Is Death an Unintended Consequence of Liberalism?

A Review of J.R. Dunn’s “Death by Liberalism”

It has taken a long time for the American people to catch on, but it is now widely recognized that when well-intentioned liberal policies are implemented, the consequences – both intended and unintended – are hardly beneficial. Representative examples include: the aggressive promotion of ethanol, which has resulted in higher corn prices and the removal of arable land from food production; boosts in minimum wage rates, which have repeatedly caused higher unemployment among teens and lower income workers; and an obsessive emphasis on removing religion from the public square, which has contributed to increased teen pregnancy, drug use and other forms of moral decay. And these are some of the more benign consequences of liberal governance run amok.

It’s not like these deleterious outcomes of core liberal principles had not been predicted; but neither the predictions nor the outcomes have diminished liberal enthusiasm for these harmful policies. In fact, this is a well-known story that has been told many times. But in his book, Death by Liberalism: The Fatal Outcome of Well-Meaning Liberal Policies, J.R. Dunn raises the level on the nature of the accusation to a height that is far above the usual critiques. In his study of the effects of liberal social and fiscal policy, Dunn seeks to establish that the ultimate product of most core liberal policies easily eclipses negative agricultural, monetary or social consequences; he claims that the ultimate result of supposedly benignly intentioned, but misguided liberal programs is in fact death. In a passionate and scathing description of how liberalism leads directly and indirectly to the death of scores of its beneficiaries, i.e., US citizens, Dunn charges that the actualization of numerous liberal policies amounts to democide – the murder of a nation’s citizens by its own government.

While the underlying thesis of Dunn’s book is rather unappetizing, the presentation is quite compelling. His research is thorough, his grasp of detail is encyclopedic and his command of economics, sociology and political theory is impressive. He is at ease discussing a wide variety of topics: from nuclear power to illegal immigration, from crime prevention to lustration, from social security to DDT. He marshals a far-reaching roster of “crimes” for which he indicts liberalism as the primary culprit. Many of these are well-known and a few reflect new insights on his part. Together, they comprise a damning indictment of twentieth century liberalism for crimes against humanity.

To give a flavor of the indictment, I supply here a few of the grenades that Dunn lobs at liberals, their beliefs, policies and “achievements.”

  • Totalitarian Mass Murder. Dunn first reminds us that in the past century, democide in the form of mass murder was committed by Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, Mao’s China and by Pol Pot in Cambodia. In the first three, the deaths numbered in the tens of millions. Of course, the victims were not US citizens, but Dunn emphasizes that the brutal statist policies imposed by those regimes were extreme versions of domestic liberal inclinations.
  • Silent Spring. The only other modern mass murderer with tens of millions of victims notched on her belt is Rachel Carson – although again the slaughter occurred overseas. The ban on DDT that resulted almost exclusively from Carson’s work allowed the resurgence of malaria, which had been nearly eradicated worldwide. The governments that acceded to the demands of various, leftist-oriented international health organizations are responsible for the deaths of millions of their citizens – but the source for the tragedy is Rachel Carson.

With these as preamble, Dunn goes on to describe numerous domestic liberal programs that resulted in American deaths.

·        Crime. Liberal policies intended to alter how our society deals with crime gained preeminence in the 1960s. By emphasizing rehabilitation over punishment; by ascribing criminal behavior to a reaction against social injustice in lieu of evil impulses; by enhancing criminal rights over police responsibilities; liberal policies spawned a 30-year crime spree that resulted in needless death and injury. Says Dunn: “The great crime wave of the late twentieth century is a disaster that did not have to happen. For three decades, this nation’s criminal element…held the country hostage. Crime rates skyrocketed, increasing several hundred percent across the board. Criminals ran law-abiding citizens off their own streets, gained effective control of many neighborhoods, and violated the peace of many cities. The number of victims is incalculable, the amount of damage – financial, social, and personal – beyond reckoning…As a frontier culture, Americans knew how to handle crime. Justice was swift, punishment was certain, and if formal law enforcement faltered, the citizenry was prepared to act. Each of those elements failed during the great crime explosion. The criminal justice system broke down completely. The police were constantly undermined. The citizenry were actively restrained and threatened with legal sanctions if they made the most basic effort to defend themselves or their property… the crime explosion didn’t just happen. Like urban renewal and welfare, it was the result of policy, a deliberate attempt to remake the criminal justice system in the image of an ideal.”

·        Abortion. Once again, I let Dunn speak for himself: “Liberals have long claimed a monopoly over compassion in the public sphere. Self-styled empathy is basic to liberal identity. Liberals are the Good Samaritans of American political life. No opportunity to display humanity is too small, no effort too great. They nest in trees for months to checkmate the logger. They travel to northern Labrador to defend baby seals. They walk the meanest streets to hand out clean needles. Threatened species, ethnic minorities, the homeless, refugees, migrants, professional criminals…virtually no outcast group finds itself beyond liberal protection. With one exception: the millions of unborn children aborted over the past four decades. They alone fail to qualify. They alone found themselves outside the circle of liberal compassion. How can this be explained? …A major flaw of liberal thinking…lies in what G.K. Chesterton termed ‘chronological snobbery,’ the contention that the more ancient the concept, the more it is based on irrationality and ignorance, and the easier it can be set aside. Nothing could be further from the truth. A precept with millennia of practice behind it is one based on the firmest foundation imaginable. You meddle with it at your peril, and with due regard for the consequences. Roe v. Wade challenged exactly such a precept, and the consequences were dramatic. There is not a single aspect of American life that does not bear its mark. Roe distorted the relationships between men and women, husbands and wives, parents and children, politician and voter, clergy and worshippers, government and people… Roe set a blaze that to this day still ravages our culture.”

