November 23, 2009 9:27AM

Reforming the GOP

This morning, Politico Arena asks:

Do you take Glenn Beck's "new national movement" seriously? Is the GOP establishment letting itinerant celebrities and talk show stars set the party's agenda?

As Winston Churchill understood, democracy is messy (and, as in his case, sometimes ungrateful).  Glenn Beck is no William F. Buckley Jr.  But then, "Joe the Plumber" probably never read National Review, which like most other journals of "high opinion" was never self-sustaining.  Liberals today, their noses in the air Obama style, look across America from the vantage of the famous New Yorker cover and see pitchfork brigades, forgetting that those who fill the brigades generally love America, which is more than can be said of some of the baggage that has surrounded Obama.

There is a problem in the Republican Party, to be sure.  Nominally the party of limited constitutional government, it recently gave us two presidents from the same family -- one standing for a "kinder and gentler" government, the other for "compassionate conservatism" -- plus a career Senate nominee for president, none of whom ever really understood the party's core principles, much less nourished them as they must be nourished from generation to generation.  As a result, the party has been hollowed out intellectually and spiritually, and into that vacuum, which nature abhors, has poured an assortment of people, most from outside the party.

The struggle in democracies between intellectual rigor and populism is as old as that between Socrates and the sophists.  We all know the dangers of populist demagoguery.  But there is also great danger in rule by elites, which are hardly immune from demagogy and outright fraud (witness the "accounting" in the current health care debate).  Achieving that balance is often difficult and messy.  But I for one am encouraged by this populist movement to reform the Republican Party.  I know, for example, that at the Orlando rally The New York Times referenced this past Saturday, people passed out copies of the Cato Institute's pocket Constitution, which includes the Declaration of Independence and my preface relating the two documents with respect to their underlying principles.  The people who attended the April 15 tea parties and the September 12 march on Washington were ordinary Americans who understand that something is fundamentally wrong, constitutionally, with the direction the country has taken over the past two decades, at least.  They see the Republican Party, in our two-party system, as the more likely institution for changing that, but not as the party is presently constituted.  Still, there are people within the party who give hope and are ready to take over.  Populists working outside the party, together with those of us who do "politics" (broadly understood) for a living, may just be the spark that enables that to happen.

October 19, 2009 10:27AM

ACORN and Health Care

Last week, editors at Politico posed two questions to an online panel to which I contribute: "ACORN: Underplayed or overblown?" and "Will the Dems ever get their act together on healthcare?"

The two are intimately connected by a simple proposition: "Most people want more housing and health care than they can afford." Of course, for "housing" or "health care" one could substitute whatever one wishes: food, clothing, cars, education, entertainment, vacations, you name it. Economists call this the problem of scarcity, and it's the beginning of economics.

In a free society, most individuals, families, and firms will deal with that problem through such homely measures as creating and husbanding wealth, planning for the future, and living within their means. Some, however, will be indifferent to such discipline and will demand more than they can afford. Enter thus ACORN and the Dems -- the party of government. ACORN, like our president, is in the "community organizing" business -- a euphemism for putting (some) people in a position to better demand things from government. Some of those demands are perfectly legitimate: reduce crime; fix the potholes. But others, the demands ACORN specializes in, are not thus "common." They can be satisfied, in a world of scarcity, only by taking from some and giving to others.

And that's what the housing and health care debates today are largely about. And it's why on both, the Dems are having difficulty getting their act together, because however much they turn a blind eye toward scarcity or pretend that they all agree, the truth is that they represent discrete constituencies, with discrete conflicting interests. That's what happens when we're all thrown into the common pot. What once was decided by individuals, reflecting their own particular interests, is now decided by government -- and it's a Hobbesian war of all against all.

The AP report on ACORN last week illustrated that nicely. ACORN has been in the forefront of those browbeating banks, under the Community Reinvestment Act, to provide housing loans to people who couldn't afford them. Banks were reluctant to make those loans, of course -- until the government stepped in to "guarantee" them. Well, we've seen where that ended: we're all paying the price, especially those who couldn't afford the homes in the first place, and will be for years to come. AEI's Peter Wallison details some of that fiasco in this morning's Wall Street Journal, placing a finger on none other than Barney Frank, who parades now as our savior.

