Reagan (and Hayek), Not Entirely Off-Base

Left-wing blogger Jonathan Chait and others have been knocking Gov. Sarah Palin for quoting Ronald Reagan in the vice-presidential debate.  Palin said:

It was Ronald Reagan who said that freedom is always just one generation away from extinction. We don’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream; we have to fight for it and protect it, and then hand it to them so that they shall do the same, or we’re going to find ourselves spending our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children about a time in America, back in the day, when men and women were free.

Chait noticed that Palin pulled that Reagan quote not from The Speech, nor from Reagan’s 1987 remarks at the Brandenburg Gate, but from this 1961 AMA-sponsored effort to block the enactment of Medicare:

It is notable that neither Chait nor the others took issue with Reagan’s claim that Medicare is a step toward ushering all Americans into a socialized health-care system.

Instead, they seized on Reagan’s argument that Medicare – and then fully socialized medicine, plus a few other steps – would lead the United States into totalitarianism.  Matthew Yglesias truncated Reagan’s argument in the title of his blog post, “Palin: Medicare Leads to Totalitarianism.”

To a supporter of Medicare, this is patently absurd.  Providing health care to grandma is going to turn us all into Nazis?  Puh-lease.  One blogger wonders, “So what’s worse; overwrought bullshit, quoting overwrought bullshit, or improperly using a quote that is overwrought bullshit?”

Essentially, Chait and Yglesias are resurrecting a debate that goes back at least to 1944, when economist (and later Nobel-laureate) Friedrich Hayek argued in The Road to Serfdom that a democracy that pursues socialism will end up with totalitarianism.  Hayek warned “the socialists of all parties” that government is institutionally incapable of planning economic activity, and that the resulting failures would draw into government characters who promise to use increasingly repressive measures to get the job done. 

At the time and since, socialists and skeptics have mocked Hayek’s prediction, noting that Sweden isn’t exactly governed by goose-stepping morons.  A fair point, I suppose.

And yet…

The very political movement that praises Medicare and ridicules Hayek and Reagan has a bit of a pet peeve.  It’s the health-care industry, you see.  Those industry rascals just won’t leave their beautiful, beloved Medicare program alone.  If it’s not the doctors and hospitals wasting one-third of Medicare outlays on useless services, then it’s the private insurers stealing from the public purse.  Or the durable medical equipment manufacturers charging Medicare more than they charge Wal-Mart.  Or the drug manufacturers legislating themselves a sweetheart deal and blocking price controls.

And every time Medicare’s virtuous supporters try to stop those venal vermin from desecrating their pure, precious, pristine program, what happens?  The industry runs to Congress.  The industry knocks off or buys off as many congresscritters as they need to preserve their special subsidies.  There’s no telling how well Medicare’s supporters could plan this sector of the economy if only they didn’t have to worry about the industry undoing their handiwork.  If they could shut up the industry, why, Medicare could start actually paying for quality!  Or it could start providing coordinated care!  Or fer chrissake, could we at least stop rewarding doctors for medical errors!?!?!?

That’s when something occurs to them: maybe we can shut up the industry.  Maybe the government should limit what the industry can say, to Congress and to the voters, about Medicare.  Do that, and Medicare’s supporters would have the running room to remake the world according to their ideals. 

We call those efforts to shut up the industry “campaign finance reform,” whereby this political movement seeks to “ration the amount and control the timing and content of political speech,” so as to restrict the ability of those with disagreeable views from influencing the political process. 

And so, because some people frustrate its high-minded efforts to manage our lives, including its beloved Medicare, this political movement chips away at the freedom of speech and the freedom to petition the government for a redress of grievances.  Cross those campaign finance laws – say the wrong thing about a political issue at the wrong time – and your government will put you in jail.  And our nation becomes just that much more repressive a place to live.

It’s not that Chait and his fellow travelers have proven Hayek and Reagan wrong.  They just haven’t yet proven Hayek and Reagan right.

And what do the devotees of this political movement call themselves? 


Could We Just Get One Thing Straight?

John McCain has done a pretty good job of making school choice at least the rhetorical center of his education plan. He has also been fairly clear that spending is not the key to educational effectiveness. Too bad he hasn’t gotten the latter message to his running mate.

“I say, too, with education, America needs to be putting a lot more focus on that and our schools have got to be really ramped up in terms of the funding that they are deserving,” declared Governor Palin, painfully, last night.

Could we please put this underfunding myth to rest? Real, per-pupil expenditures in American public elementary and secondary schools have more than doubled since 1970, ballooning from $5,393 in the 1970-71 school year to $11,470 in 2004-05 (the latest year available). In 2005, we spent more, adjusted for purchasing power, per primary-school pupil than all but two industrialized nation (Iceland and Luxembourg) and per secondary-school pupil than three nations (Luxembourg, Switzerland, and Norway). Yet, we get results like these! No wonder in 2003 OECD education director Barry McGaw concluded that “there are countries which don’t get the bang for the bucks, and the U.S. is one of them.”

Keep on repeating the myth, and the bang will only get quieter.

Former GOP Congressman’s 1996 Prognostication a Tough Reminder

In between expansions of Medicare and the passage of bloated farm bills — not to mention socialistic bailouts — it is not uncommon for limited government folks to pause and lament the failure of the short-lived GOP “revolution” of the mid-1990s. That was a hopeful time when budget resolutions actually included the dismantling of entire cabinet-level bureaucracies.

