Hey, Mildred, Remember When Government Worked?

Walking into the Arlington County, Virginia, main library, I am confronted with a big display titled “When Government Works.” I guess we couldn’t really expect a tax-funded government agency to highlight “When Government Doesn’t Work.”

But here’s the striking thing about the display: Except for a couple of books about the glories of the Library of Congress, every single book on display was from the New Deal era: WPA state guides and books about the Hoover Dam, TVA, and federal aid for artists.

In the view of the defenders of expansive government, is the New Deal really the last time government worked? And remember, the display isn’t titled “When Government Worked” but rather “When Government Works.” There are arguments to be had over whether and by what criteria the New Deal “worked.” But if you think the last great success of government occurred before our recent presidents were born, shouldn’t you give serious consideration to the possibility that most of the time government doesn’t in fact work very well?

A Great Moment for the Nanny State or Legislative Satire?

A bill has been introduced in Texas that makes missing a parent-teacher conference a criminal offense.

Now, before everyone gets all upset, having a good excuse is an acceptable defense for parental misbehavior in being absent from the classroom.  And it’s only Class C Misdemeanor.  And the fines will be used strictly for educational purposes.  Of course, there is no provision outlining what exactly constitutes a reasonable excuse, or whether a parent needs to get a signed note from his/her respective parents/doctor/boss, etc.  But I’m sure all of these details will work themselves out in due time.

I applaud the civic-minded Wayne Smith (R- Harris County) for addressing the problems that a lack of parental involvement in education can cause, but it seems to me that this might run afoul of personal liberty and violate the integrity of the family.

In fact, this law seems to directly conflict with a quote Mr. Smith has prominently displayed on his website:

“Let’s continue the fight to lower our taxes, reduce government bureaucracy and waste, and return to traditional family values.”

Now, I might be wrong, but Mr. Smith’s proposal looks like it will cost more money, increase government bureaucracy and waste, and undermine the sovereignty of the family that is the center-piece of traditional family values!  His bill would make parents as well as children a ward of the state.  I guess Mr. Smith thinks it takes a government-mandated village to raise a child and discipline a family.

Hold on!  Perhaps Mr. Smith is presenting a “modest proposal” in order to demonstrate the absurdity of our government-run school system.  Surely Mr. Smith knows that the best way to get parents involved in their child’s education is to allow them to control their child’s education!  Everyone should be on the lookout for a universal education tax credit bill on sales and property taxes to follow this intriguing foray into the new art of legislative satire. 

A Damn Fine Health Care Proposal

The White House is sending out teasers regarding a health care proposal that President Bush will unveil in his (penultimate!) State of the Union address on Tuesday.  By design, such teasers leave out important details.  Yet they give the outlines of what could be a damn fine health care proposal.

The president is proposing to limit the currently unlimited tax break for employer-sponsored health insurance.  He’d also extend that newly limited tax break to people who don’t get coverage from an employer – in fact, he’d completely break the link between the tax break and employment.

That tax break is behind much of the inefficiency and inequity in America’s health care sector.  It encourages almost 200 million Americans to behave irresponsibly, which increases the cost of health care for themselves and everyone else.  Economists on the left and right have argued for limiting or eliminating it for decades.  The last president to propose such a limit was named Reagan.

It’s going to be a tough sell, of course.  The administration estimates that 20 percent of covered workers would face a higher tax burden, and those workers probably will object that their taxes would increase.  The fact that reducing government influence over people’s decisions is effectively a tax cut is a much harder point for most people to grasp.  Other opponents will scream that the proposal would destroy employer-based health insurance.  What those opponents actually mean, however, is that they don’t think workers should be free to choose where they purchase their health insurance.

I have criticisms of the proposal, too.  For example, I think we should do more to give workers ownership over the money that employers currently spend on health benefits.  (Mike Tanner and I lay out one way to do so in Healthy Competition: What’s Holding Back Health Care and How to Free It.)  Unless workers own those dollars, they might have to take a pay cut to exercise their new freedom to choose, which doesn’t seem like freedom at all.

Important details are still missing – details that will determine how helpful, complicated, and politically feasible the proposal will be.  I’ll withhold final judgment until I see the final product.  But at this point, it appears that President Bush is the only prominent politician who is taking health care reform seriously.

Worse Than Hillary?

The airwaves are abuzz today with the least surprising news since Lindsay Lohan entered rehab. Hillary Clinton is running for president. “I’m in. And I’m in to win,” she says, after months of saying she hadn’t given a presidential race any thought. Just my little pet peeve, though, that politicians could try harder to evade rather than actually lying.

