December 22, 2003

The Key Problem of Modern Liberalism

The highly thoughtful Decembrist puts his finger on the core problem of modern liberalism. How can one support the idea of an activist government when half the time that government will be run by malevolent or incompetent Republicans?

The Decembrist: ...Bush's domestic initiatives, on the other hand, are as disgraceful to liberals as to conservatives. The Medicare bill may be the biggest new entitlement in generations, but it is more of an entitlement to insurance companies, pharmaceutical manufacturers and employers than to the beneficiaries. As Caldwell puts it, "even the basic plan is indecipherable...The president is right to call this a new kind of entitlement: It is the first entitlement that you have to hire an accountant to take advantage of." It is impossible to see how this scam will form the basis for a better-structured entitlement in the future. The same is true of No Child Left Behind.

Caldwell argues that "Mr. Bush has built his re-election around policies that will help him personally in the next election but harm his party thereafter. Republicans will not long wish to defend the education bill. Nor will they be able to fund the Medicare benefit fully, as voters will surely demand. The political risk is that the drug benefit will allow Mr. Dean, should he become the Democratic nominee, to re-establish himself as a centrist.".... I do think that the backlash against the Medicare bill is not long in coming, and No Child Left Behind is already one of the most locally unpopular federal initiatives in a long time. But as I've written before, it's not easy for Democrats to find centrist language that shows how they would do things differently, that goes beyond the liberalism of "more." As it is, I suspect the backlash against this crappy, lazy, irresponsible legislation will not be a call to improve it, but simply another backlash against government. Look at this Medicare mess, seniors will say, government can't do anything right! And when Americans are pissed off at government, who do they call? Republicans.

Posted by DeLong at December 22, 2003 04:03 PM | TrackBack

Comments

It's just the flip side of the Republicans' looming problem: you can't run against the government when you are the government.

Posted by: Matt McIrvin on December 22, 2003 04:20 PM

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I've never entirely understood why one would vote for politicians who argue that all politicians are vile, incompetent, crooks.

Posted by: Ben Hyde on December 22, 2003 04:48 PM

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There's nothing new about incomprehensible Medicare benefits. My mother, an ex-bookkeeper, seemed to spend most of her old age dealing with paperwork related to how much of various medical costs were covered by Medicare, supplemental insurance, or were not covered.

For that matter, most non-seniors don't understand our benefits either. We mostly pay the doctor and the pharmacy whatever amount they say we owe.

Due to data processing improvements, I have found the interaction with insurance providers considerably eased in the last few years. By the time the new drug benefit is in effect, I'd expect the administrative process to be pretty straightforward for the patient.

Posted by: David on December 22, 2003 04:51 PM

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>How can one support the idea of an activist government when half the time that government will be run by malevolent or incompetent Republicans?

Indeed, this is the central argument of libertarians (note small "L"), to wit,
how can you support a strong central government
when all history demonstrates such concentrated power is at best used poorly, and at worst, used murderously?

No US-definition "liberal" I've met has ever come up with a counter-argument.

Posted by: George Zachar on December 22, 2003 06:10 PM

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Libertarianism is based on the conceit that the libertarian, inevitably a somewhat geeky, less than worldly-wise individual, would survive, even thrive, in a world unsupervised by a strong central government. In fact said libertarian would be squashed like a bug by the gangster hordes.

As for Republicans, of course they are incompetent. As a group they don't believe in government, and as a result their best and brightest don't go into government, they go into business. Whereas Democrats love & admire the beast, and service to same attracts the very best. Clinton is a good example.

Posted by: camille roy on December 22, 2003 06:25 PM

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"Whereas Democrats love & admire the beast, and service to same attracts the very best"

So.. whenever I hear an idea from the democrats it's coming from the "very best". A scary scary thought considering how many ill considered short sighted decisions governments make. Living in the District of Columbia which has been run by Democrats since the day I was born well, you can fill in the blank.

Posted by: william on December 22, 2003 06:43 PM

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"No US-definition "liberal" I've met has ever come up with a counter-argument."

The argument that all my friends put forward is that the Democrats should take power and hold it forever. And you can argue that they did exactly that from 1932 to 1968, with a few minor interuptions. They held a majority in the House for over 40 years. And I think there is some nostalgia for that era in some older liberals. Liberals my age don't remember that era, but they know it was there, and they want it back again.

Posted by: Lawrence Krubner on December 22, 2003 07:11 PM

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Democrats still fall down the Republican hole on health care and insurance because they keep trying to find more government money to cover the rising costs for consumers, rather than seek ways to push down the costs. As long as the health care and health insurance industries know this is the approach, they are happy, and willing to feed ideas to the government on how best to do it. After all, they don't have to fund the deficit.

Even Howard Dean seems to fall down on this point: he doesn't really talk about trying to find ways to cut the costs, but instead finding ways to help people pay for it -- feeding the beast.

Posted by: paulo on December 22, 2003 07:18 PM

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"How can one support the idea of an activist government when half the time that government will be run by malevolent or incompetent Republicans?"

