All-American Bears

Sarah Palin devotes a chapter of her new book America by Heart to defending the “Mama Grizzly” movement and her own feminist credentials – and, oddly, she starts by accusing citizens of the lower-forty-eight of perpetuating “bear propaganda.” That’s odd because those of us who are urban types don’t feel one way or the other about grizzly bears, or polar bears – although pandas are kind of cute. We have no view on bears, really. There is no bear propaganda, one way or the other. But Palin says that the thing about mother grizzly bears is that they’re serious – “Beautiful, ferocious, serious-as-a-heart-attack creatures.”

Well, if she says so – but there’s a danger of extending metaphors a bit too far. The idea, however, seems to be that mama grizzly bears protect their young, and their territory, and no one messes with them – and if anyone is foolish enough to try that then that person will be dead soon enough. This seems to be the sum and substance of her views on foreign policy. And this is extended with the additional idea that mama grizzly bears teach their young to hunt and take care of themselves. They learn to take what they want and keep it for themselves – self-sufficiency. The bear cubs learn personal responsibility, as she then says, and, presumably, the importance of not sharing anything. And now and then you can see Palin on Fox News – she’s on the payroll there but Fox maintains this is not an in-kind campaign contribution to her 2012 run – and she is usually doing her Mama Grizzly thing. Mostly she talks about the whole concept of the social safety net – no self-respecting grizzly bear would have anything to do with such a thing. Bears don’t chip in for the good of all. Bears don’t think that way. Bears know they make it on their own, or die. It’s beautiful. We should be more like bears.

Well, it’s a metaphor, and she drives it into the ground. Bears are also big and hairy and smell bad, and kind of dumb, save for what they call crude animal cunning. Young girls might like to think of themselves as swans, and young boys think of themselves as lions. Tastes vary, and everyone knows the limit of the metaphor in question. Swans are nasty and mean and lions, triumphant in the wild, have fleas. Arguing from metaphor is self-limiting.

But you can see what Sarah Palin is getting at, and it’s an argument as old as America – freedom to do what you want and keep your stuff versus having a sense of community and brotherhood and having the notion that we are all in this together and things go best when we help each other out, and cover the other guy’s back. But now that’s all tied up with all sorts of notions of personal virtue – having a social safety net is most un-bear-like. And we should all be like bears – risk-takers who change the world, not leeches who take from the successful because they’re too lazy or inept to provide for themselves.

Everyone knows that argument, and it plays out in all sorts of ways. For example, see David Leonhardt on recent discussions regarding the social safety net:

It’s easy to look at the current debate and see an unavoidable trade-off between this country’s two economic traditions – risk-taking and security. But I don’t think that’s quite right. I think it is ultimately as misplaced as those worries about Social Security and Medicare equaling Bolshevism.

Guaranteeing people a decent retirement and decent health care does more than smooth out the rough edges of capitalism. Those guarantees give people the freedom to take risks. If you know that professional failure won’t leave you penniless and won’t prevent your child from receiving needed medical care, you can leave the comfort of a large corporation and take a chance on your own idea. You can take a shot at becoming the next great American entrepreneur.

And Kevin Drum comments on that:

This contrasts with the conservative view that government coddling corrodes individual initiative and makes people weak. Needless to say, I find the Leonhardt view more congenial. At the same time, the conservative view actually has some resonance too. It does make some intuitive sense, after all – that being bathed in public support since birth might dull one’s desire for risk.

This is why I rarely use the Leonhardt argument to support the cause of universal healthcare, though I suppose I might have slipped once or twice. Rather, I support it on efficiency grounds – national healthcare systems around the world tend to be cheaper than ours – and on basic humanitarian grounds – in a rich country I just don’t think it is right for anyone to have to go without decent healthcare.

But Drum remains curious about the Leonhardt argument, and notes it is a common argument in the liberal community:

Is it true? Does knowing that you have a safety net make you more likely to get up on the trapeze and try something risky and new? The analogy is wonderful, but that doesn’t make it true. Surely, though, this is a testable hypothesis? Not a provable one, of course, but one where evidence can be amassed on different fronts based on measurements of social safety nets in different times and places vs. risk-taking behavior in different times and places. Has anyone ever done this? It seems like a pretty obvious thing to try to study.