But the same something-for-nothing mindset is at work in the health care debate. Here again, many people want more health care than they can afford, which means that someone else will have to pay for it -- the government having nothing except what it takes from us. The pretense that it is otherwise -- or that they can redistribute more equitably than the market does -- is what drives the Dems to their pie-in-the-sky schemes -- until some among them realize that it is they and their constituents who are being taken for a ride. At that point, either the recalcitrant are silenced, with some temporary sop, or the bottom falls out of the scheme, which is what many of us are hoping for here. If not, the housing debacle will prove in time to be a pale harbinger of the health care debacle, at least for those who live to see it.

C/P Politico's Arena

August 28, 2009 4:09PM

Friday Links

  • Nearly 30 European countries have agreed to end their government mail monopolies in the next five years. The U.S. Postal Service has estimated losses of $7 billion this year. It's time to privatize.
August 24, 2009 10:01AM

Steele and the Left‐​Wing Republicans

One of the most disturbing things about the current health care debate is that some Republicans are positioning themselves as defenders of Big Government Medicare and against efforts to trim the program's costs.

Yet the taxpayer costs of Medicare are expected to more than double over the next decade (from $425 billion in 2009 to $871 billion in 2019), and the program will consume an increasing share of the nation's economy for decades to come unless there are serious cuts and reforms. Even the Obama administration talks about "bending the cost curve" to slow the program's growth.

Yet Republican National Committee chairman, Michael Steele, takes to the Washington Post today to defend Medicare against any cuts, while at the same time criticizing the Democrats as "left-wing ideologues:"

  • "Under the Democrats' plan, senior citizens will pay a steeper price and will have their treatment options reduced or rationed."
  • "Republicans want reform that should first, do no harm, especially to our seniors."
  • "We also believe that any health-care reform should be fully paid for, but not funded on the backs of our nation's senior citizens."
  • "First, we need to protect Medicare and not cut it in the name of 'health-insurance reform.'"
  • "Reversing course and joining Republicans in support of health care for our nation's senior citizens is a good place to start."

Steele uses the mushy statist phrasing "our seniors" repeatedly, as if the government owns this group of people, and that they should have no responsibility for their own lives.

Fiscal conservatives, who have come out in droves to tea party protests and health care meetings this year, are angry at both parties for the government's massive spending and debt binge in recent years. Mr. Steele has now informed these folks loud and clear that the Republican Party is not interested in restraining government; it is not interested in cutting the program that creates the single biggest threat to taxpayers in coming years. For apparently crass political reasons, Steele defends "our seniors," but at the expense of massive tax hikes on "our children" if entitlement programs are not cut.

August 19, 2009 12:19PM

“If You’re Not Having Fun Advocating for Freedom, You’re Doing it Wrong!”

The health care debate has catalyzed a wonderful national clash of cultures centering on freedom versus control. Here's one example that's both complex and delightful.

Progressive site TalkingPointsMemo ran a story yesterday about a man named "Chris" who carried a rifle outside an event in Phoenix at which President Obama appeared. "We will forcefully resist people imposing their will on us through the strength of the majority with a vote," Chris said.

To many TPM readers, this kind of thing is self-evidently shocking and wrong: Carrying a weapon is inherently threatening, Second Amendment notwithstanding. And vowing to resist the properly expressed will of the majority---isn't that an outrageous denial of our democratic values?

Well, . . . No. Our constitution specifically denies force to democratic outcomes that impinge on freedom of speech and religion, on bearing arms, and on the security of our persons, houses, papers, and effects, to name a few. Our constitution also tightly circumscribed the powers of the federal government. Those restrictions were breached without abiding the supermajority requirements of Article V, alas.

There are many nuances in this clash of cultures, and it's fascinating to watch the battle for credibility. One ugly issue is preempted rather handily by the fact that Chris is African-American.

Next question, taken up by CNN: Was the interview staged? Hell, yeah! says Chris' interviewer. And they know each other---big deal.

Finally, they were laughing and having a good time. Isn't this serious? Yes, it is serious, says Chris' interviewer, but "If you're not having fun advocating for freedom, you're doing it wrong!"

