Fusionism Gone Cold?

Here’s a piece from the Washington Times covering last week’s America’s Future Foundation–sponsored debate between Reason’s Nick Gillespie and National Review’s Jonah Goldberg. The debate’s topic was the state of the libertarian/conservative alliance (Or, as the ad copy put it, libertarians and conservatives: “are we best friends forever?”). I missed the debate, but in my view, the answer is emphatically ”no.” 

The American Prospect’s Matt Yglesias provided one of the best short explanations for why the answer is ”no” on his blog a while back. As a guy on the center-left, Yglesias stands well outside the conservative-libertarian alliance and thus may be in a better position than the rest of us to see what’s going on. 

Matt points out that the Right is made up of two kinds of people, those who are ”motivated primarily by a distrust of the state” and those who ”are motivated more by a distrust of leftwingers.” This is not quite the same as saying “the libertarian-conservative alliance is made up of libertarians and conservatives,” since there are conservatives who are consistent opponents of statism and self-identified libertarians whose main focus is opposing the Left. 

From the New Deal to the 1990s, political conditions in America favored an anti-left/anti-state alliance, since the Left, for the most part, controlled the state:

Liberals gave birth to the vast majority of the federal apparatus, and the government was usually controlled by — and always populated by — leftwingers. If you were concerned about the state, you had to be concerned about the left, because the state was full of leftwingers. If you were concerned about the left, you had to be concerned about the state, because the state was the most important institution the left controlled.

By the turn of the 21st century, with the increasing political success of the Republican Party, that was no longer really the case, and you began to see hints of a fusionist crack-up. You may have gotten a sense of this in the last few years if, like me, you’ve found yourself in conversations with conservative friends who seem far more exercised by George Clooney’s latest antics than they are about, say, galloping socialism in the health care sector, or the president’s war on federalism, or — or, you know, his war. 

But from an anti-left perspective, giving the GOP a pass (after a few requisite grumbles about Bridges to Nowhere) makes perfect sense. As Matt notes, the Left’s influence today

stems primarily from Turtle Bay, Hollywood, academia, Brussles, or elsewhere. The important thing [for mainstream conservatives] is hounding the leftwingers out of their spider-holes, or destroying the credibility of the institutions where they still have some influence. Curbing the long arm of the state would be nice, but the most important thing, state-wise, is to maintain the right’s control over it….

In some ways, it was “ever thus,” which helps explain past tensions — and fractures — over foreign policy and civil liberties issues:  

Most rightwingers were never very interested in applying the same standard of suspicion to the military and the police that they displayed with regard to “bureaucrats” or public school teachers. Not coincidentally, the security establishment was the exception, even during the high tide of New Deal/Great Society liberalism, to the general rule that the state was run by and for leftwingers. With conservatives running the show everywhere, that same sort of attitude is [now] extended by most of the right’s constituents to the whole project.

If Matt’s right, then the conditions that made fusionism viable have eroded significantly. Libertarians motivated by a healthy distrust of state power (if that’s not redundant) will find no permanent home on the Right. That’s not to say that the answer lies with the as-yet-mythical “Libertarian Democrats.” Classical liberals and modern liberals may have more to cooperate on in the coming years, but it’s unlikely that there will ever be enough common ground to make us permanent allies.   

But habits of the mind developed during the long conservative-libertarian alliance may cloud libertarian thinking about how much common ground there is to our right. That a conservative stands with you on free trade or tax cuts — that he shares your enthusiasm for Kennedy jokes and your rage over McCain-Feingold — none of that means he’s a reliable, principled opponent of overweening state power. Or that he doesn’t support policies far worse than a minimum wage hike. Many of the greatest threats to liberty today come from the Right, whether it’s the “pre-1776” view of absolute executive power or the apocalyptic urge to turn a limited, containable conflict into World War III.  

Friends? Yes. On some issues, good friends. But “best friends forever?” Not a chance.          

