A Level Politics

Improving your grade

The oppressive stethoscope?

Posted by Matt Walker on August 15, 2009

The US debate over Barak Obama’s healthcare plans, which seems to have infected British political debate, is a useful reference point for thinking about the role of the state. For many Americans, or so it seems, the idea that the state should have a role in healthcare provision is akin to Communism. This is of course historical, with liberal individualism lying at the core of US identity, exacerbated perhaps by perceptions of the USSR during the Cold War. The American point of view is that if state power increases, then individual liberty must decrease. It is a belief in negative freedom.

British liberalism sees things differently. At the turn of the 20th Century many liberals recognised that the poor health of many people in Britain could not be alleviated through market solutions, and that individual freedom was being restricted by social deprivation. This culminated in the creation of the NHS in 1948. From a liberal perspective, the idea here is that people cannot be truly free, and hence be individuals, unless the state actively overcomes market failure. This has come to be known as  positive freedom. These are our Modern Liberals.

From a commonsense point of view, it is hard to see the NHS as means of Orwellian repression. But Americans  might well ask, ‘but where does it all end?’ Indeed, where should we draw the line? We are entitled to ask a Modern Liberal how active the state should be, and whether taxing individuals to provide public services collectively is  actually a form of socialism rather than liberalism.

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