Death Squads and Taxes: Health Care Bogies Follow Noble Tradition

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There's two methods to separate scare tactics from scariness (unless there's three or more methods and I haven't thought of some of them yet).

First there's the reactive bias method: whatever side I'm on has real fear (or if we don't want to seem like wimps--concerns). The other side has scare tactics. The advantage of the reactive bias method is it works no matter which side you're on, or even if you switch back and forth a few times.

Method two is the historic method: how have these fears versus tactics played out in the past? This method usually just works for one side, and on the health care debate, the pro-national health insurance plan folks get the short straw argument.

It's a little insulting to be told to 'read the bill--see what's actually in the bill', following its drafting through the same old slippery slope producing process, of a thousand page pretty much admitted putsch.

If I'm invited by a suspiciously bloody, feral looking, idiot grinning, knife holding man-like giant with a necklace of human teeth, and a top hat of human skin to 'inspect the cave--see what's actually in the cave', and I see cracked long bones at the entrance, and hear faint warning cries from the darkness, then because I'm just smart enough to perceive sufficient risk from the overall circumstances and cues, I may not be interested in looking on cannibal wild man's terms to see what's actually in the cave, though he certainly appears to be trying to make the invitation cordial. (Scare tactic--also insults.)

In the debates leading up to the resolution for and the ratification of the Sixteenth Amendment of the Constitution, suggestions that the income tax rate would ever be anything other than trivial, might even rise to double digits someday, were treated as scare tactics.

Within single digit years there was double digit rates (the top rate topping 70% during WWI), and surely even the biggest scaredy cats at the time of debate couldn't have imagined today's bogies--a sixty thousand page tax code is still unimaginable when you've got one; the systemic corruption as the powerful work to use the income tax's full potential as a reward or punishment is also hard to imagine unless it's actually pressing on one's gag reflex; and of course double digit rates are permanent, even for much of the working class.

Perhaps real fear (and raw Rooseveltian power) were sucking the oxygen away from scare tactics in the 1930s--in the case of Social Security benefit debates, they seem more like head scratching tactics: Won't politicians be tempted to grab any surplus and/or expand benefits, turning it into a wobbly pay-as-you-go plan? Was this 'Social Insurance' really all that much like insurance? If reserve account funds are to be invested only in non-producing government securities, isn't that something like transferring IOUs from one pocket to another--more like a deferred tax than an investment? In what sense would the 'contributions' (taxes) guarantee an earned benefit 'payable as a matter of right', as was being represented?

That last question has an especially interesting scare tactic as reality resonance, since it was the Supreme Court, not a bill, who answered:

Justice Harlan's opinion [1960, Flemming v. Nestor] on behalf of the Court's majority stated that 'To engraft upon the Social Security System a concept of 'accrued property rights' would deprive it of the flexibility and boldness in adjustment to the ever changing conditions it demands.' In dissent, Justice Black responded that 'People who pay premiums for insurance usually think they are paying for insurance, not for 'flexibility and boldness.'' (Charlotte A. Twight ' Dependent on D.C.)

So how can a legislator say that government health care is all about what's in the bill? Perhaps it's his or her intention to be immortal and in power forever with the ability to control everyone in all branches of government, even as all those egos are forever on the make for opportunities to be 'flexible and bold'? (Outside of government, we tend to perceive this as impractical.)

Do the Social Security Numbers themselves seem a little Orwellian? That silly scare tactic was also put to rest, since the numbers would only be used by the Social Security Administration, for one particular strictly limited non-identification purpose.

I don't know at this point how many databases my secret, private, just between me and the Social Security Administration, Social Security Number might be in-- I'd guess hundreds. (And the Social Security Number broken promise has linked arms with the income tax broken promise to sing harmony.) Another point for scare tactics.

Today we have our modern argument about big government programs. I find it hard to see why so many argue in favor of them (maybe just a few more signs of collapse would help). But whatever these arguments today, it's not possible to believe with informed sincerity that opponents of large, open-ended government programs past weren't correct in the context of the debate at the time. The income tax and Social Security debates are prime examples, but there's elements of this everywhere you look.

I'm not sure if this principle already has a name (it's not news that government programs create their own demand, incentives to growth, and incrementalism, so there must be a few principles at least near enough to have their toes stepped on), but if it hasn't, I've long wanted to have some sort of law of economics or political science, and so propose to name it 'Lafave's 2nd Law.'

(Lafave's 1st Law, relating to mass produced snack foods that are sprayed with orange cheese dust or red barbecue spice mixture, is already taken, but hasn't really caught on yet. I recently learned that Ringo Starr has a law. He seems like a likeable guy, with a likeable and concise law. But if a lot of other celebrities decide that they should have a law, there could be a crowding out effect, so I need to try again to have a law right away.)

Lafave's 2nd Law may be stated thus: Opponents of large, open-ended government programs are always correct in the context of the public debate at the time.

There may be hidden agendas at the time, on either or both sides; there may be mission creep later on, generated by either or both sides. If someone argues that the current income tax system is necessary or correct or serviceable, that's a different argument. Lafave's 2nd Law only points out that the direction that the income tax system took has a clear resemblance to the fears, and looks nothing at all like the reassurances.

The anti-universal health care side only has to show that it's reasonable to fear Leviathan someday, while the pro-universal health care side needs to demonstrate that an endless, marching lowest common denominator lineage of politicians in an evolving system can all be trusted, in the face of whatever ambitions, pressures and crises might arise. In other words, the bogey burden of proof is all on one side, and pretty much 100% of the historical proof is on the other.

Barack Obama can't know whether his reassurances will mean anything. Future generations will do what they want to do with the levers of power they find. The President is on track to give them a huge one, and if he does, it will be what it is and what it can grow into, and the President's intentions (and likeability factor, if you like that sort of thing) will very quickly recede into complete and absolute irrelevance.

The intentions of those calling 'review panel' trial balloons 'death squads', after (perhaps) the most extreme possible future iteration of the concept are also irrelevant (I know mine are, even though I've made every effort to hone them into a knife point of pure evil), but my 2nd law says we may not have heard the last from the death squads. From that perspective, big government opponent scare tactics may be more like an inverse principle of geology--the political emotivity may leech out of an era's grave, but given sufficient time, pressure and government power, flesh will eventually be put on most of its bogey bones.

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Les Lafave works in the insurance industry.  The opinions in this column are his own.