Alex Massie

When did America Cease to be America?

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Matt Yglesias and Jonathan Chait have some fun with Charles Krauthammer's argument that resistance to Obama's health care plans is rooted in a certain concept of American exceptionalism. Here's Dr K:

This spirit of being independent and not wanting to be controlled by the government is something that is intrinsic in America. It’s the essence of America. And it’s what distinguishes Americans who are essentially refugees of the old society in Europe. That’s why it’s always been harder to make Americans break to the yoke of government, as happened in Europe.

Look, once you get accustomed to the kind of entitlements you have in Sweden, England, France, elsewhere, it doesn’t get undone. And America is different. It’s resisting the imposition of new yokes. And that’s what’s happening today.

Frederick Jackson Turner


In any case, if Obama's health plans are, as Krauthammer implies, "un-American" then so is Medicare and so is the requirement that kids go to school (at home if you like, but they're still supposed to be educated) and so, for that matter, is the IRS and so was the draft and lord knows what else. In each of these areas the populace is, or was, yoked to the government.

Which is fine and fun in a parlour-game fashion and sure it might be grand to abolish all these things and live in a minarchist utopia. But that's hardly likely to happen and there's a reason why hard-core libertarianism, for all its good ideas, struggles to win, you know, elections.

Again, I'm all in favour of local and community-driven provision and I think it likely that there are many areas in which state involvement is now so costly and clumsy that it cannot provide the services it promises in an efficient or successful fashion. But the idea for universal coverage - in education, health, pensions and elsewhere - was driven, rather obviously, by the fact that such coverage was far from universal. One may not think all of what arose from this was the best solution (the NHS for instance) but it's not as though these were ignoble aspirations.

The argument today, then, isn't about coverage (except in the American health system it seems) but about how that coverage is best provided. Anyway, at what point does Krauthammer think Americans ceased to live in a glorious un-yoked state of bliss? I think the obvious answer is pre-1776**. Sure there was the taxing issue (and for many the slavery problem) but it's not unreasonable to argue that Americans were freer before there was even a federal government than they have been since the establishment of that government. Clearly, this is when the rot first set in. 

Does that mean that Dr Krauthammer is arguing that the most American position of all is to regret the establishment of the United States of America? Perhaps that would be silly, but it's little dafter than supposing that extending health insurance coverage castrates the idea and essence of the United States.

*So, as Trivia Maven D. Lind points out, perhaps 1890, the year the census declared the frontier closed (and so inspiring Turner's thesis), is The Year America Ceased to Be America.

**UPDATE 2: Then again Matt Zeitlin  tweets to suggest the ratification of the Constitution in 1789 is a better date. As always, my Twitter feed, for those of you who like this sort of thing, is here.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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