Liberalism Has Failed and Is Failing

Jonathan Chait had a funny post in New York Magazine that is mostly just a rehash of how he doesn’t like political correctness, except in this case he associates it with Marxism. Although he doesn’t end up calling political correctness and related phenomenon “cultural Marxism,” the point is indistinguishable from the right-wingers with anime avatars on Twitter who call it that.

There is a lot wrong with Chait’s piece. He claims liberalism is “working” and Marxism has “always failed” but he makes no effort to define any of those terms. For instance, when pressed on Twitter about how there have been a lot of very successful Marxist parties in Europe, he retreated to saying that they aren’t really Marxist if they didn’t advocate proletarian dictatorships. Yet in his article, he refers to Jacobin as a magazine that spreads Marxist ideas even though it has not published any pieces advocating a proletarian dictatorship.

Individual Rights
He claims Marxist governments are inherently antagonistic to individual rights, but fails to look inward towards liberal governments to see how they have fared in that realm. It was after all liberal America that so loved individual rights that it enslaved a huge swath of its population for 250 years, ran a brutal and explicit apartheid regime for another 100 years, and then carried on apartheid-lite until the present through de facto segregation, widespread discrimination, and mass incarceration. The latter point is even a source of long-standing Bernie Sanders’ dark humor, with him noting that we incarcerate more people than communist China.

Liberal America so loves individual rights that it put together a secret police in the mid-century to infiltrate and disrupt dissident political groups, resorting even to assassinating some of the dissidents. There was also McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee, which aimed to intimidate and marginalize those with anti-capitalist views.

Hell just this week, one of Nixon’s top advisors, John Erlichman, made news with an old interview in which he had this to say about the Nixon administration’s intentional efforts to crush its political opponents through trumped up police action:

“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people,” former Nixon domestic policy chief John Ehrlichman told Harper’s writer Dan Baum for the April cover story published Tuesday.

“You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin. And then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities,” Ehrlichman said. “We could arrest their leaders. raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

It is in liberal America that the highest court recently gutted voter protection legislation, leading to what many believe to be widespread efforts to suppress the vote, including most recently the spectacle in the Arizona primary where voters were made to stand in line for five hours to cast a ballot. Who knows how many people simply went home without voting at all, in liberal America.

And this is just some of America’s greatest domestic hits. If we were to bring in America’s imperial adventures abroad, and especially its liberal love of knocking out popularly elected leaders, this post could go on forever.

Garbage Health Care
As a lover of all things welfare, what struck me most about the piece was not its blindness to the terrible track record of respecting individual rights in liberal America. It was the utterly strange triumphalism about liberal welfare.

Nor do realistic advocates of social and economic equality have any reason to share or accept the left’s desperation. The popular, sitting liberal president has enacted the most important egalitarian social reforms in half a century, including higher taxes on the rich, lower taxes on the poor, and significant new income transfers to poor and working-class Americans through health-care reform and other measures.

I was hunting for a mention of health care because the immense terribleness of the US health care system is matched only by Chait’s strange effusiveness about it. Even after the beloved Obamacare, 1 in 5 Americans are uninsured or underinsured. Despite the fact that we can’t figure out how to provide decent health care access for a fifth of our people, we also somehow spend 80% more of our GDP on health care than the OECD average.

Health care is a fun example to use in the Marxism/Socialism v. Liberalism game because it’s entirely clear at this point that the best way to have a killer health care system in 2016 is to have had a strong socialist movement in the early or mid 20th century. The best health care system in the world according to the widely-cited Commonwealth fund is the NHS in the United Kingdom. The NHS is the closest thing in the developed world to a full blown socialist health care system. The government not only pays for everyone’s health care, but it also runs the system and directly employs and manages the healthcare providers. The NHS was put in place after World War II by the avowedly socialist Labour Party.

When you aren’t going full blown NHS-style socialism, the best health care systems are those in which the central government has fully nationalized the health insurance sector, aka single-payer health care. The US doesn’t have that either and when it was proposed throughout the years, it was attacked specifically because of its socialist character. Proto-Chaits killed it.

Instead of adopting good socialist health care systems, the US took the liberal route, which is why we find ourselves where were are. Liberal health care has been so bad in fact that, in 2016, Chait and people like him can write articles in which they are downright giddy that the US is a bit closer to where countries with stronger socialist influences were 70 years ago.

  • vintermann

    > Yet in his article, he refers to Jacobin as a magazine that spreads Marxist ideas even though it has not published any pieces advocating a proletarian dictatorship.

