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Shedding blood for liberty

September 23rd, 2007

A brawl has erupted over a statement in the stump speech of Republican candidate Fred Thompson, who asserts that the US has “shed more blood for other people’s liberty than any other combination of nations in the history of the world” As the WaPo points out, our Russian allies lost millions in WWII alone, as did Britain and France in WWI which (at least nominally) they entered ‘that small nations might be free’. In fact, US casualties in World War I (about 120 000 killed and 200 000 wounded) were comparable to those of Australia and New Zealand,which between them had about 5 per cent of the US population.

Unsurprisingly, vvarious people have tried to quibble by saying that the other losses weren’t in defence of freedom, so that Thompson’s claim is true by default. But in that case, Thompson ought to have said something like “the US, alone among nations, fights for the freedom of othersâ€? which at least sounds like standard meaningless stump-speech rhetoric rather than a false factual claim.

Leaving motivations aside, the striking fact is that Thompson’s claim is pretty much the opposite of the truth. The US is notable among major nations in how little it has suffered in foreign wars, and this helps to explain why the war party is so strong there.

Until Vietnam, by the official count, the US had never lost a foreign war. In fact, US forces had hardly ever even been in retreat – in both the World Wars, the entry of substantial US forces marked the turning point for the Allied side. In the World Wars, the US lost far fewer soliders, in relation to its population, than most other countries. And, with the exception of some modest rationing in World War II, the civilian population of the US has been essentially unaffected by war.

I’m not saying this in criticism. One reason for this relatively benign experience has been that for most of its history, the US was more reluctant to go to war than other countries, and, by comparison with the European empires of the 19th century, unwilling to engage in wars of imperial expansion*. That hasn’t stopped Americans accepting some fairly hypocritical pretexts for war, but then hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue.

The problem now is that most people in Europe and elsewhere have learned from experience that war is always bad, and usually worse than even bad alternatives, but many Americans have not. For the Republican core, war is a positive good, and victory the manifest destiny of the United States. The myth of American invincibility is modified only by the possibility of domestic treason, which accounts for the defeat in Vietnam and is already being used as a pre-emptive explanation for defeat in Iraq.

The Republican core can’t be ignored. They make up 30 per cent of the population, and an even larger proportion of the opinion elite, and the Foreign Policy Community. Worse still, the rest of the Foreign Policy Community, and most of the opinion elite more generally, differ only in degree from this position. You can’t be taken seriously by the Foreign Policy Community accept the premise that “America can invade and attack other countries when vital American interests are threatened”, and the practical implication that such threats are common enough to require regular resort to war.

Perhaps this will change when Bush is gone and the scale of the disaster in Iraq sinks in. It seems that the lessons of the futility of war can be learned only through repeated bloody catastrophe. The best that can be said is that, if the US can learn from Vietnam and Iraq the lessons that it took two world wars to teach Europe, perhaps some progress is being made.

* This restraint didn’t extend to Native Americans.

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  1. wilful
    September 27th, 2007 at 16:12 | #1

    BBB, we probably are mostly in agreement. I’m one of those boring people that don’t think there is one perfect economic model that must be forced onto every issue to make it ideologically pure, I’m rather centralist in my thinking, which doesn’t really go with the general vibe of internet discussions. There’s a place for markets and there’s a place for government intervention, and health is an area where government intervention is more called for than not. Not that I pretend to be an expert on this stuff.

    Of course the PBS isn’t State supply, but it does moderate the rapacity of big pharma. There are lots of wonderful examples of valuable drugs being provided with state money however. And health is more than drugs of course.

    Re food being a duopoly, I have the privilege of living near one of Melbourne’s fabulous fresh food markets, where a family of 3 can get a weeks supply of meat and vegies for less than $50. Most people can’t do that however.

  2. mugwump
    September 27th, 2007 at 23:30 | #2

    I’m not willing to leave my pharmaceutical supply in private hands. I like the PBS…

    I am not aware of any drugs developed by the PBS.

