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The Teleological Fallacy

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K-Drum makes a good point about the recent Thomas Frank Salon article that I neglected to:

But if it’s so easy to see this conservative delusion for what it is, why isn’t it equally easy to recognize the same brand of liberal delusion? Back in 2009, was Obama really the only thing that stood between bankers and the howling mob? Don’t be silly. Americans were barely even upset, let alone ready for revolution. Those pathetic demonstrations outside the headquarters of AIG were about a hundredth the size that even a half-ass political organization can muster for a routine anti-abortion rally. After a few days the AIG protestors got bored and went home without so much as throwing a few bottles at cops. Even the Greeks managed that much.

Fearless navigator of our new comment system JeremyW puts it well:

[W]hat strikes me about this article is that he seems to have replaced the institutional status quo bias of our current political system with something that works the opposite way. Rather than a system where actual progressive change is difficult to win support for and subject to several veto points, he seems to think we have one where radical changes are constantly on the cusp of occurring and the whole neoliberal enterprise must be held together by a dastardly sellout president who can subvert the will of the people.

The most crucial underlying premise of Frank’s argument is that the American political economy was on the verge of a radical transformation in 2008, and this was prevented from happening because Barack Obama saved neoliberalism’s bacon. This is a rather problematic for his argument given its transparent falsity. It’s simply not true that most Americans drew the same conclusions from the financial meltdown that Frank did, and even they did the elites who control or strongly influence many key veto points in the American system certainly didn’t. As someone capable of being elected president of the United States Barack Obama is not a radical critic of capitalism, but in terms of whether American capitalism was going to be “put out of business” this is neither here nor there anyway.

Similar premises are also generally seen on attacks on the ACA from the left. To argue that the ACA isn’t better than the status quo ante from a progressive standpoint would be ridiculous, so the strategy is to change the baseline and compare the ACA to another alternative. In policy terms, this isn’t challenging, since you could throw a dart at a map of Western Europe and get a health care system preferable to the ACA. But it’s also completely irrelevant, because the choice wasn’t between the ACA and the French health care system but the ACA and nothing or almost nothing. To get around the obvious political reality, left ACA critics smart enough not to argue that Barack Obama could have forced the Senate to pass single payer through such brilliant strategery as promising senators that he would campaign for them in states where he’s enormously unpopular turn to assertions that the American insurance industry was on the verge of collapse before Barack Obama saved it. And, again, this is sheer lunacy. The American health care system circa 2008 was grossly inefficient and disastrous for many Americans, but for the most politically powerful vested interests — insurance companies and their executives, medical professionals, affluent customers, people over 65 — it works perfectly well or better. (To people who confuse American politics with the Oxford debating society, the success of Medicare should make Medicare for all highly popular. In reality, the overwhelmingly conservative white beneficiaries of Medicare are much more likely to take the lesson of “I’ve got mine and to hell with you.”) The American health insurance industry wasn’t going anywhere had the ACA not passed.

And what’s going on with Republican statehouses and the Medicaid expansion should draw a line under that. The typical Republican state politician is willing to turn down huge pots of free money from the federal government to validate the principle that if the working poor get sick it should be left to the Great Market in the Sky to sort things out. To believe in this context that the collapse of the private American health insurance industry was inevitable absent the ACA is to enter a land of fantasia.

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