For more than 15 years now, Hillary has been the incarnation of Big Government. She votes with taxpayers only 9 percent of the time, according to the National Taxpayers Union. She calls herself a “government junkie.” She says, “There is no such thing as other people’s children” and calls for ”a consensus of values and a common vision” for 300 million people.  She was best known in her White House years for heading a team of 500 bureaucrats organized into 15 committees and 34 working groups to recreate in 100 days one-seventh of the American economy. After health care, she told the New York Times, her next project would be “redefining who we are as human beings in the post-modern age.” Or, as the Times put it, “She wants to make things right.”

She just might be the scariest collectivist this side of Al Gore.

And yet…. And yet, she may end up running for the Democratic nomination against a gaggle of candidates who criticize her for being insufficiently devoted to bigger and more powerful government.

All the candidates who might have offered a more libertarian direction seem to have dropped out. Mark Warner and Evan Bayh might have campaigned on more sensible and centrist economic ideas. Russ Feingold would have run as a critic of the war in Iraq and the Patriot Act (and its extension in 2006), all of which he opposed and Hillary supported.

But who’s left in the race? Barack Obama, whose only stated campaign position so far is that he is in favor of hope but who votes for even more spending than Hillary. As does John Kerry, who is turning his hearing aid up higher and higher, listening for the clamor for him to run again. And John Edwards, who in his second campaign is embracing more crank economic nostrums than Huey Long. And maybe the aforementioned Al Gore, the Lord Voldemort of liberty.

The Republicans are offering independent, centrist, and libertarian voters to the Democrats on a silver platter. And Democrats are about to compete to see who can do the most effective job of driving them away.

The Czechs (Finally) Have a New Government

The 7-months-long political stalemate in the Czech Republic ended this morning. The Czech Parliament approved a coalition government consisting of the liberal Civic Democrats, conservative Christian Democrats and centrist Greens. The new government is committed to a flat individual and corporate tax rate of between 17 percent and 19 percent (to be determined during pre-budget negotiations), and slashing regulation and state expenditure.

A last-minute desertion of two MPs from the socialist opposition enabled the government to squeak through, but the government remains in a precarious position. With only a 100 seats in a 200 seat Parliament, the government’s reform program will be difficult to push through.

Ideological Battles and GOP Politics: Will 2008 Mirror 1964?

I recently read William Middendorf’s A Glorious Disaster: Goldwater’s Presidential Campaign and the Origins of the Conservative Movement, which provides an interesting behind-the-scenes look at Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential run. While the book focuses primarily on campaign strategy, it is impossible to ignore the bigger picture — that is, the many parallels that exist between Goldwater’s era and today.
 
For instance, the Republican Party of the early 1960s faced an ideological struggle between small-government and big-government conservatives that closely mirrors the GOP infighting we have witnessed in the past few years.

Middendorf’s book notes a 1965 newspaper column by Goldwater in which he lashes out at a newly formed liberal Republican group that “is roughly dedicated to the proposition that the best way to be a Republican is to be a frugal or efficient Democrat, to follow the same philosophy, advocate the same bureaucratic solutions, but promise to do it better or for a few cents less.”

Similarly, in his forthcoming book, Leviathan on the Right, Michael Tanner notes how roughly four decades later, the GOP is embroiled in essentially the same fight:  

Goldwater and Reagan-style conservatism is increasingly being supplanted by a new trend in conservative thought, which might loosely be termed big-government conservatism. This type of conservatism believes in a strong and activist government that intervenes in many areas of our lives, from dealing with issues such as poverty or health care to protecting the cultural institutions of our society. Increasingly it has come to resemble contemporary liberalism in its means, if not its ends.

While Middendorf does not really address current politics in his book, the 1964 election appears to share some odd similarities with the 2008 race. In ’64, the frontrunners for the GOP nomination included a maverick senator from Arizona (Goldwater), a governor named Romney (George of Michigan) and a moderate executive from New York (Nelson Rockefeller).  The early front runners in 2008 are once again a maverick senator from Arizona (John McCain), a governor named Romney (George’s son, Mitt of Massachusetts) and a moderate executive from New York (Rudy Giuliani). Of course, in 1964 Goldwater won the nomination and was trounced in the general election by President Lyndon B. Johnson.   

While I’m not sure he’s a proper heir to the limited government legacy of Goldwater, McCain is arguably the frontrunner for the ’08 GOP nomination. And it might well be time for the senator from Arizona to take note of the failures of his predecessor’s campaign. Goldwater made his fair share of blunders during the campaign, but in the end he was beaten handily primarily because the general public believed his foreign policy views were too hawkish and could lead America into World War III — not because he espoused a reduction in the size and scope of the federal government. If McCain fails to learn from history, his success in the general election may mirror that of Goldwater.