Will Health Care Bring Down the American Empire?

Will Health Care Bring Down the American Empire?

Progressives who have mixed feelings about the passage of landmark health care reform legislation can take some pleasure in reading the apocalyptic predictions coming from the right about what it will mean for our country–and for the wider world. My favorite so far has been from Mark Steyn at the National Review. Steyn predicts that health care reform, which he believes to be wildly unaffordable, will bring an end to the American empire:

One of the first things that middle-rank powers abandon once they go down this road is a global military capability. If you take the view that the U.S. is an imperialist aggressor, congratulations: You can cease worrying. But, if you think that America has been the ultimate guarantor of the post-war global order, it’s less cheery. Five years from now, just as in Canada and Europe two generations ago, we’ll be getting used to announcements of defense cuts to prop up the unsustainable costs of big government at home. And, as the superpower retrenches, America’s enemies will be quick to scent opportunity.

End result, Steyn concludes, will be “the end of the Pax Americana, and global Armageddon. Must try to look on the bright side…”

I might be inclined to accept these congratulations, but I’m having a hard time believing that a bill which enhances the power of the insurance industry will enfeeble the similarly imposing defense lobby. Still, I’m grateful to finally understand what undercut the once-fearsome fighting force that was the Canadian military. I’ve been puzzling over that one for some time.

Is Steyn’s prediction loony? Yes. Is it entirely uncommon? No. Harvard historian, PBS personality, and apologist for empire Niall Ferguson has long argued that the American empire would be brought down not by overly ambitious interventionism abroad (as suggested by the “imperial overstretch” thesis advanced in Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers and still popular among many on the left, including Chalmers Johnson). Ferguson instead holds that the United States is more likely to be thwarted as a global hegemon by its spending on domestic entitlements such as Medicare and Social Security.

(Ferguson, while popular, is wrong about many things. I discuss them in a profile of him in the Spring 2009 issue of Dissent, available here.)

Those who favor privatizing social security (which is solvent) have a bad habit of conflating it with Medicare and Medicaid (which face escalating costs–hence the need for health care reform). But all these programs do have something in common: Each brought about conservative predictions of the end of national greatness. As Paul Krugman just pointed out in the New York Times, “Ronald Reagan famously argued that Medicare would mean the end of American freedom.” It would be interesting to know if the “government keep your hands off my Medicare” crowd agrees.

For now, I’ll look forward to hearing other recommendations of the best hysterical reactions to health care reform that have been popping up since Sunday night.