I’ve followed those developments closely, but I’ve also been reading about another fascinating chapter in the long evolution of democratic governments in the West.
It turns out the idea of having a professional, government-operated police force is a relatively late concept.
The first formal police force organized in London was created – weirdly enough – by Henry Fielding, author of the classic novel “Tom Jones.”
Prior to Fielding’s organization of the Bow Street Runners, you basically had two choices when it came to protecting yourself from crime, both involving what libertarians might describe as elements of the free market.
You went about with your own armed gang, which was a common practice for the aristocracy and wealthier merchants, or you hired a vigilante known as a “thief-taker” to try to capture any criminal who had already done you wrong.
When Fielding tried to organize a force of actual beat cops, paid for by Parliament, the idea was initially dismissed and derided as a dangerous expansion of big government, an infringement on liberty.
People literally worried about the emergence of a “police state.”
But those ideas were soon swamped by the simple reality that London — one of the most prosperous cities on earth — was growing into a Somalia-style war zone, governed by bandit-leaders and their incredibly violent gangs.
The vast majority of average citizens couldn’t afford the “free market” forms of security that protected wealthier citizens. Murder, rape and kidnapping were as common in the city of King George as they are now in lawless corners of Africa.
Thinking about that moment in the mid-1700s, I couldn’t help but ponder the analogy to our modern healthcare debate.
A lot of Americans think it represents a dangerous expansion of the government’s power if we move toward an arrangement where we citizens are required by law to purchase insurance coverage.
The “police” state concerns of the past have been replaced with the “nanny” state concerns of today.
But I wonder if those ideological concerns can withstand the new simple reality:
Tens of millions of Americans now lack healthcare and, as a result, we’re seeing more and more “third world” style crises in our communities, including shamefully high infant mortality rates, and people dying from treatable ailments.
Obviously, the free market offers healthcare solutions to anyone with the money to pay for them.
But just as police protection was viewed as a luxury in the 1700s, for many of our neighbors proper healthcare is now a kind of out-of-reach pipe dream.
The last time the World Health Organization ranked national healthcare systems, ours had fallen to number 37, trailing Costa Rica and Morocco.
For their part, Londoners in the Georgian age didn’t accept a police force and set aside their libertarian instincts out of altruism, in order to protect their more vulnerable neighbors.
They did so because the alternative to “big government” was a kind of gridlock of fear, a city of chaos in which free enterprise and prosperity were being stifled by crime.
I wonder if the same eventual evolution won’t occur in America. We will resist the notion of government-organized healthcare until the alternatives are simply too gruesome, and too disruptive.
I suspect that only when enough Americans have died prematurely, or when our prosperity is seriously threatened by a healthcare system that is too costly and unwieldy, will we finally reach a consensus that some government fix is required.
Does this mean that we will have taken another step along the slippery slope toward despotism? Maybe.
But a lot of us are now quite comfortable with the idea of having policemen on the beat at night, just as we have grown satisfied with having a government-run education system.
Yes, it is important to maintain proper checks on the size and strength of government. But it turns out that having a healthy, safe, and educated population is no less important for the maintenance of liberty.