Topic: Political Philosophy

Back to the Past

Lyndon Baines Johnson, May 22, 1964, at the University of Michigan:

The challenge of the next half century is whether we have the wisdom to use that wealth to enrich and elevate our national life, and to advance the quality of our American civilization…. For in your time we have the opportunity to move not only toward the rich society and the powerful society, but upward to the Great Society….

The Great Society … is a place where the city of man serves not only the needs of the body and the demands of commerce but the desire for beauty and the hunger for community…. It is a place where man can renew contact with nature. It is a place which honors creation for its own sake and for what it adds to the understanding of the race. It is a place where men are more concerned with the quality of their goals than the quantity of their goods….

Worst of all, expansion [of the economy]  is eroding the precious and time-honored values of community with neighbors and communion with nature. The loss of these values breeds loneliness and boredom and indifference….

The solution to these problems does not rest on a massive program in Washington, nor can it rely solely on the strained resources of local authority. They require us to create new concepts of cooperation, a creative federalism, between the National Capital and the leaders of local communities….

For better or for worse, your generation has been appointed by history to deal with those problems and to lead America toward a new age. You have the chance never before afforded to any people in any age. You can help build a society where the demands of morality, and the needs of the spirit, can be realized in the life of the Nation…Will you join in the battle to build the Great Society, to prove that our material progress is only the foundation on which we will build a richer life of mind and spirit?…There are those timid souls who say this battle cannot be won; that we are condemned to a soulless wealth. I do not agree….”

David Brooks, May 9, 2008, everywhere:

It used to be that American conservatives shaped British political thinking. Now the influence is going the other way….

[T]he central debate of the 21st century is over quality of life. In this new debate, it is necessary but insufficient to talk about individual freedom. Political leaders have to also talk about, as one Tory politician put it, “the whole way we live our lives.”…They’re trying to use government to foster dense social bonds…. They’re offering something in tune with the times….

American conservatives won’t simply import this model. But there’s a lot to learn from it.”

Question: How do these two differ?

Answer: They don’t. Both “hunger for community.” Both condemn a “soulless wealth.” Both promise decentralization. Both believe in the end that community can and should be created by coercion.

More, Um, Praise for Medicare Meets Mephistopheles

Nearly two years after its release, David Hyman’s satire Medicare Meets Mephistopheles is still generating reviews – and controversy. 

In the April 2008 issue of the Michigan Law Review, Michigan law professor Jill Horwitz raves:

Hyman is extraordinarily knowledgeable about health care regulation and his exposition is succinct. The book is filled with informative and accurate summaries of Medicare’s complicated program design and related laws. The summaries of fraud and abuse law, for example, make my heart sing. I’ve seldom seen such an accessible and accurate primer.

It would be a stretch, however, to claim that Horwitz and Hyman see eye-to-eye.  Horwitz concludes her 19-page review thus:

Medicare Meets Mephistopheles is a terrific overview of a troubled system, but a missed opportunity to help reform Medicare. Providing health care fairly and efficiently is a complicated process that necessarily involves a heavy dose of government. Libertarian railing against big government, regulation, and all lefty foolishness that market proponents despise doesn’t get one very far in determining how to get health care to 300 million people. In the end Hyman doesn’t offer any realistic alternative to this government-regulated muddle because, God knows, his plans are unacceptable anywhere but in hell.

Ay caramba!

Genuine Unsolicited Testimonial for Cato University

Bill Eilberg, a Club for Growth member who attended Cato University last year, sent this review into the Club blog:

I’m not one who easily sits through lectures, but at Cato University, I can honestly tell you that my attention span was at its highest level, as I listened more intently than I ever had done in college or law school.

I note that Rob McDonald is on the faculty again this year. Rob is one of the most talented speakers one will ever hear. His discussions on American history are positively riveting. I will never forget listening to his poignant account of how George Washington quelled a potential revolt by his officers, taking out his reading glasses to quote from a text (it is a story you may have heard already, but Rob is a master at retelling it). If I had the opportunity, I could listen to him for hours.

