Emotionally Potent Oversimplification of the Day: Terry Anderson on the Indian Health Service

Thanks to Rick Collins for sending this around — Terry Anderson WSJ Op-Ed on Indian Health Service

I’m not surprised that the WSJ carries the material that Terry Anderson writes. The NYTs does, too. I know that Terry is a really nice guy, despite my reservations about his free market/property rights approach to Indian affairs. We had him speak at Fed Bar a few years ago, and he expressed a great deal of support for tribal sovereignty. I had hoped he would engage tribal advocates on the positions they take on the federal trust relationship with the United States, and vice versa, but nothing really happened. I wanted this because I find his brand of editorial commentary (as opposed to his scholarly work) very troubling.

It’s usually a syllogism, repeating oversimplifications about Indian affairs again and again. For example, the one about Indian trust lands that gets noticed in the NYTs:

1. The United States owns all Indian lands.
2. Indians are poor.
2a. Quote/story from Indians angry at government.
3. Therefore, get rid of U.S. trust responsibility.

And the WSJ editorial (above), an obvious attack on the Obama health plan, unsurprising from a free market advocate:

1. IHS handles Indian health.
2. Indians are unhealthy.
3. Get rid of IHS.

Terry gets published in very respectful journals (Journal of Law & Econ., for example), but the work (despite the regression analyses) seems a little superficial to someone with roots in Indian Country. He wrote on tribal courts a few years back, attempting to refute the Cornell/Kalt theory that tribal courts help to develop tribal economies.

Here is the abstract to that paper, which advocates for PL280 to be expanded to all of Indian Country:

American Indian reservations are islands of poverty in a sea of wealth. Because this poverty cannot be explained solely by natural resource, physical, and human capital constraints, institutions are likely to be part of the explanation. One of the institutional variables is the sovereign power of tribes, which allows tribal governments to act opportunistically. The potential for such opportunistic behavior can thwart economic development if tribes are unable to make credible commitments to stable contract enforcement. One avenue for credible commitments is Public Law 280, which required some tribes to turn judicial jurisdiction over civil disputes to the states in which they reside. Using data for 1969-99, we find that per capita income for American Indians on reservations subject to state jurisdiction grew significantly more than it did for Indians who were not.

In other words:

1. Tribal courts have increasing jurisdiction over Indian Country commercial disputes.
2. Indians remain poor.
3. Get rid of tribal court jurisdiction.

Sad part is, he may be absolutely right. Maybe we should get rid of the federal government’s trust responsibility to Indians, maybe Congress should eliminate tribal court jurisdiction, maybe we should eliminate the Indian Health Service, but these syllogisms aren’t the reason why. There are very good reasons why tribal advocates fight for a better Indian Health Service and better federal Indian programs and more tribal court jurisdiction. You wouldn’t see them if you looked at the math in a vacuum.

Terry is a serious and sophisticated economist and thinker. I respect his scholarly work a great deal, even if I don’t necessarily agree with it every time (I think his “Raid or Trade” article is very interesting). But his editorials are slipshod and full of what Niebehr called “emotionally potent oversimplifications.” Reduced down to the level of an editorial in the paper — Indians have these unfortunate problems because they’re Indians. If they stopped being Indian, then they’d be fine. There is more, there is always more.

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4 Responses to Emotionally Potent Oversimplification of the Day: Terry Anderson on the Indian Health Service

  1. Ezra Rosser says:

    Anderson’s belief that Hernando de Soto’s ideas should be applied to reservations seem to follow the pattern you identified here and are similarly problematic:

    1. Reservations are poor and Indians don’t own their land.
    2. Off-reservation is not as poor and people do own their land.
    3. Therefore, limits on ownership should be abandoned as much as possible.

    I too think that de Soto’s ideas can inform reservation economics — hence I wrote a chapter on the topic — but things are more complicated than Anderson argues.

  2. Curt says:

    Great response to the Terry Anderson editorial, but I think it could go another step. The IHS and the Obama health care plan are apples and oranges. The IHS is a health care delivery system designed to operate in rural areas, and the Obama plan is a health insurance plan. The Obama plan should really be compared to Medicare.

  3. Rob Schmidt says:

    Good one, Matthew. You summed up the problem with many conservative pundits who write about Indian country.

  4. Rob Schmidt says:

    Hernando De Soto (c.1496/1497 – 1542) was a Spanish explorer and conquistador who, while leading the first European expedition deep into the territory of the modern-day United States, was the first European to discover the Mississippi River.

    Hernando de Soto Polar (born June 2, 1941) is a Peruvian economist known for his work on the informal economy and on the importance of property rights. He is the president of Peru’s Institute for Liberty and Democracy (ILD), located in Lima.

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