of science and public health, many of the same people who argue strongly for individual rights in other regards turn a blind eye to public health laws.

I worry that a new Democratic Congress will push for some sort of national health plan- and I worry that Connecticut's Republican governor has proposed the same thing here in my own state. I worry because any government plan means less choice, more regulation, and less freedom. I worry that the health of the individual- which should be no one's business but your own- is slowly becoming a matter of public policy. And I worry that the greatest threat to our freedom today comes not in the form of a Marxist enemy, but in the form of government officials and public health advocates who truly believe they are acting in the best interest of the individual.

For those of you who may think I'm crazy, one needs look no further than the reactions to the recent e.coli outbreaks in spinach and lettuce to find evidence of the new public health mindset that has taken hold. There was little discussion of science and even less discussion of any sort of risk benefit analysis. Rather, there were calls for more government regulation and more government oversight, even though no one could specify just what it was the government should be doing. (Which comes to think of it, would be very much at home in Atlas Shrugged.) We've come to the point where we're left not with logic, not with reason, and not with individual choice, but with mandates and a notion that our health and ultimately our lives are the responsibility of government.


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