    Well, of course you got to read between the lines, Matt Bruenig. (j/k)

  • ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®©

    It’s Nibo Caj, spieled backwards. Q.E.D.

  • forstudentpower

    I also enjoyed when he wrote, “But the fact that every communist country in world history quickly turned into a repressive nightmare is kind of important.”

    A good look at just the first few decades of the United States shows that Chait ought not throw stones. The Alien & Sedition Acts would be a good place for him to start, and maybe looking into how many newspapers were shut down by our “liberal” government.

    Nor can I recall Chait shedding any tears for the violent ejection of OWS encampments across the country in 2011. If only they were occupying a square in Havana, then maybe Chait could muster his concern for individual rights in their defense.

  • guant

    It’s hilarious, but I’ve noticed a few pundit types conflate the Marxist left with the super PC left when in reality there seems to be almost zero overlap and SJW types actively despise any class based analysis.

  • OneHipNinja

    It’s been maddening. I try to point out that yes, most of the ridiculous SJW stuff has a leftish flavor to it, but many of those people have no use for Marx, or socialism more broadly. It seems to be a distinctly liberal set of propositions, with a primary philosophical foundation of various postmodern epistemologies.

  • David V. Johnson

    Owned and flushed.

  • john chill

    My favorite thing about Chait is his utter lack of anything resembling self-awareness. About two weeks ago, he sent out a tweetstorm decrying the “hostile” and “threatening” activities related to Israel apartheid week on U.S. college campuses. Whatever one thinks of such activities, it’s rich to see Chait resort to the exact language of the PC crowd he so loudly decries at every other turn. The man is an utter fool.

  • Sensible Moderate

    If nothing else, this election cycle has laid bare, in excruciating detail, the sharp difference between liberals and The Left. Chait is such an enticing target because he’s so quintessentially neo-liberal. The imbecilic lack of self-awareness is fundamental to the neo-lib character. It’s a trait we see over and over. Living comfortably in the suburbs and secure financially, it’s easy to see the U.S. social system as something that just needs a darn good coat of paint.

  • Yasmine

    As a UK citizen, I must break it to you that the NHS is actually utter shite. It takes forever to get anything done, doctors are massively stingy with their time, and the rates of harm done to patients due to incompetence are obscene. Pretty much everybody who can afford it gets private healthcare, but of course still has to pay for the blithering mess that is the NHS, even though they don’t use it.
    Seriously, this is the last way to make socialism look good.

  • Graham Day

    Absolute nonsense in every sentence. Takes some doing.

  • blahlistic

    My ex-fiancée lives in the UK, as do other online friends. Afraid the problem with the NHS is not so much the NHS itself, per se, but that the doctors/nurses/system has little or no accountability.
    Unless they’re out-and-out plainly murdering patients in quantity, there’s no feedback mechanism.
    Thus, to be frank, they kill and maim people due to occasional actual malice, general sloppiness, incompetence and basic errors. There’s no follow up, no effective way to sue for damages, no effective way to change doctors or specialists either. Should one complain to a medical board? One’s complaint may be dismissed and one is sent back to the SAME doctor or specialist.
    The psychiatric side of the service is an especial disaster and regularly allows people to die.
    Now, if the NHS were redesigned, all that could be ( and should be ) fixed. That’s not a condemnation of the system, that’s a condemnation of pisspoor management and structuring. If I can see how horribly it’s set up and run from across the pond; such that I was getting BETTER psychiatric care as an UNINSURED American here than my ex-fiancée was getting there?
    The NHS has a goddamn problem.
    It’s a fixable one.
    The NHS should absolutely not be privatized, that would be a worse mistake.
    But giving it a glowing review is an act of denial. It needs more funding ( currently ) and it needs restructuring.

  • Graham Day

    And a rather lengthier piece which manages to pack absolute nonsense into nearly every sentence. You clearly have no knowledge of the NHS. Not least because you seem unaware that the current Tory government is in fact privatising bits of the NHS.

    On the other hand, I _am_ British, and I have personal experience of the NHS. And since personal anecdote seems to be the way to go – my aunt had a back problem a few weeks back, went to her doctor, and was immediately admitted to hospital and operated on the next day, preventing the continuation of a problem that would have imminently led to paralysis. And all without having to worry about where the money was coming from to pay for it directly, or whether the insurance contributions would pay for it.

    BTW, if you’re critique of someone elses position starts from the false assumption that they’re suggesting something in the real world is perfect then maybe you should stop and review your priors.

  • Baldie McEagle

    I’m curious: “NHS has well defined complaints procedures,” but what about this?
    “One’s complaint may be dismissed and one is sent back to the SAME doctor or specialist.”

