Friday, June 4, 2010

Giving Ideology a Holiday (For publication June 11, 2010)

In “Civil Disobedience” Henry David Thoreau gave us some of the most frequently quoted lines in political discourse.

He wrote, "That government is best which governs least” and, rethinking the point, modified it to say, “That government is best which governs not at all and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have.”

These lines are favorites because there’s something for everyone. Republicans and Libertarians love “That government is best which governs least”. Anarchists adore “That government is best which governs not at all”. And liberals see the wry, “and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have” as a reminder that minimal government is not the means to a good society, but rather an end which is only produced after men become so virtuous they no longer need law and governance, a situation we haven’t yet attained.

Thoreau probably thought he was enunciating a single, coherent principle and would be astonished at the range of ideologies that make use of his words; a reminder of how malleable principles can be and how lazy ideology can make us.

Ideologues, whether Marxists, Christians, Libertarians, or Socialists, feeling possessed of one big truth often disregard smaller truths – those of history, economics, biology, and physics for instance. Libertarian and Republican Senate candidate Rand Paul of Kentucky recently demonstrated breathtaking unconcern for two centuries of racial strife when he blithely dismissed the need for civil rights laws based on his dogmatic belief that free markets inevitably wring parochialisms such as racism from commerce and, therefore, from our souls – history be damned.

So, if mutable principles and ideological myopia can produce such silliness, maybe they also explain why people sometimes support policies that history and economics suggest would not only be disastrous, but would harm them most of all.

I’m speaking of positions promoted on the web site of We The People of Jefferson County, a local Tea Party affiliate.

Take as an example opposition to healthcare reform. The Tea Party’s stand for the elimination of wasteful spending makes its defense of our traditional healthcare system quite mysterious because, whether measured by cost or outcomes, the US system has been the most expensive and least effective of any in the industrialized world.
In 2007 we spent $7,290 per person for healthcare, twice that of “socialized medicine” punching bags Canada, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany. Yet, those countries enjoy longer life spans and lower infant mortality than we do. Plus, they cover everyone.

If we were as efficient, the US would save a trillion dollars annually – enough to eliminate all budget deficits. Plus, we’d live longer. To rage against virtually any role for the federal government in healthcare can only be classified as a case of ideology trumping performance and it amounts to a defense of our right to be gouged.

Tea Party opposition to government regulation has a similarly self-destructive quality. The litany of recent disasters attributable to insufficient or non-existent government regulation is staggering. Since the 1980’s, the dawn of the privatization and deregulation era, we’ve endured successive fiascos starting with the Savings and Loan crisis, followed by Enron, and culminating in the housing market meltdown, which precipitated the near collapse of the financial system. In every case the losers have principally been the middle class.

Contrary to the dogma of free market purists, experience demonstrates that markets, while useful, are neither flawless nor self-correcting. You don’t have to be a socialist to recognize that markets are a tool to be used, not a god to be worshipped and that effective government regulation is an aide, not a barrier, to stability and prosperity.

Then, there are taxes about which the We The People web site uses terms such as tyrannical, confiscatory and redistributive. In fact, tax rates on the highest earners are at their lowest rate since 1931 except for a brief period from 1988 to 1992. And, those who campaign for elimination of Estate and Capital Gains taxes, must be unaware that these taxes have little or no impact on middle class Americans and that elimination can only result in increased budget deficits and/or increases in other taxes that are paid by the middle class.

Of course, that would just continue a pattern of wealth redistribution that, for the past two decades, has gone not from rich to poor, but from the poor and middle class to the rich. And, haven’t the results been great? Middle class families have been working harder for years for little or no increase in wealth and standard of living . . . and now the bottom has fallen out.

Under the circumstances it’s not surprising that many in the middle class, not just Tea Partiers, resent bailouts of banks and automobile companies and worry about increasing deficits. So, perhaps we can set ideology aside and consider the notion that best the way to prevent bailouts is to impose effective regulation that prevents individual commercial entities from becoming so large that their failure threatens the entire economy. And, while working to eliminate wasteful spending, a point on which we can all agree, let’s also consider that the last president to try to balance the federal budget during a recession was Herbert Hoover -- and we got the Great Depression.