Bill is certainly right. Cato University gets rave reviews every year. Once again this July, it will be held at the beautiful Rancho Bernardo Inn near San Diego. Speakers will include Tom Palmer, Peter Van Doren, Gene Healy, and Michael Cannon of Cato. Reporting from around the world will be former Putin adviser Andrei Illarionov, German economist Karen Horn, elcato.org editor Gabriela Calderon, and Zimbabwean opposition leader Rejoice Ngwenya. And reporting from 1776, the aforementioned Professor McDonald.

Sign up now.

The Truth about Milton Friedman

Peter Goodman writes in the New York Times that we live in a laissez-faire world created by Milton Friedman and that that wild, unfettered market has led to our current economic problems.  David Henderson, the first editor of Cato Policy Report, begs to differ. David R. Henderson is a research fellow with the Hoover Institution, an economics professor in the Graduate School of Business and Public Policy at the Naval Postgraduate School, and the editor of The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics (Liberty Fund, 2008). Here’s his critique of the Times article:

In the April 13 New York Times, economics reporter Peter S. Goodman takes “A Fresh Look at the Apostle of Free Markets,” the late Milton Friedman.  Goodman’s goal seems to be to persuade the reader that we’re emerging from an era of laissez-faire that Ronald Reagan and Milton Friedman implemented together, that laissez-faire didn’t work, and that now we need to reregulate.  No, really.  I’m not kidding.  That seems to be what he’s saying.

Now, Peter is a nice guy.  He’s interviewed me a few times and we had a nice hour-long talk at the Hoover Institution earlier this year.  But his article is full of confusions and misstatements and is crying out for an answer.  Here’s mine.  The quotes from Peter’s article are indented and my answers follow.

Joblessness is growing. Millions of homes are sliding into foreclosure. The financial system continues to choke on the toxic leftovers of the mortgage crisis. The downward spiral of the economy is challenging a notion that has underpinned American economic policy for a quarter-century — the idea that prosperity springs from markets left free of government interference. 

The first two sentences are probably correct.  The third might be correct.  The fourth, the most important in the paragraph, is badly wrong.  Markets haven’t been seriously free of regulation since before the Great Depression.  There were some major deregulatory victories—in airlines, railroads, and trucking—but interestingly, these victories preceded the last quarter century—they happened in the late 1970s and 1980, under President Jimmy Carter.  And they led to good results—cheaper air travel and shipping and more accountability for truckers and railroads, to name two.  It’s true that people give lip service to economic freedom.  But the current president nationalized prescription drugs for the elderly, nationalized airport security except in five cities, and dramatically expanded federal intervention in education.  The previous Congress banned Internet gambling and the current Congress has banned certain kinds of light bulbs.  The government is now pushing people into more-expensive sources of energy.  State and local governments have passed laws that prevent owners of bars and restaurants from allowing smoking.  Congress in the 1990s started to dictate that insurance policies cover certain medical procedures. And notably, federal regulations from mortgage subsidies to the Community Reinvestment Act encouraged ill-advised investments. Those are some of the increases in government regulation.  There have been few decreases. 

The modern-day godfather of that credo was Milton Friedman, who attributed the worst economic unraveling in American history to regulators, declaring in a 1976 essay that “the Great Depression was produced by government mismanagement.” 

True.  And, by the way, Friedman got this one right as even that superregulator, Ben Bernanke admitted.  At Friedman’s 90th birthday party, Bernanke said, “I would like to say to Milton and Anna [Schwartz]: Regarding the Great Depression. You’re right, we did it. We’re very sorry. But thanks to you, we won’t do it again.” 

Five years later, Ronald Reagan entered the White House, elevating Mr. Friedman’s laissez-faire ideals into a veritable set of commandments. 

