Commentary

Ideas Matter, But Not All Ideas Are Created Equal

This article appeared in Copley News Service.

Although House Republicans and Democrats have been busy trying to destroy each other, their leaders continue to talk about the importance of bipartisan cooperation. President Clinton and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott are posing as even bigger conciliators, apparently dedicated to moving to what the president calls “the vital center” in order to solve America’s problems.

Their rhetoric sounds wonderful, of course, and has the usual establishment pundits panting in anticipation. But centrist government would actually be a prescription for failure.

The United States obviously faces profound problems: the ongoing decline in society’s moral tone, the continuing implosion of communities across America, the looming bankruptcy of Medicare and Social Security, the growing twin epidemics of drug abuse and Draconian enforcement measures, the continuing flood of federal red ink, and so on. In none of these cases, however, does “the vital center” offer an answer.

Some problems essentially have no political solution. Almost everyone today recognizes that crime, drug abuse and family breakup are, at root, matters of moral conviction and action. But centrist solutions utilizing modest doses of coercion will not re-create respect for the lives and property of others.

For example, mandatory voluntarism, an oxymoron imposed by the state of Maryland on its high school students, will not yield a generation dedicated to serving the disadvantaged. Federal requirements for “educational” television shows will not eliminate children’s desire for cartoons and toys. And so on.

Other problems do require government action — but not moderate action. Minor modifications of the status quo, the usual penny-ante changes that are the staple of Washington pragmatists, are almost always at best a waste of time. The causes of today’s problems are fundamental, and therefore require radical action.

For instance, how to restore health to the inner city? The usual centrist answers are pure pablum — a little “reform” of welfare, education, drug enforcement and treatment, etc. Yet it is the government programs themselves that are destroying urban America.

For instance, welfare has effectively subsidized truancy, unemployment, illegitimacy, and family breakup. Even middling proposals to condition benefits on attending high school or job-training classes are no substitute for eliminating payments to the able-bodied. Decrepit urban schools make it futile for many kids to attend school. Public education will not, however, be fixed by more spending, or teacher certification, or another federal commission. Instead, lawmakers must eliminate the public education monopoly. The only question is how radical the solution — means-tested vouchers or full privatization?

Too few jobs are available for those in the inner city who want to work. But that’s the result of government intervention in the economy. The minimum wage, licensing laws, restrictions like the Davis-Bacon Act, zoning, and other regulations all make it difficult for the unskilled to find work or start businesses.

Repeal, not reform, is required. At the same time, the illegal marketplace beckons warmly. Drug prohibition, like alcohol Prohibition, has failed; only the relegalization of drugs, with enforcement efforts focused on children, offers any hope of limiting the crime associated with the drug trade and protecting the constitutional liberties of the law-abiding.

The lack of adequate housing springs from exclusionary zoning ordinances and antiquated building codes that drive up the cost of homes and make apartments all but impossible to construct. Restrictions like rent control eliminate any financial incentive to build and maintain cheaper units.

Again, centrist reforms — adjusting the allowable rate of return for landlords, for instance — would yield only minimal benefits. It is necessary to repeal, not update, laws and regulations in order to spur housing production.

Thus, if Republicans actually desire to solve the problems that result from what House Speaker Newt Gingrich has accurately characterized as the corrupt welfare state, they must move away from, not toward, the center. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t ever compromise. First, however, they need to make a case for their ideas, and only afterward reluctantly accept compromise - not as the solution, but as a step in the right direction. Then they need to begin pushing anew for fundamental change.

Consider Social Security, with a trust fund that isn’t a fund and can’t be trusted. The government is looting young workers to underwrite a government-sponsored Ponzi scheme that faces financial ruin in less than two decades. Only full privatization can keep faith simultaneously with workers and retirees alike. Allowing employees to begin investing some of their Social Security payments might be a reasonable initial compromise; in contrast, the usual “centrist” answers of hiking taxes and cutting benefits would be moving in the wrong direction.

If the GOP congressional majority wants to succeed, it needs to offer a serious, substantive legislative agenda, from which honorable compromise is possible. The Republicans should not rush to the center, where there are, in fact, no answers. Washington apparatchiks of all ideological stripes all too often forget not only that ideas matter, but that not all ideas are created equal.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.