Today I came across a reminder of those seemingly ancient limited-government days in a 1996 Washington Post article on the budget just signed into law by then-President Clinton. It quoted then-House Appropriations Committee Chairman Bob Livingston (R-LA) as saying, “Thirty years from now…They’re going to say this is where the cost of government began going down.”

In fiscal year 1996 the federal government spent $1.5 trillion. The figure for 2008 will be around $3 trillion. Adjusting for inflation narrows the spread but not nearly enough — ditto spending on a per capita basis. Only when you calculate spending as a percentage of GDP does it get close.

Regardless, 12 years since Congressman Livingston made his prediction, the cost of government has certainly not gone down. Dimming the prospect of it doing so is the looming entitlement spending explosion that will be set off as the baby boomers begin to retire en masse. The good news is there are 18 years to go until the outcome is officially decided. Furthermore, although Congressman Livingston is gone and the embers from the “revolution” have long since burned out, Cato is still here to help present and future legislators make downsizing the federal government a reality.

Strong American Schools, We Hardly Knew Ye

It was recently announced that Strong American Schools, the group founded by magnates Bill Gates and Eli Broad to put education high on the presidential-election docket, will die in March. It will, in all likelihood, expire in relative anonymity. 

The initiative’s biggest problem has been having to compete against behemoths like war and Wall Street for headlines–a struggle education couldn’t possibly win–but as I wrote back in May, the group also hasn’t offered anything new or noteworthy, a sure way to go unnoticed. Top-down, “government should do more of x” reforms just don’t fire anyone’s imagination because, well, that’s what we’ve been doing for decades and things just haven’t gotten much better.

And so, Strong American Schools, you will be missed…but not for very long.

Cult of the Vice Presidency

If you read the papers, “all of them,” like Sarah Palin, you may have seen this, but today’s New York Times features questions for the aspiring veeps. My contribution:

The claim by Dick Cheney that he was exempt from certain disclosure requirements because the vice president was a “legislative officer” has been greeted with outrage. But the main power the Constitution grants the vice president is a legislative one — breaking a tie vote in the Senate.

So, Governor Palin, Senator Biden, doesn’t Mr. Cheney have a point?

But, then, if the vice president is a legislative officer, how can he wield the vast executive powers that Mr. Cheney has exercised, including orchestrating and supervising a warrantless wiretapping program?

Can the vice president shift between branches at his convenience? If not, what, in your view, is the constitutional status of the vice presidency?

— GENE HEALY, the author of “The Cult of the Presidency: America’s Dangerous Devotion to Executive Power

Giving credit where it’s due, I should mention this smart, short law review article by Glenn Reynolds, “Is Dick Cheney Unconstitutional?”

Friend and former Cato colleague Radley Balko has a good one for Joe Biden:

Senator Biden, you’ve been one of the Senate’s most ardent drug warriors. You helped create the office of “drug czar”; backed our failed eradication efforts in South America; encouraged the government to seize the assets of people merely suspected of drug crimes; pushed for the expanded use of racketeering and conspiracy laws against drug offenders; advocated the use of the military to fight the drug war; and sponsored a bill that holds venue owners and promoters criminally liable for drug use by people attending concerts and events.

Today, illicit drugs are as cheap and abundant as they were decades ago. Would you agree that the anti-drug policies you’ve championed have failed? If not, how have they succeeded?

— RADLEY BALKO, a senior editor at Reason magazine

Hot Air in the Senate Bailout

What does global warming have to do with the liquidity “crisis?” Nothing!  But not according to the Senate, whose bill includes a provision, Section 117,  directing the National Academy of Sciences to “undertake a comprehensive review of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 to identify the types of and specific tax provisions that have the largest effect on carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions and to estimate the magnitude of those effects.”  For this, The National Academy  is appropriated $1.5 million.

In other words, somehow the government’s purchase of bad loans is related to global warming? This is a naked attempt by environmental extremists to use people’s fears of financial collapse as an excuse to ultimately skew the tax code in such a way that it makes energy even more expensive. Some bailout! 

Bloomberg’s Banana Republic

Michael Bloomberg has decided to run for an additional term as mayor of New York. He will do so despite a law limiting mayors to two terms in New York.

Here’s some history. The voters twice endorsed the term limits law in 1993 and 1996. In 1993, the law passed by a margin of 59 percent to 41 percent. In 1996, the City Council tried to change the law to extend term from 8 to 12 years. The initiative making that change lost.

Of course, elected officials predicted disaster. Some agreed then but not now. John Mollenkopf, a well-known political scientist at the City University of New York said: “My initial reaction to the term limits was negative, but the experience of how they have worked has changed my mind. On balance, I think this feature of government does create openings for fresh thinking and new leadership.”

Bloomberg does not plan to put the change in term limits before the voters. Instead, he will try to get the City Council to extend his term. A New York Times survey of City Council members in early September found that a majority might support changing the term limits law. Perhaps that’s not surprising: two thirds of the City Council will be turned out of office in 2009 under the current law. If the mayor’s term can be extended, it will be easier to change the law for City Council members.

New Yorkers are not rolling over for Bloomberg. Gene Russianoff, a spokesman for the New York Public Interest Research Group, said of Bloomberg’s power grab: “Sadly, the move is worthy of ‘democracy’ in a banana republic.” Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause/NY, called the mayor’s stance “profoundly undemocratic and deeply disquieting.” Even Establishment types are opposing him, according to the New York Times.

Before his ambition got the best of him, Bloomberg himself “called for the need for restraints on elected leaders, dismissed the notion that anyone is indispensable, and once called an effort to revise the limits ‘disgusting.’”

Let’s see if New Yorkers agree with the mayor.