Ah, that would mean studying men, not bears! Drum seems to be out to anger Sarah Palin. But Drum says he thinks neither of these is right:

I suspect that risk-takers are risk-takers, and they pretty much do their thing based on (a) their own temperament and (b) features of society that make it more or less likely they’ll make a lot of money. Fear (or lack of fear) of failure doesn’t enter into it much because they don’t think they’re going to fail. That’s the difference between risk-takers and the rest of us.

But see Matthew Yglesias on free markets and safety nets:

I would add that this merging of goals occurs not just at the individual level, but also at the social level. Over time, technical and organizational improvements lift living standards. That’s why people in 2010 are better-off than people in 1910. But these innovations can be quite bad for individual people. Desktop publishing software severely reduced the value of the human capital possessed by people (like my mother) who had advanced specialized skills in the kind of page layout that involved X-Acto knives and actual paste. People will naturally seek to use their influence over the political process to mitigate their exposure to these kinds of risks. Mitigating risk-exposure via a broad social safety net allows economic progress to continue, whereas mitigating risk-exposure through tailored efforts to protect incumbents does a lot of harm.

Either way, it’s worth taking the safety net metaphor seriously. Typically when you see a safety net in place, you’re not really looking at someone who’s trying to be safe. You’re looking at someone who’s trying to do something dangerous. Because it’s dangerous, there’s a safety net in place. But the main point of the net is to facilitate risky-taking behavior – not to make you safer than the average person.

And that is to say we are not bears. But it is also to say that if we all chip in and cover each other’s back good things will happen. People will take risks they might not otherwise take – and you get progress and inventions and ideas and all sorts of good stuff.

But a social safety net does come at the cost of some freedom. With the new Affordable Care Act – what the right sneers at and calls Obamacare – eventually everyone will have to join up. You will be required to purchase health insurance –because it doesn’t work any other way. There’s no way to tell insurance companies they have to accept folks with preexisting conditions, and that they’re not allowed to drop folks when they get sick, without everyone chipping in to cover the costs. So we have the Individual Mandate. And all the studies show that with everyone chipping in overall healthcare cost will go down significantly. When that mandate was introduced in Massachusetts – it was Mitt Romney’s idea – that was the argument. And it worked:

Years ago, Massachusetts forbade insurers to discriminate against sick people, but it didn’t also insist that everyone obtain coverage. What happened? Premiums jumped. Since it added the mandate in 2006, premiums have fallen 40 percent.

If we are not grizzly bears, then we can save big bucks. But see the editors of National Review on the individual mandate provision of the new healthcare reform bill:

The mandate highlights the coercive and obnoxious character of Obamacare as a whole. The whole scheme works, to the extent it works, only if people are forced to buy a product they would not buy on a free market.

It’s a loss of freedom. It’s un-American. And see Jim Manzi, in the current issue of National Review, explaining that Social Security as a tax-supported pension plan should be dismantled:

Instead, we should have a defined-contribution pension program requiring individuals to contribute a reasonable proportion of their income (though some flexibility should be allowed) to an array of investment vehicles to which they hold property rights.

But Kevin Drum is puzzled:

Granted, there’s no requirement that every contributor to National Review has to agree with its official editorial positions. But converting Social Security from a tax-supported program into one where people are instead required to buy private retirement annuities is a pretty mainstream conservative view. So what are we to make of the proposition that forcing people to buy retirement annuities is okay but forcing them to buy healthcare insurance isn’t?

Drum doesn’t see how forcing people to pay financial advisors to invest a government-mandated portion of their income in stocks and bonds must, for some reason, be superior:

But I figure there are two possibilities. (1) They don’t really think a healthcare mandate is “obnoxious” at all. It’s just a handy talking point. (2) They do think the mandate is obnoxious, and they think the same thing about private Social Security accounts. And if they ever succeed in getting them, they’ll immediately file suit in federal court to have the whole program declared unconstitutional.