Oh, really?  Within a few months, Reagan had persuaded the Japanese government to forcibly limit the number of cars the Japanese auto companies could sell to the United States. And Reagan left almost all federal regulations in place. 

Taxes were cut, regulations slashed and public industries sold into private hands, all in the name of clearing government from the path to riches. 

Reagan did cut taxes in 1981–and then raised them in 1982, 1983, 1984, 1985, 1986, and 1987

As the economy expanded and inflation abated, Mr. Friedman played the role of chief evangelist in the mission to let loose the animal instincts of the market. 

This certainly is a “fresh” look at Milton Friedman.  It’s also wrong.  I don’t think Friedman ever thought that in advocating that humans be freer, he was advocating letting loose “animal instincts.”  Animals act far more like governments—that is, they use force against their competitors—than like peaceful market participants. 

But with market forces now seemingly gone feral, disenchantment with regulation has given way to demands for fresh oversight, placing Mr. Friedman’s intellectual legacy under fresh scrutiny. 

Unfortunately, Goodman doesn’t say how market forces have gone feral.  Government remains feral and government seems poised to use more force against more victims, but how markets do that is beyond me.  As for Friedman’s intellectual legacy, or anyone else’s, fresh scrutiny is always good.  You won’t find any of it in Goodman’s article, though. 

Just as the Depression remade government’s role in economic life, bringing jobs programs and an expanded welfare system, the current downturn has altered the balance. 

But wait a minute.  The Depression did alter the balance, increasing government power at the expense of people’s freedom dramatically.  Very few Depression-era programs were ended.  We’re still stuck with the SEC, agricultural subsidies, welfare, and Social Security.  Moreover, every president after Franklin Roosevelt increased government power, often, as with LBJ (Great Society), Nixon (price controls, OSHA, and EPA), and Bush Jr. (No Child Left Behind, nationalization of two industries), substantially.  So how can the current downturn alter the balance?  We’ve been moving away from economic freedom for 80 years.  (Herbert Hoover began what really should be called a mini-New Deal.)  How can more government programs alter the balance? 

As Wall Street, Main Street and Pennsylvania Avenue seethe with recriminations, a bipartisan chorus has decided that unfettered markets are in need of fettering. Bailouts, stimulus spending and regulations dominate the conversation. 

It would be more accurate to say, “a bipartisan chorus has decided that fettered markets need to be fettered more.”  But that doesn’t have the same ring, does it? 

In short, the nation steeped in the thinking of a man who blamed government for the Depression now beseeches government to lift it to safety. 

So if the nation is “steeped in the thinking of a man who blamed government for the Depression,” wouldn’t you expect most people to have, until recently, “blamed government for the Depression”?  Is that really what Goodman perceives?  It’s not what my students think when they start out in my class.  Nor is it what their parents think.  Where is Goodman getting his information? 

If Mr. Friedman, who died in 2006, were still among us, he would surely be unhappy with this turn. 

Amen, brother.  Goodman finally got one right. 

“What Milton Friedman said was that government should not interfere,” said Allen Sinai, chief global economist for Decision Economics Inc., a consulting group. “It didn’t work. We now are looking at one of the greatest real estate busts of all time. The free market is not geared to take care of the casualties, because there’s no profit motive. There’s no market incentive to deal with the unemployed or those who have lost their homes.” 

Where do I begin?  Sinai’s first statement is true.  But his second statement?  How could he say that not having government interfere didn’t work when through the whole era being discussed, government interfered?  Even if you were a dyed-in-the-wool advocate of government interference, you couldn’t make Sinai’s statement because throughout that era we had massive government interference.  And what are we to make of Sinai’s statement that the “free market is not geared to take care of casualties”?  Has he heard of insurance?  It’s a free-market way of taking care of casualties.  And there’s no profit motive?  Huh?  People don’t want to make profits?  And there certainly is a “market incentive to deal with the unemployed or those who have lost their homes.”  Employers deal with the unemployed through markets all the time—by hiring them.  And people who have lost their homes still want a place to live and so property owners want to deal with them by renting to them. 