It's a great line---friendly, in-your-face advocacy that might just succeed in familiarizing more Americans with the idea of living as truly free people.

Today Talking Points Memo is charging that the man who interviewed Chris was a prominent defender of a militia group in the 90s, some members of which were convicted of crimes. I know nothing of the truth or falsity of this charge, and I had never heard of the militia group, the interviewer, or his organization before today.

This struggle over credibility is all part of the battle between freedom and control that is playing itself out right now. It's an exciting time, and a chance for many more Americans to learn about liberty and the people who live it.

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August 17, 2009 8:22AM

Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death Panels

"Death panels" are a dominant motif in the debate over health care regulation, a fact that spins off political flares like a roman candle.

Extremists on both sides have taken their extreme positions: Some literally fear President Obama and his health regulation plans; others are outraged that anyone could possibly feel that way.

Charges of special-interest organizing meet counter-charges of unfairness and false accusation. Good video from town hall meetings and volleys of "Nazi" and "socialist" give cable news networks another short reprieve from their long slow decline. It's all manna for the writers at Comedy Central.

But let's talk substance: Health care is a scarce good, so it will always be rationed. The core question is whether government should take the dominant role in health care rationing over from insurance companies, or whether reform should restore rationing decisions to patients advised by doctors. 

Though they would never have the name or the form, the "death panel" label roughly (and unfairly) describes what would happen if health decisions were turned over to government bureaucrats under the leading proposals today. The bureaucracy would do exactly what "reform" asks it to do(!): prioritize cost savings and efficiency over the unique, individual interests of patients and their families.

The bureaucracy would serve its own interests too. Bureaucracies are subject to capture by special interests, of course, and they can be corrupted. These things are easier when the people who might die look like statistics.

Many people feel very strongly that problems with health care today indicate the need for President Obama's and Congress' health care plans. But what's wrong with health care doesn't mean that these proposals would make things better. Because they would move control of health care in the wrong direction, they would make things worse.

Everyone has a personal story about health care, and I have one too. On the day my mother passed away, my family and I were called to the hospital and met by a social worker. He showed us to a small anteroom at the entrance to the intensive care unit, where he guided us through a lengthy conversation about my mother's wishes and the family's circumstances. He then called in the doctors to offer their prognosis and advice, which we took.

It was a death panel. It was our death panel -- because my parents had fully prepared for this eventuality by buying insurance.

Just like health care will always be rationed, there will always be death panels. The question is who runs them. To the extent our public policy drives people away from financial responsibility for their own health care, it sets them up for death panels that are administered by government bureaucrats, not by loved ones and doctors.

Political debate is rollicking and unfair and full of inaccuracy. And in the terms of today's health care debate, we don't want "rationing" -- meaning we don't want government rationing. And we don't want death panels -- meaning we don't want government death panels, because government death panels will deny people and their families an essential dignity of life: choosing how it ends.

In that sense I say with apologies to Patrick Henry: Give me liberty or give me death panels.

July 29, 2009 1:31PM

Don’t Fear the Freedom, Higher Ed!

It's not often that I can transition from my education beat to other hot topics, but an Inside Higher Ed story on colleges' health-care benefits includes this little nugget:

One trend documented in the survey that may concern many employees is the increase in "consumer driven" health insurance plans by colleges. These typically involve employees setting up tax-free accounts to pay for some care, and then high deductibles for major medical expenses. This year, 17 percent of colleges were offering the plans, up from 11 percent two years ago.

So what's so terrible about "consumer driven" health care, which from the article sounds like health savings accounts ? The story doesn't say -- nor does it give any details on who puts the money into the accounts or other minimally useful info -- it just suggests that employees should be a little scared of controlling their own health care funds. 

Unfortunately, this kind of reflexive fear of markets and freedom is a hallmark of both education and health care debates, so this thoughtless little passage hardly comes as a surprise. But I want to help Inside Higher Ed: If you folks want to be informed next time you cover health care, give these guys a call. They'll be more than happy to help you, just as I am with all of your education-related needs!

Operators, as they say, are standing by...