In December, The New Republic put together an amusing collection of quotations from conservatives predicting that different social programs would mean the end of the American way of life. There’s certainly something unfair about cherry-picking quotations this way. After all, you can always find someone willing to say something absurd if you look long enough. Nevertheless, these old attempts to discredit new social programs sound uncannily like the overheated rhetoric aimed at President Obama’s agenda and—in particular—at health care reform.
It’s hard not to hear today’s dire predictions about what a climate change bill would do to the economy in attacks on the various clean air acts. For example, in 1970, Lee Iaccoca, then Executive Vice President of Ford, said that attempts to regulate air pollution would jeopardize the “continued production of automobiles” and be “a threat to the entire American economy and to every person in America.” In 1987, the National Association of Manufacturers likewise predicted that regulations limiting the emission of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides would lead to “serious long-term losses in domestic output and employment, heavy cost burdens on manufacturing industries, and a resultant gradual contraction of the entire industrial base.”
Conservatives attacked social legislation in a similar way. In 1935, Sen. Daniel O. Hastings (R-DE) predicted that social security legislation would “end the progress of a great country” and “go a long way toward destroying American initiative and courage.” A few years later, the National Association of Manufacturers called minimum wage legislation “a step in the direction of Communism, bolshevism, fascism, and Nazism.” Medicare was equated with socialism too. And then, most famously, future president Ronald Reagan predicted in 1961 that Medicare would take away doctors’ basic freedoms:
The doctor begins to lose freedoms; it’s like telling a lie, and one leads to another. First you decide that the doctor can have so many patients. They are equally divided among the various doctors by the government. But then the doctors aren’t equally divided geographically, so a doctor decides he wants to practice in one town and the government has to say to him you can’t live in that town, they already have enough doctors. You have to go someplace else. And from here it is only a short step to dictating where he will go.
Maybe it’s unfair to pull quotes like this. But we hear the same kind of ridiculous claims today. If anything these over-the-top predictions of disaster are more reasonable than Sarah Palin’s suggestion that attempts to limit health care costs would create “death panels” with the power to euthanize the elderly. There are arguments for and against government-funded health care just as there are arguments for and against cap-and-trade schemes. But the truth is that social programs do not lead us inexorably down the road to Stalinism. Nor is the American economy so fragile that its long-term health will be endangered by limiting what corporations can emit into the atmosphere or dump in the groundwater. These kinds of claims are scare tactics, plain and simple, the kind of desperate measures you take when you can’t win your case on its own merits.