To Mr. Friedman, such sentiments, when turned into policy, deprived the economy of the vibrancy of market forces. 

Somewhat true, but overstated.  One of Milton’s favorite lines was one from Adam Smith: “There is much ruin in a nation.”  He once explained to me that that meant that a whole lot of things can go wrong, and government can mess things up in many ways, but the desire to better ourselves can still make markets work. 

Born in Brooklyn in 1912 to immigrant parents who worked briefly in sweatshops, Mr. Friedman retained a sense that America was a land of opportunity with ample rewards for the hard-working. 

True. 

His intellectual bent was forged as a graduate student at the University of Chicago, a base for those who saw themselves as guardians of classical economics in a world then under the spell of woolly-headed revisionists. 

Not exactly.  The marginal revolution of 1870 had upset the classical school.  The Chicago School economists of the 1930s believed in the marginal revolution.  And many of them advocated, at the same time, a great deal of government intervention.  Read Henry Simons’s work of that era and see if you would ever dream of calling him an advocate of laissez-faire. 

The chief object of their scorn was John Maynard Keynes, and his message that government had to juice the economy with spending during times of duress. 

Not even close.  Milton Friedman was a Keynesian at least into his late thirties.  The shift in his thinking was gradual, so much so that he could never identify—we talked about this—when he became a non-Keynesian.   

That notion dominated policy in the years after the Depression. Mr. Friedman would spend much of his career assailing it: He argued that government should simply manage the supply of money — to keep it growing with the economy — then step aside and let the market do its magic. 

True.  But I don’t recall Friedman ever using the word “magic.”  The way markets work is a completely understandable result of private property and freedom. 

So firm was his regard for market forces, so deep his disdain for government, that Mr. Friedman once said: “If you put the federal government in charge of the Sahara Desert, in five years there would be a shortage of sand.” 

I didn’t know that was his line, but it’s a good one. 

This antagonism toward bureaucracy seemed to spring from Mr. Friedman’s conception of his country as a bastion of rugged individualism. During an interview on PBS in 2000, he noted that Adam Smith, the father of classical economics, published his canonical work, “The Wealth of Nations,” in 1776, “the same year as the American Revolution.” 

Basically correct.  But his antagonism toward bureaucracy also sprang from his empiricism.  He saw how badly bureaucracy worked and how well economic freedom works. 

He spoke in the interview of his concern at the end of World War II that socialism was gaining adherents because countries had been forced to organize collectively to produce armaments. 

“You came out of the war with the widespread belief that the war had demonstrated that central planning would work,” Mr. Friedman said. “The left, in particular, … interpreted Russia as a successful experiment in central planning.” 

True. 

Mr. Friedman’s brand of libertarianism rested on the assumption that economic and political freedom were one and the same. It meshed with and fed the cold war thinking of his time, as the United States offered up capitalism as liberty itself in contrast to the authoritarian Soviet Union. 

The first sentence is absolutely false.  Friedman argued, in one of the classic passages in Capitalism and Freedom, that a great deal of economic freedom is required if we are to have political freedom.  He always distinguished clearly between them. 

Among professional economists, Mr. Friedman’s analytical mastery was near-universally admired. 

True. 

His first breakthrough came in the 1950s with his idea that people’s savings and spending were not a function of psychological factors, but based on rational estimations of wealth. 

That’s actually a nice statement of Friedman’s “permanent income theory of the consumption function.” 

His greatest contribution came the following decade, when Mr. Friedman dismantled the consensus view that inflation was a tolerable byproduct of high employment.  

No.  Friedman’s biggest contribution was his book, co-authored with Anna Schwartz, A Monetary History of the United States, 1867-1960, their analytical contribution to, among other things, the view that Federal Reserve monetary policy was the major contributor to the Great Depression.  It was this work that led, four decades later, to Bernanke’s aforementioned apology.   