The New Social Engineering

Apparently I’m behind the times. I’ve always understood the term “social engineering” to mean what the American Heritage Dictionary calls “the practical application of sociological principles to particular social problems,” or what Mises called “treat[ing] human beings in the same way in which the engineer treats the stuff out of which he builds bridges, roads, and machines.”

But in Thursday’s Wall Street Journal I discover that “social engineering” now means “tactics that try to fool users into giving up sensitive financial data that criminals can use to steal their money and even their identities.” It includes “phishing” and other online scam tactics. If you Google “social engineering,” you can wade through pages and pages before you find any links to the older meaning.

I guess there is a connection between the two kinds of social engineering. One online tech dictionary says, “Social engineering is manipulating people into doing what you want, in much the same way that electrical engineering is manipulating electronics into doing what you want.”

That definition would probably embrace the kind of social engineering that libertarian scholar Wendy McElroy criticizes here, or the wide variety of schemes — from Mao to McNamara, from urban renewal to rural resettlement — that James C. Scott discussed in his book Seeing Like a State.

Perhaps the classic critique of social engineering, before the term was invented, comes from Adam Smith in The Theory of Moral Sentiments:

The man of system, on the contrary, is apt to be very wise in his own conceit; and is often so enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it. He goes on to establish it completely and in all its parts, without any regard either to the great interests, or to the strong prejudices which may oppose it. He seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board. He does not consider that the pieces upon the chess-board have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them; but that, in the great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might chuse to impress upon it. If those two principles coincide and act in the same direction, the game of human society will go on easily and harmoniously, and is very likely to be happy and successful. If they are opposite or different, the game will go on miserably, and the society must be at all times in the highest degree of disorder.

A Telling Analogy

From the Washington Post:

“At this point, it seems like the war on drugs in America,” added Spec. David Fulcher, 22, a medic from Lynchburg, Va., who sat [in a barracks in Baghdad]. “It’s like this never-ending battle, like, we find one IED, if we do find it before it hits us, so what? You know it’s just like if the cops make a big bust, next week the next higher-up puts more back out there.”

Getting People to Love Welfare for Politicians

The lobbying campaign to reconstruct the presidential public financing program continues apace. Its authors have designed the bill to appeal to marginal presidential candidates of both parties; it will be less favored by incumbent presidents and skilled fundraisers like Hillary Rodham Clinton. But Congress,  not third-tier candidates, have the authority to enact the bill into law. 

Members of Congress know the public rejects the presidential system. The number of households checking off the box on the tax form has dropped from 28 percent in 1978 to 11 percent in 2002. It is probably under 10 percent today. Why should Congress pour more money into a program that the public has seen in action and rejected so completely?

Well, if public opinion is a problem for “reform,” coercion is the solution.

The new bill “requires the Secretary of the Treasury to issue regulations to ensure that electronic software used in the preparation or filing of individual tax returns not automatically accept or decline a check-off of taxpayer funds to the Presidential Election Campaign Fund.” The authors of the bill think this will get rid of a lot of refusals to contribute to the system. The bill also authorizes the Federal Election Commission to spend $10 million “to conduct a public education program to inform the public about the Fund and its purposes.” In other words, Congress will earmark tax dollars to persuade voters that the program is a good thing.

In a liberal democracy, public opinion should be a cause rather than an effect of laws. The new presidential taxpayer funding bill flips democracy on its head: support for the program is intended to be an effect of the law, not a cause of it.

“Reformers” have long sought to control the speech of others. It is disturbing but hardly surprising that they now seek to control public opinion when it frustrates their ambition.

Hey, GOP: Combat Anti-worker Image by Being Pro-worker!

Any real concern House Republicans may have for low-wage workers is apparently evaporating in the heat of the midterm elections.