  • Graham Day

    Read the links.

  • Baldie McEagle

    I saw the links. I don’t see anything about whether the complaint process works or not. That’s why I’m asking—you obviously are familiar with NHS in a way that I will never be.

  • Graham Day

    I’ve never had to complain. As I said, there is a well defined process which is overseen by an independent ombusman and ultimately by the elected Parliament.

  • CEO Daffodil

    Has it always been shite, or only since Tories defunded it and along with Labour, privatized swathes of it?

  • Yasmine

    It’s been like this all my life, I was a small child the first time I went to A&E in the 90s, and they managed to forget to wash my cut in the five hours I was left waiting before stitching it shut. So of course I was admitted again that evening with septicaemia. My best friend’s dad died because they got heart surgery and hip replacement mixed up on his form. A study in 2004 found around 40,000 people per year die from mistakes during NHS hospital admissions. For reference, that’s just under 10% of all deaths. From mistakes, not from hospital-worthy illnesses. Of course, non-fatal failures in hospitals occur a lot more than that, at 850,000 per year. I’ve not got the figures for non-hospital NHS deaths and adverse events, but I can try to dig them up too if you’re still unconvinced.

  • Graham Day

    You have no figures, only tall tales.

  • Yasmine

    Here is the study I’m quoting from.

  • Graham Day

    A study from over a decade ago that is about measures being taken to improve those figures.

  • Ben Johannson

    It’s estimated hospital error in the U.S. kills 440,000 per year. NHS death rates would be an improvement for us.,_Evidence_based_Estimate_of_Patient_Harms.2.aspx

  • Yasmine

    Having looked at the study, I think that estimate is formed differently from my statistic- it includes a correction for presumed misreporting. However, in the results the authors peg the reported number as 210,000 deaths per year. Taking 40,000 out of ~60,000,000 UK citizens, compared with 210,000 out of ~315,000,000 US citizens gives a pretty similar rate.
    Thanks for the link though, more data is always good. For reference, mine was from

  • Ferraro

    Considering that UK citizens spend very little for medical care compared to other Western countries, the NHS is great. You need to see these things as cost / benefit. Of course, the English system is less robust than the American system, you people spend almost nothing and cover everyone. You also need to see if your system is good comparing it with others. Yes, the NHS has problems, but just like almost every other system in the world. Health care is an infinite demand area, you need to rationalize some way.

  • Yasmine

    We’re a little below average for OECD countries, if you compare cost per head of population, but hardly at the bottom: 15 countries spend less than us, 18 spend more. The thing is, we pay above average via the state, which acts as a disincentive for private health insurance. Thus, lots of people settle for healthcare they don’t think much of, because they’ve already paid for it in taxes.
    ( has the comparisons I’m using here)

  • Graham Day

    We spend 8.5% of GDP on health, compared to 16.4% in the US. We spend $3235 (PPP) per capita compared to $8713 in the US. (OECD figures, And in general, as shown by the Commonwealth Fund report, we get better outcomes.

    The reason there’s no big market for private health insurance in the UK is because we don’t need it (the private health insurance companies in the UK are also notorious for dumping “difficult” cases on the NHS anyway eg,

  • Ferraro

    Look at the countries that spend less than you guys and the countries that spend more. In per capita spending in PPP dollars. Some of these countries are developing countries, so the comparison does not make sense, others are newly developed countries, and others are the countries of southern Europe. Now look at the countries that spend more than you people. All the most robust developed countries spend more than UK in per capita health care, including New Zealand, Japan, France and Finland, countries with lower or similar GDP per capita. That’s what I meant, I should have put developed countries of the West in my first comment. All countries that spend less than the UK have much less money to spend in the first place.

    Now look at the countries that spend less than the UK by percentage of GDP. Again developing countries, I do not know why the hell the OECD continues doing it, but you only need whenever you see the comparisons exclude Turkey, Mexico, Chile and Hungary immediately. Then there are countries recently developed as Estonia and the Czech Republic with much less GDP per capita than the UK. And then the only two countries with higher GDP per capita than the UK spending less are Luxembourg with only 6.6% because the country has a GDP per capita extremely high so he can spend little in percentage and a lot in per capita dollars, and Ireland with a little less than the UK, but which also has one of the highest GDP per capita, with eleven thousand US dollars more than the UK.