He demonstrated that high inflation would eventually cost jobs, as businesses were discouraged to invest by the higher wages they had to pay. 

Not even close.  Probably what Goodman is referring to is Friedman’s insight, in his 1967 Presidential address to the American Economics Association, that there is no long-run tradeoff between inflation and unemployment.  Friedman made an argument that Friedrich Hayek had made years earlier.  Friedman argued that an unanticipated spurt in inflation could reduce unemployment because unemployed workers would be “fooled” into accepting jobs at high nominal wages that were really low real wages.  Once workers figured this out, Friedman argued, unemployment would creep up to the “natural rate.” 

“This triumph, more than anything else, confirmed Milton Friedman’s status as a great economist’s economist, whatever one may think of his other roles,” Paul Krugman, an economist (and a New York Times columnist) wrote last year in The New York Review of Books. 

Overstated.  Friedman made steady headway all through the 1960s.   

Mr. Friedman captured the era with a new formulation known as monetarism: that the government should gradually and predictably inject cash into the financial system, and then let the market figure out where it should go. 

That’s one of the worst statements of monetarism I’ve seen.  Monetarism is the theory that monetary policy matters more than fiscal policy in its ability to affect nominal GDP, and that changes in the velocity of money are slow and predictable.  Actually, for the best succinct statement of monetarism, see Ben McCallum’s article, “Monetarism,” in David R. Henderson, ed., The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics, Liberty Fund, 2008. 

“Any honest Democrat will admit that we are now all Friedmanites,” Lawrence H. Summers, the Harvard economist and former Clinton administration Treasury secretary, wrote in an appreciation published in this newspaper when Mr. Friedman died. “He has had more influence on economic policy as it is practiced around the world today than any other modern figure.” 

Actually, I think Larry overstated the case.  I think you could be honest and not be a Friedmanite. 

But the reviews for Mr. Friedman’s work grow mixed when the subject moves to his role as chief proselytizer in the drive to reduce the role of government in public life. 

Too vague to evaluate.  Whose reviews?  He doesn’t say.  The reviews of Friedman’s work as proselytizer have always been mixed. 

He laid out a blueprint in his 1962 book, “Capitalism and Freedom,” calling for the end of the military draft, the abolition of the licensing of doctors and the creation of “education vouchers” that parents could use to send children to private schools, injecting competition into public education. 

True. 

Two years later, Mr. Friedman put those principles to work as an economic adviser to the presidential campaign of Senator Barry Goldwater, a Republican from Arizona. The campaign called for the abolition of government oversight of the energy, telephone and airline industries and the dismantling of the Social Security system and national parks. 

That would have been nice, but I’m virtually positive that it’s untrue.  Goldwater said nothing about the energy, telephone, or airline industries: at least in all the books I’ve read about his campaign, I don’t recall a thing ever said about those issues.  He also did not call for dismantling national parks, whatever that means.  As for Social Security, Goldwater did say a few times that it should be voluntary but that thought did not rise to the level of campaign promise.   

Mr. Goldwater took a drubbing at the hands of Lyndon Johnson. Mr. Friedman would remain in the policy wilderness until the rise of President Reagan. Then, his notions about rolling back government took on the force of dogma. 

The first sentence is true.  The second is wildly inaccurate.  Friedman was active in the push to eliminate the draft, serving as a key member of the President’s Commission on the All-Volunteer Force in 1969, which agreed 14-0 with one abstention, to recommend ending the draft.  Call me crazy, but I think that removing the government’s gun from the heads of two million men every year is a little bit of an accomplishment.  Friedman was also active in various state tax limitation campaigns, which he always had more confidence in than any presidential candidate.  The statement about dogma is typically overdone; more’s the pity. 