    The problems with privatized healthcare are largely problems to do with insurance, not provision of healthcare. At the risk of further boring you with comparisons, I have been cared for by the public Australian system, the private Australian system, and the private US system. The US system has a higher standard of care than both the public and private Australian systems, and the doctors seem better on average than Australian doctors. [a purely subjective impression]

    However, the US medical insurance system is very broken. The State and Federal Governments pick up the tab if you are elderly (65+), you are a poor child, or if you simply turn up to a hospital emergency room. Otherwise, you have to arrange your own insurance. This is usually provided through your employer, which is a big burden particularly on small business.

    The reason employers provide health insurance – rather than everyone just arranging their own like they do with other forms of insurance – is that insurance companies calculate insurance premiums on a “group by group” basis. Smaller groups are higher risk and hence the insurance companies charge higher premiums, with the highest premiums reserved for the smallest groups of all: individuals and families. The biggest group to which most people belong is that formed by their coworkers, hence employers provide health insurance.

    There are other distorting factors that favour employer-provided health insurance, such as the premiums are tax-deductible to the employer but not to the individual (Bush introduced a reform aimed at addressing this: “health savings accounts” but like most tax breaks the rules are so burdensome as to make them almost useless).

    Apart from the burden on small businesses, employer-provided health insurance has the obvious problem that your insurance is tied to your job. Lose your job and your family is suddenly uninsured. Worse still, if you have a “pre-existing condition” (say you lose your job while being treated for cancer), you won’t be able to get insurance privately. HIPAA (the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) prohibits insurers from rejecting you from a group plan based on pre-existing conditions, provided you have not been uninsured for more than 63 days. So the only way to get insurance for an (expensive) pre-existing condition is to hustle to that new job. Although they cannot outright refuse to cover you, the insurers are allowed to increase the employer’s premiums based on your pre-existing conditions, but under anti-discrimination law the employer is not allowed to ask about your health in a job interview (unless it is relevant to the job). That puts small employers (of which I am one) in the invidious (or should that be “vidious”) position of not being able to control healthcare costs.

    You may ask (as I did) why individuals can’t just band together in arbitrarily large groups and negotiate healthcare en-masse (eg as a club or trade association). This is exactly what Australia does with the PBS scheme: it negotiates as a group of 20M with big pharma, plus the Australian government has the added bargaining chip of being able to make it illegal for individuals to re-export certain drugs obtained through PBS (has anyone else noticed the new signs in Sydney airport saying export of some prescription drugs in large quantities is illegal? I am sure that’s what that is about). I am not sure of the answer, but it doesn’t happen. It probably has something to do with the fact that insurance companies in the US are exempt from anti-trust laws, so it is perfectly legal for them to collude in not providing coverage. My State is currently introducing legislation to force insurance companies to offer coverage to large non-employer-based groups.

    How to fix this mess? Seems you could do three very simple things that would make a big difference:

    1) Subject the insurance companies to the same antitrust laws that apply to the rest of us, so they can’t collude. That would also almost guarantee that non-employer groups are insurable.

    2) Make the insurance laws uniform across employers and individuals. So no rejection of coverage for individuals based on pre-existing conditions, and the same tax breaks for private insurance as group insurance. Still allow the insurance company to increase premiums based on pre-existing conditions, to ameliorate the moral hazard of people not insuring until they get sick.

    3) Make the state the insurer of last resort for everyone.

  3. Ian Gould
    September 28th, 2007 at 01:52 | #3

    “France also falls into much the same category, they were reluctant to shed blood for their own liberty and only too pleased to collaborate with their occupier.”

    Right, the 500,00+ Frenchmen who died prior to the surrender of France obviously killed each other while fighting over who was going to surrender first.

    The 500,000 Frenchmen who risked an automatic death sentence from the Vichy regime by enlisting in the Free French forces were obviously just confused.

    And the Maquis who took part in the uprising in Southern France after the Allied landing in Italy were actually taking up arms in support of Germany and were the victims of an unfortunate misunderstanding.

    Millions of French citizens sacrificed or risked their lives for freedom in World War II, can you say the same?

  4. September 28th, 2007 at 21:53 | #4

    No one seems to have noted that he didn’t say “shed more American blood”. Grammatically speaking, you can shed blood at either end of the sword.

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