Topic: Political Philosophy

“A Cause Greater”

John McCain courted controversy recently with a new campaign slogan that some saw as a thinly veiled attack on Barack Obama’s eclectic background and upbringing. I don’t know if that interpretation is right, but McCain’s new tagline sounds like something out of Team America or Steven Colbert: “The American President Americans Have Been Waiting For” (And So Can You!).

Less ridiculous, and perhaps more unsettling, are McCain’s repeated appeals to “a cause greater than self-interest,” and his attacks on “cynicism,” which, as a determined cynic, I take very personally.

In his speeches, McCain periodically sneers at American opulence and suggests that leaving Americans alone to pursue their own visions of happiness is a narrow and ignoble goal for government. As I point out in my new book The Cult of the Presidency, that’s a common sentiment among the American intelligentsia, and one that’s been used repeatedly to concentrate power in the executive branch:

Like intellectuals the world over, many American pundits and scholars, right and left, view bourgeois contentment with disdain. Normal people appear to like “normalcy,” Warren Harding’s term for peace and prosperity, just fine. But all too many professional thinkers look out upon 300 million people living their lives by their own design and see something impermissibly hollow in the spectacle.

McCain’s campaign speeches reflect that theme. Here he is in a recent speech at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, telling his audience that if you “sacrifice for a cause greater than yourself, [you’ll] invest your life with the eminence of that cause, your self-respect assured.” Here he is on his campaign webpage, insisting that “each and every one of us has a duty to serve a cause greater than our own self-interest.”

I’m not a Randian, so I’m not inclined to condemn this stuff as whim-worshipping altruism. In the abstract, I agree with the statement that when you turn away from your own self-interest, narrowly construed, and adopt a higher purpose than your own pleasure (which purpose need not, and ought not, have anything to do with service to the state), you’re likely to end up a happier person.  But why is any of this McCain’s business? The president is supposed to be a limited constitutional officer, not a national life coach-cum-self-help guru.

Making the case for “a cause greater” in the Naval Academy speech, McCain declared that

when healthy skepticism sours into corrosive cynicism our expectations of our government become reduced to the delivery of services. And to some people the expectations of liberty are reduced to the right to choose among competing brands of designer coffee.

Oh my, not “designer coffee”! The reflexive contempt for peace and prosperity McCain displays here is the essence of National Greatness Conservatism, and, as Matt Welch has pointed out in Myth of a Maverick, his devastating critique of the Arizona senator, John McCain is to National Greatness Conservatism as Barry Goldwater was to conservatism proper: the electoral standard bearer for the philosophy.

In his book, Welch quotes a May 1999 commencement address McCain gave at Johns Hopkins University, warning that America was threatened by a “pervasive public cynicism” toward government “as dangerous in its way as war and depression have been in the past.” In the same speech McCain mused, “With every new Dow Jones record, something gnaws at my conscience that we should not be lulled into unfeeling contentment.” (There’s a bright side to our current economic woes I guess: McCain’s conscience is spared that old gnawing feeling.)

McCain’s sometime ideological guru and op-ed page cheerleader, David Brooks, expresses similar themes in his writings. Even in Bobos in Paradise, Brooks’s foray into “comic sociology,” he warns darkly of “the temptations that accompany affluence.” “The fear is that America will decline not because it overstretches, but because it enervates as its leading citizens decide that the pleasures of an oversized kitchen are more satisfying than the conflicts and challenges of patriotic service.” (As a young man, Brooks served abroad with the Wall Street Journal Europe.)

Designer coffee, oversized kitchens, Belgian beer, and iPods–you might embrace such things because they make life more pleasant, but as Brooks and McCain point out, that’s precisely the problem. These products of prosperity are the lures that plague us, the temptations that make us soft and weak, that keep us from true National Greatness.

What can we Bobos do to make ourselves tougher, to save ourselves from the wonderful distractions capitalism continually creates? John McCain provided an answer in a little-noticed article in the Washington Monthly, written shortly after 9/11. In it, McCain called for a quasi-militarized domestic national service corps as a way to address a “spiritual crisis in our national culture.” What Senator McCain envisioned was, well, rather creepy–a sort of jackbooted Politics of Meaning.