But which is it?

Who knows? But it may a constitutional question, as Megan McArdle asks here if the commerce clause “allows the government to force you to buy insurance from a private company, what can’t the government force you to do?”

Maybe she’s a grizzly bear, but Conor Friedersdorf finds her question odd but actually troubling:

If the Obama Administration’s health care reform bill stands, I do not imagine that America is going to cease to be free, or that a decisive blow in the battle between capitalism and socialism will have been struck. Although I would’ve preferred different variations on health care reform, I am not even expert enough to know for sure whether they’d have been more successful.

What does worry me is the notion that the federal government is no longer an entity of enumerated powers – that a limit on its scope purposefully established by the Founders no longer exists. It used to be a check and balance. Is it now completely gone?

But Jonathan Chait does not share his doom-and-gloom view:

Regulations to prevent people from offloading their risks onto others are extremely common and extremely necessary. So, again, the right’s portrayal of this as a dramatic expansion of the scope of Congressional action is wildly misleading, and it owes itself not to any sober analysis of federal power but to the psychology of reaction.

Now, Friedersdorf is correct to point out that some libertarians who are not partisan Republicans have endorsed this argument as well. In my view this is a group of people who are deeply inclined to support limited government, and have latched onto an argument in favor of limited government that has gained a political foothold without subjecting the merits of the case to serious scrutiny. They think the case is about drawing a new line against the expansion of Congressional economic power, when in fact the line is far behind the old one.

And see the comments at Andrew Sullivan’s site:

In response to Megan’s question, I can’t help but wonder if she’s considered the draft. Our government reserves the right to force young men to wear a uniform, cut their hair, follow the whims of all who hold a higher military rank, take up arms against a foe, and possibly die face down in the mud in a foreign land, whether they agree with the reasoning of the war or not. Failure to comply can result in imprisonment.

What government cannot do is deprive those young men of due process should they choose to dodge the draft. Government cannot deny citizens the ability to speak out against the war. There are actually many things that government can’t force you to do – worship, marry someone you don’t love, recite the Pledge of Allegiance, etc. But conservatives tend to only see freedom in the immediate vicinity of their wallets. No other freedoms are quite as important to them.

Another comment:

In Ohio, everyone by law has to purchase car insurance. I assume that’s the case in most if not all states. And everyone sees why. And nobody on any end of the political spectrum seems to be put out by it. So why is a health insurance mandatereally so different?


Megan’s comment seems, to me, to miss the point. The commerce clause doesn’t protect individual rights at all. It only restricts the federal government. State and local governments are completely free to force you to buy products and services from private companies. If the mandate were a state law, it would be clearly constitutional, despite having the same liberty-reducing effect on individuals.

What this decision really is about is the federal government encroaching on the province of the states. It’s about federalism and the separation of powers. It’s not about some imagined “economic liberty” at all.


There are two questions that people need to ask themselves about the individual mandate: the question actually before federal courts and the question that commentators want to debate.

The Courts have been asked to decide a limited question: whether the U.S. Congress has the authority under any of its enumerated Article I powers to prohibit citizens from refraining to purchase a product from a private corporation. Under the Supreme Court’s Commerce Clause jurisprudence from the last 80-odd years, the answer is pretty plainly yes. But the Federalist Society, the Heritage Foundation, conservative legal scholars and commentators have mounted a decades-long attack on this line of cases, and many observers believe their understanding of these issues is much more closely aligned with the original intent of the Constitution. …

Commentators mostly seem to want to debate a different question: whether government – any government-– has the power to compel its citizens to purchase a product from a private corporation. The Courts, including the Supreme Court, can’t answer this question. It’s a political question, and it cuts right to fundamental differences in perspective.