·        Gun Control. The communities in America that have the least restrictive carry laws enjoy significantly lower crime rates than those with the most severe restrictions. As John Lott has demonstrated in numerous studies, gun control laws – a favorite of liberal politicians – needlessly get people killed or maimed.

·        Homelessness. The 1970-1980s combination of the emptying of the nation’s mental hospitals together with irresponsible urban renewal projects that destroyed lower income neighborhoods has rendered the mentally challenged of America prey to disease, crime and weather.

·        Environmentalism. From CAFE standards that force Americans into tiny, unsafe cars to the banning of fluorocarbons that has condemned asthma patients to needless suffering, the pursuit of mindless environmentalism has resulted in unintended harm and death.

·        Child Welfare. Child Protective Services are unresponsive and unaccountable bureaucracies that lose children when they are not placing them in environments that prove dangerous – and often lethal.

·        Illegal Immigration. The refusal to enforce immigration laws has resulted in crimes – often murder – that would not have occurred if liberal attitudes on “undocumented workers” had not prevailed.

·        FDA. Dunn recounts a familiar story in which FDA incompetence and delay led to the tragic death of an afflicted individual. It is impossible to estimate the number of patient deaths caused by FDA ineptitude and adherence to bureaucratic rules.

·        Euthanasia. Liberal pursuit of a “right to death” and “death with dignity” has fostered the occurrence of predictable deaths – e.g., in the back of Kevorkian’s van.

·        Health Care. Not surprisingly, Dunn believes that Obamacare will lead to rationing of health care and the premature death of seniors who are short changed.

Here’s how Dunn wraps it up: “In the final half of the twentieth century, up to 262,000 Americans died of crimes that would not have been committed but for liberal interference with the criminal justice system. Up to 121,000 died in automobile accidents directly attributable to the CAFE standards. Unknown thousands have perished due to the failure of other forms of government activity. (It would be a surprise if the numbers weren’t somewhat murky – it’s not as if we can find this information on a website.) A large number of children have died under the ’protection’ of DYS and similar agencies. Many of the ‘homeless’ – the chronic mentally ill thrust out into the streets – have died in miserable circumstances. Individuals from all social levels have died due to various forms of environmental legislation. Others have been killed by rogue illegal immigrants. Many sick individuals have suffered premature death from being denied necessary medical drugs thanks to the FDA’s convoluted certification process…We scarcely know how to even estimate the total [number of deaths]. The best we can say is that between 400,000 and 500,000 Americans have in the past century died prematurely thanks to government policies, victims of the American democide. That number is a match for all our fatalities in the past century’s wars. It is greater than all American deaths from epidemic disease. [But] the total doesn’t amount to much in the blood-soaked history of the Age of Massacre. It scarcely compares to the numbers achieved by Nazi Germany, the USSR, Red China, or any of the other champions of extermination. It has required half a century for the US to achieve that figure. The Hutu mobs of Rwanda, using only machetes, surpassed it within weeks. It scarcely rates an asterisk in the past century’s long record of atrocity. But it happened in our country. It happened in America [emphasis added].”

Wow! Now readers of this journal will know that I am as fervent as Dunn in my assessment of the harm that the liberal hegemony has inflicted on our country over the last century. But murder? Normally, the dastardly deed manifests in two varieties – premeditated or spontaneous (i.e., 1st or 2nd degree). In both cases, an element of malice must be present. Failing that, the taking of a human life is usually classified as manslaughter. That too comes in two flavors – voluntary and involuntary. The distinction is whether the deed followed a purposeful act by the perpetrator or whether it occurred incidental to an act by the killer.

It seems to me that it is incorrect to call any of FDR, LBJ, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton or Barack Obama a murderer. That would imply that they pursued their mad dash to liberal nirvana completely cognizant of the fact that their policies would inevitably result in the death of US citizens – i.e., of those whom they were sworn to protect. I doubt for an instant that any of the fab five that I identified would accept any of Dunn’s list of horrors as being caused by any of their programs – and even if by some miracle they did, they would surely plead surprise rather than malignant intent.

Manslaughter is a more makeable case – especially of the involuntary kind. Even voluntary manslaughter is a bit of a stretch. It implies a purposefulness that is difficult to discern. In their utopian myopia, it is inconceivable to hard core liberals that their well-intentioned policies could cause harm to unintended beneficiaries – much less their death.

The arguments in Dunn’s book are persuasive; they trace a plausible trajectory from liberal programs to the death of innocents. But labeling these deaths as democide – the murder of people by their government – is exceedingly inflammatory and not justified. If I must coin a term, I’ll say incidentalcide – the death of citizens from unintended consequences of their government’s actions. Of course, that does not mean that it shouldn’t stop. However, the effort to bring about its cessation is not aided by overly flagrant accusations that cannot be substantiated.
This review also appeared in The Intellecrual Conservative at