McCain praised City Year, an AmeriCorps initiative operating in 13 cities: “City Year members wear uniforms, work in teams, learn public speaking skills, and gather together for daily calisthenics, often in highly public places such as in front of city hall.” He also endorsed the National Civilian Community Corps, “a service program consciously structured along military lines,” in which enrollees “not only wear uniforms and work in teams… but actually live together in barracks on former military bases.” McCain calls for expanding these two initiatives and “spread[ing] their group-cohesion techniques to other AmeriCorps programs.”

“Group cohesion” and calisthenics in front of city hall reflect a version of patriotism, to be sure, albeit one that seems more North Korean than American. But all in all, the article provides further evidence of Welch’s claim that McCain has an essentially “militaristic conception of citizenship.”

Some have compared McCain to JFK, and there’s something to that comparison. But Milton Friedman said everything that needs to be said about the notion that service to the state ought to be the lodestar of presidential politics. In Capitalism and Freedom, Friedman wrote that neither half of JFK’s “ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country” “expresses a relation between the citizen and his government that is worthy of the ideals of free men in a free society.” As Friedman put it:

To the free man, the country is the collection of individuals who compose it, not something over and above them. He is proud of a common heritage and loyal to common traditions. But he regards government as a means, an instrumentality, neither a grantor of favors and gifts, nor a master or god to be blindly worshipped and served. He recognizes no national goal except as it is the consensus of the goals that the citizens severally serve. He recognizes no national purpose except as it is the consensus of the purposes for which the citizens severally strive.

All of which gives us another reason to admire Milton Friedman: before National Greatness Conservatism was invented, Friedman was against it.

[cross-posted from genehealy.com]

Mandates: a Tool for Shaping Your Values

Prof. Sherry Glied is chair of the Department of Health Policy and Management at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.  In this week’s New England Journal of Medicine, she gives a fair account of the difficulties of forcing people to purchase health insurance via an “individual mandate.”  Glied writes that an individual mandate “may require a degree of intrusiveness and bureaucracy that some will find unpalatable,” and, “The risks associated with individual mandates suggest that they are no panacea.”

Her closing observation, though, is novel and particularly noteworthy:

Perhaps the most important benefit of mandates is symbolic. By mandating the purchase of health insurance, governments signal to their citizens that coverage is critical. For many uninsured people as well as their families, communities, and elected representatives, this public commitment to coverage may lead to a reassessment of priorities. Although making mandates functional will be demanding, just passing a mandate may serve an important purpose by moving health insurance higher on the agendas of all these constituencies.

This illuminates a driving force behind mandates.  Advocates do not merely want to improve health and longevity.  They want to change other people’s values.  They want to make the uninsured value health and longevity more than the things that must be sacrificed to comply with the mandate – things like barhopping, education, starting their own business, etc.  And they are willing to use coercion (or the threat of coercion) to do so.  The debate over mandates is not just about how to reform health care.  It is also about who shapes your values.

No wonder there are so many people in the health care industry who support mandates.

The Hillarys and the Huckabees

In a recent op-ed I dub the two kinds of enemies of freedom in America “the Hillarys and the Huckabees.” I think it has a nice ring.

Hillary Clinton and Mike Huckabee are classic examples of two strains of big-government thinking in a country that otherwise prefers small government. Hillary is the quintessential nanny-state liberal who is determined to have the government take care of adult Americans the way parents take care of children. Huckabee wants the government to stamp out sin and make us all do God’s will as he sees it….

But, despite that heritage of freedom, we’ve always got the Hillarys and the Huckabees and the other people who think they could run our lives better than we can. The Huckabees on the right continue to resist the cultural changes of the 1960s, and the Hillarys on the left continue to resist the economic changes of the 1980s.

The “Huckabees” want to censor cable television because they don’t think you can be trusted to decide what your family should watch. They support bans on drugs, pornography, gambling and violent video games because you just don’t know what’s good for you. They want prayer in the schools and sound science out. They want to subsidize heterosexual marriage and ban gay marriage. They want government to take the place of God and stamp out sin on earth. Former Sen. Rick Santorum, a classic Huckabee, complains about “this whole idea of personal autonomy, … this idea that people should be left alone.”

