A while ago, I found myself in conversation with someone who had emailed me back in September about my first column after a sophomore hiatus from the pages of the 'Prince.' That hadn't been a particularly political piece, just my view of a slice of Americana in the Olympic summer of '96. This guy took issue with the snippets of classical liberalism I saw in American society, commenting, "Your view of the world is so misguided that I wonder how you can walk to class every day without crashing into things." I'm sure he missed the irony of that statement coming from someone who resided in Lexington, Mass., the "cradle" of a revolution fought over those same principles.
After the friend I was originally talking to excused herself from our company, the guy – let's call him K, in honor of my fellow columnist Kieran Healy, who would share his perspective – and I got to talking about the relative merits of world political systems. As a very French native of France, K felt obligated to defend his country in the face of all opposition, and has done so in print when the occasional article emerges anywhere on a student's impressions of a stay in Paris.
Our discussion really began when I stated that the rise of the French extreme right was a function of ambiguous immigration programs and counterproductive labor policies. I noted that African and Middle Eastern immigrants are scapegoated for taking unwanted menial jobs while French economic growth continues to sag under the weight of an inefficient socialist bureaucracy. When asked for examples of this "inefficient socialism," I listed farm subsidies, government-mandated benefits, entitlements (such as a month-long vacation), restrictions on free labor practices and the consequent power of left-wing unions.
K replied that the French system was more "just" because it "doesn't produce 40-50 million people on the streets with no health care." Furthermore, French values were "more democratic," in that human beings are considered to be worth more than dollar bills. I ignored this latter characterization to focus on the issue of medical care, bringing up my experience with the Canadian system and my knowledge of the British Health Service.
In Canada, people die on waiting lists, hospitals are closing, doctors are forced to work in remote locales and then taxed into oblivion and even middle-class patients constantly stream across the border to be treated in the U.S. In Britain, the situation appears to be graver, and there is no thick-skinned Thatcher-type to take the necessary but politically damaging remedial measures. I readily asserted that the American system also needs an overhaul, primarily to reduce administrative costs and give people increased choice in coverage.
My social vision perplexed K, as he didn't trust the "benevolence" of the rich to establish private charities to deal with the destitute. He argued that the privileged individual should sacrifice for the benefit of society at large, that the well-off "do not feel taxation rates" but the poor "certainly appreciate them." I was worried at the premises he reasoned from, but unfortunately had time neither for a detailed analysis of the flat tax nor for a basic explanation of John Locke, Adam Smith, et al.
The "debate" was left unresolved, as such discussions between people so far apart philosophically tend to end. We did find one thing to agree upon, however, when I donned headgear bearing the logo of our mutually favored basketball team, the Boston Celtics. If only Larry Legend could so easily make leftists see the light of reason away from the court.