Archives: 01/2010

Should Republicans Have Compromised to Produce a Less-Bad Healthcare Bill?

Writing for Forbes, Bruce Bartlett puts forth an interesting hypothesis that healthcare legislation could have been made better (hopefully he meant to write “less destructive”) if the GOP had been willing to compromise with Democrats:

Democrats desperately wanted a bipartisan bill and would have given a lot to get a few Republicans on board. This undoubtedly would have led to enactment of a better health bill than the one we are likely to get. But Republicans never put forward an alternative health proposal. Instead, they took the position that our current health system is perfect just as it is.

Bruce makes several compelling points in the article, especially when he notes that it will be virtually impossible to repeal a bad bill after 2010 or 2012, but there are good reasons to disagree with his analysis. First, he is wrong in stating that Republicans were united against any compromise. Several GOP senators spent months trying to negotiate something less objectionable, but those discussions were futile. Also, I’m not sure it’s correct to assert Republicans took a “the current system is perfect” position. They may not have offered a full alternative (they did have a few good reforms such as allowing the purchase of insurance across state lines), but their main message was that the Democrats were going to make the current system worse. Strikes me as a perfectly reasonable position, one that I imagine Bruce shares.

Let’s explore Bruce’s core hypothesis: Would compromise have generated a better bill? It’s possible, to be sure, but there are also several reasons why that approach may have backfired:

1. It’s not clear a policy of compromise would have produced a less-objectionable bill. Would Senate Democrats have made more concessions to Grassley and Snowe rather than Lieberman and Nelson (much less whether the “concessions” would have been good policy)? And even if Reid made some significant (and positive) concessions, is there any reason to think those reforms would have survived a conference committee with the House? Yet the compromising Republicans probably would have felt invested in the process and obliged to support the final bill — even if the conference committee produced something worse than the original Senate Democrat proposal.

2. A take-no-prisoners strategy may be high risk, but it can produce high rewards. In the early 1990s, the Republicans took a no-compromise position when fighting Bill Clinton’s health plan (aka, Hillarycare), and that strategy was ultimately successful. We still don’t know the final result of this battle (much less how events would have transpired with a different strategy), but if the long-term goal is to minimize government expansion, a no-compromise approach is perfectly reasonable.

3. A principled opposition to government-run healthcare will help win other fights. The Democrats ultimately may win the healthcare battle, but the leadership will have been forced to spend lots of time and energy, and also use up lots of political chits. Does anyone now think they can pass a “climate change” bill? The answer, almost certainly, is no.

4. A principled approach can be good politics, which can eventually lead to good policy. Democrats wanted a few Republicans on board in part to help give them political cover. The aura of bipartisanship would have given Democrats a good talking point for the 2010 elections (“My opponent is being unreasonable since even X Republicans also supported the legislation”). That fig leaf does not exist now, which makes it more likely that Democrats will pay a heavy price during the midterm elections. It is impossible to know whether 2010 will be a 1994-style rout or whether the newly-elected Republicans will quickly morph into Bush-style big-government conservatives (who often do more damage to liberty than Democrats), but at least there is a reasonable likelihood of more pro-liberty lawmakers.

When all is said and done, Bruce’s strategy is not necessarily wrong, but it does guarantee defeat. Government gets bigger and freedom diminishes. For reasons of principle and practicality, Republicans should do the right thing.

Ayn Rand Is In

Who would have thought? The Washington Post, which took two months to run a review of the two important new books about Ayn Rand that were published in October, now declares Ayn Rand to be “In” for 2010. Well, technically, in the paper’s annual New Year’s Day Out/In list, it declares “Twihards” (fans of the Twilight series, I take it) to be Out and “Randroids” to be In. But the splashy display in the print paper illustrates “Randroids” with a classic photo of Ayn Rand, the one that graces the cover of Barbara Branden’s biography The Passion of Ayn Rand.

Rand had a pretty good 2009, so it’s impressive that the Post thinks she’ll be bigger in 2010. 

While the renewed interest in Rand has been noticed everywhere from the Times Higher Education Supplement to the Wall Street Journal to the left-wing Campus Progress, William Kristol apparently missed it entirely. He wrote on December 29 about the revival of conservatism in response to the challenge of the Obama administration.

Of course, as conservatives, we also know many of the very best ideas are old ideas. And I’m struck by how many people are rediscovering Hayek’s “The Fatal Conceit,” Irving Kristol’s “Two Cheers for Capitalism,” or Tocqueville’s account of soft despotism in “Democracy in America.”

There are great ideas to be found in that list of books. But as everyone but Kristol has noticed, the author who’s really being rediscovered in this first 18 months or so of financial crisis and government expansion is Ayn Rand. Consider the sales figures for the different books. In 2009 about 2000 copies of The Fatal Conceit were sold. (Kristol should have cited The Road to Serfdom, which sold 21,000, more than double its sales the year before and about six times its sales in 2007, before the financial crisis began.) About 20,000 copies of various editions of Democracy in America. And 300,000 copies of Atlas Shrugged, along with 95,000 copies of The Fountainhead and even 60,000 copies of Anthem. (Two Cheers for Capitalism is out of print, so its rediscoveries can’t be tracked by BookScan.) It’s clearly Ayn Rand who has gotten the most help from the Bush-Paulson-Geithner-Bernanke-Obama-Geithner-Bernanke policies of the past 18 months.

Note: In addition to the new books on Rand from two of the world’s greatest publishers, the revitalized Laissez Faire Books has just published, for the first time in book form, the lectures on Ayn Rand’s philosophy that Nathaniel Branden gave back in the 1960s. Known then as “The Basic Principles of Objectivism,” now published as The Vision of Ayn Rand, these lectures were instrumental in tying Rand’s fiction to philosophy, politics, and economics, and in creating one of the first organized libertarian movements. As I said in a jacket blurb:

This is the most important work on Objectivism not written by Ayn Rand, available at last in book form. These lectures were delivered by the person closest to Ayn Rand, designated by her as her intellectual heir, often with her sitting in the audience and answering questions about them, and endorsed by her. Rand’s subsequent falling out with Nathaniel Branden over personal matters doesn’t change that. This is the organized, comprehensive treatise on Objectivism that Ayn Rand never wrote. Philosophers, historians, and economists may – and should – debate the claims of Objectivism. In this book they have a systematic work with which to engage. These lectures were also a milestone in libertarian history, as the lecture sessions brought together for the first time large numbers of young people who shared an enthusiasm for Ayn Rand and the individualist philosophy. The lectures were given as taped courses in more than 80 cities, and people drove for miles to listen to them on tape. Wasn’t that a time!