Topic: General

Little Victories

…in the fight against the Nanny State: in Massachusetts, the state legislature just narrowly rejected ”primary seat belt legislation.”  In English, that’s a law that gives police the power to pull you over simply because someone in your car isn’t wearing their seatbelt (“secondary seat belt laws” allow them to ticket you for not wearing a seatbelt only if they’ve stopped you for some other infraction). 

Last summer, using night-vision equipment on loan from the National Guard, Maryland state troopers scanned passing cars, then swept out and nabbed 111 offenders for the crime of driving without a seatbelt. Scores of people who were driving along, minding their own business, had their evening ruined by an unpleasant encounter with the business end of the law. Law enforcement overreaching caused an outcry in that case, and citizen pressure in Massachusetts seems to have led several lawmakers to back away from the primary seatbelt bill.

It’s good to know that even in Massachusetts there’s still some resistance to the growing crusade to ensure healthy living through coercion. But it’s not coming from the Governor’s office. Mitt Romney, GOP presidential hopeful for 2008, had promised to sign the bill.

Mulling the Big Idea

A few comments on Brink’s post on the discussion I’ll be missing at the Hudson Institute.

1. I think that the background paper for the discussion is more interesting than Brink makes it out to be. I recommend it as a worthwhile read.

2. Having said that, I disagree with the characterization of the left as purely nihilistic. I think that the left is less reverent of intellectual history because, well, its intellectual antecedents are embarrassing. Was Communism really a great hope for mankind? Was the Vietnam war really an imperialist undertaking carried out because of the desperate desires of corporations for markets? Was it a good idea for Britain, India, and other countries in the 1950s to place “strategic” industries under national control? Were wage and price controls the solution to inflation? etc.

But, undaunted, the Left does have its big ideas. I still think that folk Marxism, the idea that certain oppressed classes and those who claim to speak for them have inherent moral authority, is a “foundational” idea in Leftist thought.

I also see an emerging Leftist doctrine of Individual Helplessness. That is, individuals are too ignorant and irrational to make their own decisions. “Happiness research” fits in well with that doctrine.

Finally, there is what I call absolute environmentalism, which is the doctrine that all other considerations pale in comparison to Global Warming. As Deirdre McCloskey pointed out, this is a transcendental philosophy that becomes the Left’s substitute for religion.

3. I do not agree with Brink’s characterization of those who are neither ardent Democrats nor ardent Republicans as a sort of “center.” Consider instead the hypothesis that we are a long tail.

Topics:

It Doesn’t Take a Rocket Scientist to See the Problem Here

Yesterday, the latest science scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) came out, and the same sad pattern we’ve seen for years repeated itself. Between 1996 and 2005 scores rose in 4th grade, remained stagnant in 8th grade, and dropped for high school seniors. In other words, it’s still the case that the longer children stay in American schools, the worse they do.

Unfortunately, something else also remained the same: the shameless compulsion among people in Washington, despite decades of failure, to claim credit for good news and to have the solutions for bad. Case in point, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings’s reaction to the NAEP report, in which she not only dubbed the federal No Child Left Behind Act a cure for failure in subjects the law directly addresses, but even those it doesn’t:

The Science 2005 Report….provides further evidence that accountability and assessments are working to raise achievement levels, even in subjects not directly tested under the No Child Left Behind Act [NCLB]. Fourth-graders made significant improvements in science over 1996 and 2000 levels, with the lowest-performing students making the largest gains and achievement gaps narrowing. However, eighth-graders showed no significant gains. And among 12th-graders, scores declined….The results illustrate the need to introduce NCLB’s accountability principles to our nation’s high schools.

So when the same sorry pattern repeats itself, the adults in charge of American education proclaim that they must be doing something right. In light of this, is it any wonder that our children do worse and worse the longer they stay in school?  