    My point is that the United Kingdom makes a choice to spend relatively little on health care even with the largest coverage. The result, of course, is a system that has problems related to lack of resources. The NHS is just an efficient tool to achieve the maximum possible of people, if you want a better NHS all you need to do is allocate more resources to the system. Considering the evidence in health care quality that we have available the cost / benefit of the NHS is pretty decent to say the least. And just to comment on what you wrote above, a private system of medical care could be better for you personally, although I doubt you could buy much if you can not buy anything now, since the Uk is a median country in tax rate, but the poorest of society certainly would not benefit. A system like the NHS is the best for the most vulnerable people or those who are in situations that leave them vulnerable. Public policy is about choices and it’s hard because unfortunately we live in a world of scarce resources and even rich countries need to make difficult choices.

  • Unlearning Economics

    It’s not “utter shite”, though the index Matt uses overstates how good it is. It usually comes out fairly middling in rankings (such as the WHOs iirc), with fairly good value for money.

    While your stories are sad, anecdotal evidence is not good enough. I would also be interested to see some sources for the statistics you cite and some comparisons with similar statistics in other countries.

  • Yasmine

    Unless the comments I’ve made with links are still being moderated, you should be able to satisfy yourself elsewhere in this thread. If they’re not there now, they should be up in a day or two.
    Yes, I may have been harsh when I said ‘utter shite’. I’m just a tad bitter that I can’t afford private health insurance yet, because if my earnings weren’t taxed to fund the NHS I would probably earn enough. Give it a year or two and I’ll probably have a more reasonable attitude, but for now I really resent the system we have here.

  • Unlearning Economics

    The study you link to below states that it finds 2.2% of visits are coded as containing an adverse event, whereas a study from Australia found 4.5%. I’m not saying this is the last word but it’s quite clear this kind of thing isn’t special to the NHS.

    The 40,000 deaths figure is very spurious, and not supported by the study itself. There is a reference but it was weak. Rather than reinvent the wheel I’ll quote from a response to the study:

    “When “the Times” quotes the BMJ and publishes a headline claiming that hospitals are killing 40,000 patients a year, no doubt it expects the source to be reliable. So do we; so I was alarmed to discover that the “reference” supporting that headline, defamatory statement led simply to the slides of a lecture given in Sydney several years ago, and that those slides in their turn cite as the source a “Daily Telegraph” headline of 1999 claiming that hospitals are killing 40,000 patients a year! So no marks for “the Times” for originality and none to the BMJ for the quality of its references.”

  • Graham Day


    “The 850,000 medical errors and 40,000 deaths with which the article begins – and which the Times is quoting – are attributed to a Powerpoint presentation for a talk given by Stuart Emslie in Sidney in 2001. The only source given for these figures in the presentation is a headline in the Sunday Times in 1999. Where they got them from is not revealed”

    To which Emslie responded:

    “the slide from my Sydney 2001 presentation when taken in context (which no-one seems to have done, including Dr Foster) is, rather amusingly, used by me principally to point out the appalling standards of ‘news reporting’ by the Sunday Times.”

    A common theme in the responses is that these ill-founded figures will undermine confidence in the NHS… as we see here…

  • CEO Daffodil

    Complete claptrap.
    “He claims Marxist governments are inherently antagonistic to individual rights, but fails to look inward towards liberal governments to see how they have fared in that realm. It was after all liberal America that so loved individual rights that it enslaved a huge swath of its population for 250 years, ran a brutal and explicit apartheid regime for another 100 years, and then carried on apartheid-lite until the present through de facto segregation, widespread discrimination, and mass incarceration.”

    Oh wow, you managed to find 1 example nation that subjected minorities to persecution through its Victorian history.
    That proves that liberalism has failed and is failing. Just ignore countries like Denmark, Sweden, Canada, NZ, Australia, France, Germany – those countries are just liberal failed states anyway.
    And also ignore the wider picture that the USA has become a better place to live in for every decade of its history, despite the fact that oppression has existed in it at certain time points.
    What we really need is to go the way of Venezuela and North Korea, those countries haven’t failed at all since becoming Marxist.

    Oh and you’re completely wrong about the NHS. It isn’t a Marxist healthcare system, perhaps you should look a little further into things before lauding them. It has gone through rounds and rounds of privatization. Many of its functions are performed by agencies (something which has arguably detrimented it). But you need a liberal market to fund a socialist healthcare system. And healthcare systems that are government and private run like Germany and France aren’t much worse than the USA. You’re lucky to be treated by any of them.

    Regarding “widespread discrimination, and mass incarceration.””: you think there isn’t widespread discrimination in African nations? It only exists in America?
    And mass incarceration isn’t an evil, it’s a result of rampant criminality and it also presaged a massive reduction in crime rate in the 90s.

  • Baldie McEagle

    I’m gathering you aren’t quite sure what “Marxist” means.