Here’s the GOP political calculus, as reported by the New York Times:

Republican moderates used a closed party meeting on Thursday to make their case for a vote, saying it was crucial for helping to dispel the party’s antiworker image. The moderates ran into opposition from conservatives who said the wage proposal could turn off campaign contributors with the elections looming and drive away the party’s business base. But some lawmakers said opponents also recognized the political necessity of giving moderates some political cover, a prospect more appealing than potentially losing their majority in the House.

Perhaps there was a “compassionate conservative” somewhere in the room who thought to mention that a national minimum wage hike is likely to harm low-wage workers, especially young urban workers trying to gain some experience and start on a path to economic independence. But, as far as I can tell, the conclusion was that it is better to be actually anti-worker than to have a false “antiworker image.”

If House Republicans wish to get out from behind false perception and stand up for the real interests of workers, they should take a look at this good overview of recent empirical work on the minimum wage by James Sherk at Heritage. And here is Cato adjunct scholar and George Mason economics chair Don Boudreaux on why we should expect government-mandated price floors to harm workers. If the vaunted rightwing messaging machine is so amazing, why can’t it do more to explain why reducing opportunities for low-wage workers is not pro-worker?

Hmm. Students Are Leaving… Maybe We Should Improve?

This headline and story, ladies and gentlemen, is what market education reform is all about:

School board, staff to address student exodus

Saying it’s time to take a direct role in addressing parents’ concerns about district schools, the Columbus Public Schools Board of Education pledged to create a vision statement to guide policies that will strengthen the city schools and keep students from leaving.

At the same time, administrators and staff members promised to work together on ways to make the the district better.

Board members held a special meeting last Thursday, along with administrators and members of the district’s employee unions, to discuss a survey that said one in nine parents plans to withdraw their child from CPS this year.

That, in a district that has lost nearly 7,000 students to charter schools over the past several years, and stands to lose more because of private school vouchers this fall….

Want Electronic Medical Records? Fix the Incentives

Suppose you are traveling, and needed to visit a doctor, who says he’d like to do an MRI. You had one done just two weeks ago at home, but your personal doc would have to snail mail the image to the new doc. The new doc needs to have a look inside you, but another MRI would be expensive.

Now think: in what kind of health care system are you more likely to get electronic medical records, where doctors can send MRI results to each other instantly:

  • A health care system where you are on the hook for the cost of the second, unnecessary MRI, or
  • A system where someone else (Medicare, your employer, etc.) is going to pay for it?

Thanks to government subsidies and the federal tax code, Americans are less sensitive to the price of medical care than even Canadians, whose government is supposed to pay for everything. As a result, most providers still keep patients’ medical records on paper, essentially because the government lets them get away with it. Some providers have started using electronic medical records, but those systems are in their infancy and are unable to talk to each other. That means lots of wasteful spending, plus treatment delays and medical errors.

When Katrina hit Louisiana, thousands (millions?) of medical records were destroyed. But when the World Trade Center went down in a fiery blaze, there was no hue and cry about the loss of financial records, because those were secured, electronically, in various sites. Why the asymmetry? My guess is that the financial services industry has customers who demand value, including responsiveness and security, because they bear the cost. Health care providers that do have price-sensitive customers, such as services like MinuteClinic and TelaDoc, do offer electronic medical records. But most of the health care industry does not have price-sensitive customers, and we have Congress to thank for that.

So when House Republicans plan to vote this week on legislation that would spend your tax dollars to encourage the creation of electronic medical records, it seems like a classic case of one fouled-up government intervention begetting another. Congress has spent the last 60 years doing little in health policy but insulating patients from the costs of paper medical records. But don’t worry, because now they’re going to throw $40 million of the taxpayers’ money at health information technologies (HIT) that create interoperable medical records.

In a further demonstration that Congress is wasting its time (isn’t there a war on?), this week Microsoft announced plans to start producing interoperable electronic medical records. Maybe the fact that the private sector is trying to muster to the task – in spite of Congress’ past meddling – will persuade Congress not to compound its past mistakes. Perhaps Congress will instead look at ways to restore the incentives that encourage providers to offer such cost-saving innovations. One can always hope.