United They Fall…

…at least in popularity, that is. The AP is reporting on the Bush-Blair summit today with the headline “Besieged Bush, Blair to talk about Iraq.” The two leaders have seen their popularity plummet as a result of the Iraq war, with the crowning acknowledgement coming from Karl Rove at AEI recently, where Rove remarked on the president’s record low poll numbers by saying, “People like this president…They’re just sour right now on the war.”

Sour indeed. And as my colleagues Chris Preble and Jonathan Clarke point out in press releases and a podcast here, unless Bush and Blair can conjure a miracle in Iraq, they’re likely going to stay in the cellar, popularity-wise.

My other colleague, electoral guru John Samples, argued here that Bush should have done much better in the ‘04 election than he did, and that the culprit was – you guessed it – Iraq.

Abusing the Idea of Free-Market Health Care Reform

At about 6 pm yesterday, I received an invitation to a Heritage Foundation event titled, “Another Step forward for Free-Market Health Care Reform.” The event was anything but.

Heritage hosted Rep. Mike Rogers (R-MI), who proposes to allow health savings accounts in Medicaid. In the book Healthy Competition and elsewhere, Cato scholars have explained that Medicaid HSAs are not a free-market health care reform and instead distract Congress from reforming Medicaid the way it reformed welfare in 1996.

In fact, Rep. Rogers proposed a number of non-free-market health reforms:

  • Expanded federal regulation of the health insurance markets (a.k.a. “association health plans”)
  • Federal health information technology reforms
  • Federal malpractice liability reform

Rep. Rogers concluded his opening remarks by saying that health care “is the one place where we know how to tinker, we know where to tinker, [and] now we just [need to] have the will to tinker.”

I demur. Free-market reforms reduce the influence of government over the economy. The proposals offered by Rep. Rogers do the opposite. Then again, I have only listened to the Heritage event. I have not seen the most recent iteration of Rep. Rogers’ legislation, which is not yet available online. I hope Rep. Rogers or someone from the Heritage Foundation will explain what makes Medicaid HSAs (or the other proposals) a free-market health care reform.

What’s the Big Idea?

I’ll be taking part tomorrow in the Hudson Institute’s 2006 Bradley Symposium. Entitled “What’s the Big Idea? True Blue versus Deep Red: The Ideas that Move American Politics,” the event features, in addition to yours truly, a who’s who of Washington intellectual heavyweights: Michael Barone, David Brooks, Francis Fukuyama, Bill Kristol, Charles Murray, and Shelby Steele, among others.

The discussion’s point of departure will be this paper by University of Virginia political scientist James Ceaser. Ceaser argues that the current red vs. blue political divisions reflect deep-seated and profoundly important differences over the sources and nature of social order.

My short take: I agree with Ceaser that such differences exist, but I disagree that it is useful to shoehorn the various alternatives into just two rival camps. Doing so allows Ceaser to cast contemporary politics as a contest between nihilism on the left and conservatism of some kind or another on the right. Ceaser thus frames the debate in a way that, in my view, unfairly favors the right.

Here’s another typology that I think is closer to the mark: one noisy minority of nihilists on the “true blue” left, another noisy minority of dogmatists on the “deep red” right, and the rest of us moping and groping around in a politically underrepresented center. From this perspective, the main problem with American politics today isn’t the unhinged left. Rather, it’s the disproportionate influence of culture warriors on the left and right alike—and the outmoded political categories that allow the cultural extremes to lord it over the center.

Toughman Contest

U.S. News has an interesting profile of David Addington, Vice-President Cheney’s chief of staff and top legal adviser—a key player in administration debates over torture, domestic detention, and NSA surveillance. One thing that stood out for me was this description of the social dynamic at work when administration lawyers crafted War on Terror policies:

Whether or not he became the de facto leader of the group, as some administration officials say, Addington’s involvement made for a formidable team. “You put Addington, Yoo, and Gonzales in a room, and there was a race to see who was tougher than the rest and how expansive they could be with respect to presidential power,” says a former Justice Department official. “If you suggested anything less, you were considered a wimp.”

For background on the legal theories that emerged from that environment, see here.