The “Hillarys,” meanwhile, want to raise taxes because they think they can spend your money more wisely than you can. They don’t believe in school choice because you don’t know how to choose a school for your children. They think they can handle your retirement savings and health care better than you can. They think, as Hillary Clinton has advocated, that the government should produce video lectures on how to burp a baby and how to brush your teeth and have them “running continuously in doctors’ offices, clinics, hospitals, motor vehicle offices, or any other place where people gather and have to wait.”

The Huckabees want to be your daddy, telling you what to do and what not to do. The Hillarys want to be your mommy, feeding you, tucking you in and setting your curfew. But the proper role for the government of a free society is to treat adults as adults, responsible for making their own decisions and accepting the consequences.

Be Still My Beating Heart…

Move over Ron Paul, my heart belongs to Jack! How long until we see a “Kevorkian Girl” on You-Tube?

The assisted-suicide advocate Jack Kevorkian announced that he was running for Congress as an independent. If elected, he said his main priority would be promoting the Ninth Amendment, which protects rights not explicitly specified elsewhere in the Constitution. Mr. Kevorkian, 79, says he interprets it as protecting a person’s choice to die through assisted suicide or to avoid wearing a seat belt. The Congressional seat in Detroit’s suburbs is now held by Representative Joe Knollenberg, a Republican who is seeking re-election.

Those still a bit uncertain about the wisdom of physician assisted suicide might want to keep in mind the following three words: President Hillary Clinton.

DC’s Apathetic, Complacent Nonproducers ♥ Snow Jobs

I just came across this letter I wrote to the editor of the Washington Post.  Sadly, the editor declined to publish it.  Since the Supreme Court just heard oral arguments about the D.C. gun ban and the meaning of the Second Amendment in District of Columbia v. Heller, it remains relevant:

On January 5, we learned that District officials filed a brief with the Supreme Court [“Gun Law Prevents Harm, D.C. Argues,” Jan. 5] defending the city’s gun ban on the grounds that: the Second Amendment does not protect an individual right to keep and bear arms; the ban “does not deprive the people of reasonable means to defend themselves;” and “less restrictive approaches would not be adequate.”

Fifteen pages later, Colbert I. King [“Outfoxed In the District,” Jan. 5] wrote of the “conditions that threaten the quality of life of all who live in this city: criminals roaming the streets in search of human prey; an apathetic and complacent government workforce; nonproducers ensconced in high places; and elected leaders who fall for snow jobs.”

Draw your own conclusions.

NFIB Individual Mandate Debate

Earlier this week, I participated in a lively debate on individual mandates — i.e., a legal requirement that every American purchase health insurance.  Also on the panel were Prof. Sherry Glied of Columbia University, Bob Moffit of the Heritage Foundation, and Peter Harbage of the New America Foundation. 

The debate can be viewed online at KaiserNetwork.org.

As the debate was sponsored by the National Federation of Independent Business, which has yet to take a position on an individual mandate, it should be of particular interest to small business owners and employees. 

Congressional Quarterly quoted me as saying, “Universal coverage is a bomb that will blow up for small businesses.”  (I meant to say that a policy of universal coverage, and thus an individual mandate, would blow up in their faces.  We’ll have to see what the tape says.)  Also: “Tax reform and deregulation are how to relieve the burden of health benefits for small business, and they have the added benefit of being the right thing to do.”

The Candidates and the Libertarian Vote

Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch of Reason have a great cover story in Politics, the new and livelier update of Campaigns and Elections magazine.  Titled “Tuned Out,” the article says that “politics is a lagging indicator of American society,” so this year’s presidential candidates are “channeling shopworn agendas and tired identities to a body politic desperate for a new political era.”

They predict that today’s individualist, consumer-driven culture will eventually produce a politics to match. “Much of this new activity will be explicitly libertarian, since the decentralization of control and individual empowerment is so deeply embedded in Internet technology and culture…. The Long Tail future of politics just as surely belongs to the president and party that figures out the secret to success is giving away power by letting the voter decide more of what matters.”

We can only hope. The cover illustration for the article, showing a Fountainhead-reading, South Park-watching young voter impervious to the appeals of the two old parties, reminded me of this recent “Zippy the Pinhead” cartoon, which also contrasted two big-government parties with leave-me-alone independents (click for larger version):

For more on libertarian voters, go here and here.