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Life a century ago — Obamacare-less but no utopia

7:30 AM EST, December 3, 2012

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In his recent commentary, Matt Patterson informed us that President Barack Obama's election to a second term in office is the death knell for liberty in this country and he sounds ready to pack up his bags and leave ("America the dictatorship?" Nov. 27). Fine. But before he goes, perhaps we should take a moment to compare and contrast Mr. Patterson's golden age of a free America (which he defines as prior to the passage of the 16th Amendment in 1913) with the Orwellian present in which we now live. In weak moments, I find myself as enamored of Edwardian America as anyone, but then I remember the following:

In 1913, there were no federal guidelines defining what a work week was, how old (or young) one needed to be in order to work, or how lethal your working conditions could be. The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 provided us with some much needed guidelines on that. Thankfully, this was followed by numerous work-safety acts that have, over the course of time, done exactly what they were designed to do: abolish child labor entirely, mitigate on-the-job hazards, and make possible the kind of middle class lifestyle that defines America today. In the workplace, it is fair to say, there was no liberty prior to 1913.

In 1913, where you worked, where you lived, where you ate and drank, where you received medical care, where you went to school, and how much income you could expect to make, were all determined by what race you happened to be. Gender also helped pre-determine the dreams you could afford to have for yourself. The 19th Amendment (1919) gave women the right to vote. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 did away with legal segregation. If you were black or female or first generation immigrant, it is fair to say that there was no liberty for you in 1913.

In 1913, 51 individuals (all but one, black) were lynched by mobs in these United States. Many hundreds more were legally executed with evidence that would never stand up in court today, and many thousands more were kept in prison or sent to prison work farms on charges that would never stand up in court today. The justice system was not blind in 1913. Police, the courts, and the prison system, recognized exactly who and what you were, and treated you accordingly. Justice, if it existed at all, existed only for white males in 1913.

In 1913, one could move across the country by rail only. There were few national roads. Needless to say, it was expensive and cumbersome. If you didn't like where you lived, that was an unfortunate reality that you and your family simply had to live with. Subsequently, of course, federal initiatives built a highway system that allowed for free use of the nation's roads, allowing us all mobility for the price of gas in our car. When Mr. Patterson decides to leave the country to start his own free state on God knows what island somewhere, he can do so freely, driving to the airport on state and federal highways, embarking on a plane leaving from one of our efficient, publicly-financed international airports, on a plane whose safe and uneventful exit from our airspace is made possible by an air traffic control system funded by — you guessed it — the same taxes that Mr. Patterson feels have deprived us of our liberty. If, God forbid, he should lose concentration on his way to the airport and drive into a lamp post or unfortunate pedestrian walking to the welfare office to pick up her check, both he and that unfortunate individual will be transported promptly to the nearest hospital where they will receive equal levels of critical care regardless of whether or not they can produce a medical insurance card.

In 1913, when you got too old to work and were summarily dismissed by your employer without pension or benefits, you were on your own. Perhaps you have a big and generous family to take care of you, perhaps not. The odds were against you, and poverty among the aged was a significant driver of early mortality: Life expectancy for men was 50.3 years and 55.0 years for women in 1913, having stayed very much the same for the previous generation. It would show no significant progress until the 1940s.

I could go on and on. Any of us could with just a little thought. Mr. Patterson, and his fear-mongering colleagues in the tea party, would have us turn back the clock to an era they don't remotely understand. They are not wrong to be concerned about our liberty, and to be suspicious of authority. But exactly when and where do they think people lived more freely and with greater health and happiness than we do today in this great country? It is a fantasy, as much as Karl Marx's vision of a communist utopia was fantasy. The problem is that fantasies can be dangerous, and the more ignorant they are the more dangerous they can be. Mr. Patterson, you are free to go. Let me know where you land, and how you find it to be for you. I hope you've planned for your retirement, however.

Mark Thistel, Baltimore