  • Ferraro

    The author of the text failed to define its terms and through an extremely confusing text seemed to confuse social democracy or democratic socialism if you want, with dictatorships such as Cuba and the USSR. He put Bernie Sanders, who is obviously a social democrat, as a contrary to what he sees as liberalism represented by Obama and Clinton and what traditionally constituted the US government. Denmark, Sweden, Austria and Germany would then be made of different material than the US. The material that Bernie Sanders is talking about, not Clinton. Matt simply points to the complete lack of self-criticism of the author of the referenced text, which is so obtuse that he can not see the need for a more fundamental change in the US status quo because supposedly liberalism resolved and has solved everything and do not need a new set of political and economic institutions, despite all historical and current problems.

    Matt said that the NHS is a socialist system founded by a party with strong influences of socialist movements from the beginning or middle of the last century.

    ´´And mass incarceration isn’t an evil, it’s a result of rampant criminality and it also presaged a massive reduction in crime rate in the 90s.´´

    Actually it is. The United States has the largest prison population in the world, there is no justification for this, even countries with extremely higher homicide rates do not have the same prison population that the US and the same goes for dictatorships and authoritarian regimes. The US prison population has increased over the decades in which the crime was dropping, which makes no sense, as you would expect the prison population decrease in the years after the decline in the crime, but it makes sense once you understand that the arrests occurred for offenses related to drugs and no violence. There is some debate about how much mass incarceration helped reduce crime and I saw some numbers as 25%. But here we need to understand one thing, even if the mass incarceration had been responsible for most of the reduction in crime, it is still a point against the US. Because that means that the US government rather than dealing with the causes of crime such as poverty, inequality, institutional failures, and similar things that probably would require a reform in the US economic and political institutions in order to make them more inclusive and equalitarian, chose just to imprison their poor and largely minority population as a way of dealing with poverty. Or the US imprisoned his people for nothing, or he did for means of social control because he did not want to make the necessary reforms. Both are probably true. Either way, the US government has a large stain on it.

  • Unlearning Economics

    The target of Matt’s post is clearly the US, so it makes sense that he would focus on its history. As to your other (unsubstantiated) examples, many of them have brutal histories, (Germany? Seriously!?) Sweden currently has one of the biggest arms industries as a % of GDP in the world.

    “And also ignore the wider picture that the USA has become a better place to live in for every decade of its history, despite the fact that oppression has existed in it at certain time points.”

    For whom? Native Americans? Slaves? How are you defining ‘better’? I would guess you mean economic growth – which is not all there is to ‘good’, especially when you’re oppressed – but even that can’t be true because it would ignore the large number of recessions experienced by the US in that period. So what exactly do you mean?

  • CEO Daffodil

    Yes of course WWII Germany was a result of failed liberalism. Oh Sweden has an arms industry? Liberalism is a failure!!

  • Unlearning Economics

    It is quintessential liberalism to ignore the relationship between capitalism, political polarisation and war. Hitler rose to power on the back of an economic depression and a lot of support for him came from the fact that he promised to (and did) implement programs for recovery (this is uncontroversial but if you really want a reference I’d try the documentary series world at war if you haven’t seen it already, first episode should be sufficient).

    Sweden is often sold as an example of how great liberalism could be if only we all came to a lovely agreement about the welfare state, but the fact is that they make a lot of money from selling arms to countries like Saudi Arabia, contributing to oppression and warfare elsewhere (

    You are free to detach some ideal of liberalism from its realities, but just know that you’re doing exactly the kind of thing non-socialists accuse socialists of doing.

  • Ferraro

    The Netherlands stopped selling arms to Saudi Arabia. And if by liberal you mean the liberal democracies of economies of capitalist market, it’s not like an advocate of this system needed to demonstrate the perfection of it to make a good case for it, he just needs to argue that it is the best of all possible and / or which is the best in improving. Although I do not think you are wrong to connect all the points, it seems that the solution that you seem to be pointing is some sort of world peace and the end of prejudice, and prosperity for everyone, sort of thing. I do not disagree with the goal, but I want to know by what means we can get there.

  • Mana Butterfly

    Yes of course WWII Germany was a result of failed liberalism.

    Is this supposed to be sarcasm?

    The social democrats and communists were the ones who opposed the Nazi state, not the liberals — who made common cause with Hitler. And the liberals were the one who designed the Weimar government to have all of its weaknesses. And of course, there’s the fucking liberal response to the Great Depression in Germany. The latter isn’t even an isolated incident; witness Roosevelt fucking up his own recovery with a deficit-hysteria induced recession.