This was so not only in the United States, but also throughout much of the world. As former Iron Curtain countries embraced free markets, they did so with Mr. Friedman’s books in hand. The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank leaned heavily on his ideas in prescribing policies for countries from Asia to Latin America. 

The first sentence is correct.  The third is not.  They talked a good game but the IMF and World Bank still handed out taxpayers’ money to ruthless governments.   

“Among the cognoscenti, he became the figure that represented the war against the overwhelming welfare state,” said Hernando de Soto, a prominent Peruvian economist. “The idea that people are responsible for progress far more than government. One should reserve most of the action for the private sector. From Brazil to Mexico, that idea is still in place.” 

Even Mr. De Soto overstates.  That idea is in place in Mexico?  Where does it show up in Mexico’s policies? 

But Mr. De Soto faulted Mr. Friedman for failing to temper his admonitions with an understanding of poverty and income inequality. 

“The problem with Milton Friedman and his fellow libertarians is they never took into consideration the importance of class,” Mr. De Soto said. “They ignored the way elites were able to distort the policies they prescribed for their own benefit.” 

Well, I guess De Soto said it, but that doesn’t represent Friedman’s views.  Friedman has always been outspoken about well-heeled businesses seeking tariffs, import quotas, and regulation of their competitors.  Maybe De Soto has as much of a tin ear as Peter Goodman. 

In much of Latin America, economic growth never reached the poor, laying ground for the socialist backlash now led by Venezuela’s president, Hugo Chávez. 

True.  But this is hardly a comment on Friedman’s beliefs in markets. Venezuela has had a combination of socialism and fascism for decades. 

In the United States, the reconsideration of the Friedman doctrine came via the global financial crisis that has resulted from the collapse of American real estate. Many economists blame regulators for ignoring warning signs that banks and investors were growing reckless. One Friedman acolyte has taken the brunt of such criticisms — Alan Greenspan, the former chairman of the Federal Reserve. 

If many economists blame regulators, couldn’t this reporter name three?  And what is their case?  And does he even consider the tremendous moral hazard that results precisely because of regulation via deposit insurance and implicit government guarantees?  Nope. 

But as America reaches for regulation to tame the markets, the keepers of the Friedman flame remain resolute that government is no solution. 

True.  We do. 

“Friedman taught some fundamental long-run truths and he was adept and skilled and almost brilliant at getting them into the public domain,” said Allan H. Meltzer, an economist at Carnegie Mellon. “Now we’ve come into a crisis that has dampened enthusiasm for those policies, and we’re headed back into a period of more regulations that will do the same bad things as in the past.” 

Almost?  Well, here my objection is to Allan Meltzer, not Goodman.  Everything else Meltzer said, though, is spot on.   

Law and Order

The Virginia Supreme Court “reined in police searches yesterday, overturning convictions in two 2005 drug cases in which the court said police had conducted searches based on vague suspicions.” L. Steven Emmert, a Virginia lawyer-blogger, told the Washington Post he wasn’t surprised: “While Virginia is still one of the law-and-order states, the Supreme Court is very respective of Bill of Rights types of cases.”

I think “while” is the wrong conjunction in that sentence. Maybe it should be “Because Virginia is still one of the law-and-order states, the Supreme Court is very respective of Bill of Rights types of cases.”

“Law and order” is a phrase often used to imply “tough on crime” policies, perhaps suggesting harsh legal penalties harshly applied. Wikipedia notes, “The expression also sometimes carries the implication of arbitrary or unnecessary law enforcement, or excessive use of police powers.”

But law and order are necessary for the flourishing of human life. Advocates of liberty and limited government should not concede the concept of “law and order” to those who engage in “excessive use of police powers.” Those who actually believe in law and order would hold police and prosecutors, as well as criminal suspects, to the rule of law; and that seems to be what the Virginia Supreme Court did. So here’s to justices who understand that “law and order” and “the Bill of Rights” are allies, not enemies.

“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.