The American Pageant (12th Edition)

Chapter 39 – Page 917

Our Critique

917 “Kennedy came into office with fragile Democratic majorities in Congress. Southern Democrats threatened to team up with Republicans and ax New Frontier proposals such as medical assistance for the aged and increased federal aid to education.”

This seemingly innocent sentence carries deceit within it. The suggestion is that President Kennedy and the northern Democrats were the good guys. Healthcare and education are good things and Kennedy and the northern Democrats wanted to pass laws to help people get good medical assistance and education. Government programs, the message implicitly says, help people achieve good ends. The Republicans and the southern Democrats, thus, are the bad guys who either don’t want people to have good medical care/education or they are cheapskates who would rather hold on to their wealth than give poor people a chance. That is the imbedded message in the textbook, and that message is false.

Government programs intended to help provide better medical care and education may, in fact, be long on good intentions but very short on good results. For example, the bill that ultimately passed in 1965 to subsidize college education caused large numbers of unqualified students to cram into college classrooms. Interestingly, student test scores for college admission also began declining in 1965. Likewise, subsidized medical care causes more people to see doctors—especially hypochondriacs, who, when medical care is cheap, come to doctors daily with imaginary diseases or minor problems. Increased availability of medical care can be good, but it also can be bad if doctors are swamped with patients and can’t properly help all of them.

The point is that not that all government programs are bad or that all of them are good. The point is that someone can be a strong advocate of good medical care and good education but still be opposed to government programs because the government programs may have unintended consequences that make medical care and education worse not better.

Republicans and southern Democrats genuinely wanted good medical care and education for Americans. But they thoughtfully believed government subsidies in those areas would do more harm than good. That is a point the textbook seems incapable of grasping. Again and again we see the textbook confused on that important subject. Henry Hazlitt’s book Economics in One Lesson, which has sold over one million copies, describes this subject clearly and briefly, and is worth reading. It is available free online at www.fee.org.