And as it’s a political question you end up talking about grizzly bears or some such thing. Or you talk about what the Constitution really, really, really means. There’s a lot of that talk, that it guarantees small government and expansive personal freedom, but at the American Scene see Noah Millman:

As for whether the Constitution has any meaning if there are no restrictions on Federal power: well, the reason we have a Bill of Rights is precisely that the anti-Federalists worried that there was no restriction on Federal power built into the original Constitution. But that doesn’t make the Constitution meaningless, because the Constitution also outlines the separation of powers – what the respective roles of the President, the Congress and the Judiciary are, and how they interact.

It is not meaningless that Congress has the power to tax and to regulate interstate commerce; that means the President cannot simply issue edicts. It is not meaningless that Congress has the power to declare war – though we’ve striven mightily to make that provision meaningless. It is not meaningless that it requires Constitutional amendment to change the composition of the Senate from two-senators-per-state to something more proportional, or that it required a Constitutional amendment for Senators to be elected directly by the people rather than appointed by state legislatures. It is not meaningless that the Constitution specifies life tenure for the federal judiciary.

I could go on. The implicit assumption that the Constitution’s only possible role is to limit the scope of government is not only wrong, it’s silly – because constitutions are only pieces of paper. What actually limits government is the existence of opposing forces, and a major function of the separation of powers is to establish such opposing forces within the government itself. The health-care mandate, for example, if it is struck down will be struck down by the courts – courts which are a creation of the Constitution.

But here’s a question from Radley Balko:

Putting aside what’s codified Bill of Rights, which was ratified after the main body of the Constitution, do you believe the Constitution puts any restrictions on the powers of the federal government?

If your answer is yes, what restrictions would those be? And what test would you use to determine what the federal government can and can’t do? I’ve written this before… if you support it, the health insurance mandate, it’s hard to see what’s left that would be off-limits. I mean, during her confirmation hearings, Elena Kagan couldn’t even bring herself to say that it would be unconstitutional for the federal government to force us to eat vegetables every day. (She did say it would be bad policy – but that’s a hell of a lot different.)

If your answer is no – that is, that the Constitution puts no real restraints on the federal government at all – why do you suppose they bothered writing and passing one in the first place?

But Matthew Yglesias has an answer to that:

To answer this seriously, I think the key point here is precisely to recall that the Bill of Rights wasn’t in the initial draft of the constitution. But that’s not because the Founding Fathers were illiberal people who didn’t care about freedom of religion or who wanted the federal government to quarter troops in people’s houses. Their thinking was that a Bill of Rights was unnecessary, because the main body of the constitution constituted a limited grant of authority that safeguarded individual liberty. Soon after, the leaders of the early republic quite rightly changed their minds and decided it would be better to add a Bill of Rights. This, along with the 14th Amendment, now serves the purpose of blocking federal action in the name of individual liberty. But even if you take the extreme view that Article II doesn’t prohibit anything other than what’s prohibited by the Bill of Rights, that doesn’t mean the original constitution created an unlimited federal government.

I wouldn’t go that extreme, but I would say that amendments 1 through 10 and 14 carry the vast majority of the weight of protecting individual liberty and leave the “main constitution” with the important role of establishing procedural rules for the federal government.

And this:

My counter-question to libertarians is what kind of moral (as opposed to legal) weight is the distinction between federal and state government supposed to carry. It’s clear to me that when the Radley Balkos of the world contemplate forcible vegetable-eating they’re primarily expressing concern for human freedom not for the law. And even under the libertarian theory of the commerce clause, state government is totally unconstrained in this regard. Our only defense against state-level tyranny is the Bill of Rights and – in practice more importantly – the day-to-day functioning of the political system. Does that mean freedom is dead?

That’s an interesting question. Maybe freedom is dead, or never really existed, if you’re a grizzly bear. But who is?

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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1 Response to All-American Bears

  1. Katherine says:

    oh well / as Don Juan said the only freedom is impeccable behavior and he didnt mean “neat and tidy” / impeccable behavior in my mind is behavior that is not regrettable

    our society suffers from an appallingly large burden of regrettable activity

    let’s see : regrettable : that which i wish i hadnt done / smile / or you hadnt done either


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