The flip side of that argument, which Republicans want not to consider, do they want powerful Homeland Security and Justice departments helmed by Hillary Clinton?

Posted by: Walter on December 22, 2003 07:24 PM

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"No US-definition "liberal" I've met has ever come up with a counter-argument."

The argument that all my friends put forward is that the Democrats should take power and hold it forever. And you can argue that they did exactly that from 1932 to 1968, with a few minor interuptions. They held a majority in the House for over 40 years. And I think there is some nostalgia for that era in some older liberals. Liberals my age don't remember that era, but they know it was there, and they want it back again.

Posted by: Lawrence Krubner on December 22, 2003 07:27 PM

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"Libertarianism is based on the conceit that the libertarian, inevitably a somewhat geeky, less than worldly-wise individual, would survive, even thrive, in a world unsupervised by a strong central government."

You mean like the venture capital markets? We certainly can't point to any geeks who did well there... okay, there's a bit of a point there, there are a lot of geeky 16-year-olds out there getting their worldview from Ayn Rand, but Jesus Howdy if you aren't the poster child for the nanny state dripping contempt for the entrepreneur who can't see what the hell filling out 150 pages of forms every time he wants to take a crap has to do with selling products and paying his employees.

Posted by: Mike G on December 22, 2003 07:46 PM

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"How can one support the idea of an activist government when half the time that government will be run by malevolent or incompetent Republicans?"
~~~~~

Hey, didn't someone ask this very question in the Rubinomics comments?

"One thing that constantly puzzles me is how some people can take pains to point out all these operational dysfunctions inside their own party, say the other party is much much *worse*, and then say of course we want these very same people in *both* parties to take over running the nation's health care and whatever else is needed to create a Social Democracy, because then everything would run with so much more efficiency and justice."

When they get over the thought of giving power to malevolent Republicans, the ever un-self-critical Democrats might wonder how even their well-intentioned selves could ever competently run something like national health care, when they couldn't even agree on getting it enacted at their high-water mark for a generation -- after a big electoral win with control of the White House and both houses of Congress, as much power as they'll ever have again.

Heck, at that point, when they had all the power, they couldn't even agree to enact a tax on btus in the face of some lobbying.

But in spite of that they imagine they could actually manage a major portion of the economy efficiently and above politics, through far more politically difficult times, divided goverments and all?

Another example of the triumph of hope over experience.

Posted by: Jim Glass on December 22, 2003 07:51 PM

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>>Democrats still fall down the Republican hole on health care and insurance because they keep trying to find more government money to cover the rising costs for consumers, rather than seek ways to push down the costs. >>

Medicare is clearly more efficient than private insurers (for example, a Newsweek column estimated Medicare overhead at 2% and HMO at 16%). The Republicans are just shoveling money at campaign contributors under cover of a politically popular program.

>>"Libertarianism is based on the conceit that the libertarian, inevitably a somewhat geeky, less than worldly-wise individual, would survive, even thrive, in a world unsupervised by a strong central government."

You mean like the venture capital markets? >>

Think no police force or no basic health and safety regulation.

Posted by: richard on December 23, 2003 04:23 AM

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"For that matter, most non-seniors don't understand our benefits either. We mostly pay the doctor and the pharmacy whatever amount they say we owe."

David,

Health care providers are quite aware of this and take advantage of it. It serves as an incentive to make a large number of billing 'mistakes', especially when dealing with a patient population that has limited ability to dispute the bills.

An elderly relative of mine routinely receives double bills or bills for items already covered by insurance. Fortunately, others do the bill payment for her, and a quick phone call establishes that nothing is due and the thousand dollar bill was a goof without explanation.

Posted by: snsterling on December 23, 2003 05:45 AM

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In response to MikeG, richard posted:

"You mean like the venture capital markets? [We certainly can't point to any geeks who did well there...] <<

Think no police force or no basic health and safety regulation."

...or utilities infrastructure or property rights.

I think camille roy had this one right. If the hardcore government abolitionists got what they think is their wishes, they'd get to spend their time not counting their tax-free riches but rather defending their last two cents from the roving bandits.

Posted by: Tom Bozzo on December 23, 2003 06:13 AM

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Okay, I guess it's time for the large-L small-L distinction again. As I said, I grant you that there's a large dose of naive utopianism in large L Libertarianism. Thank goodness there's never been any of that in, say, the War on Poverty. Anyway, yeah yeah yeah, I'm for police, OSHA, chicken inspection, highways and, oh yes, an aggressive foreign policy in the face of 9-11. All those traditional Democratic Party things (what do you mean they don't support the last one? What happened to intellectual consistency?)

But the reason I have a hard time being a large-D Democrat any more is the number of them who seem to have no conception of what actually drives the economy-- who basically view every business as a criminal enterprise which needs to be restrained from its worst excesses by the guiding hand of the bureaucrat. To which I can only reply, F*** you very much, but no thanks. I like the bracing realism of the market economy. If I didn't I'd be a miserable depressed tenured for life academic like so many of my friends, instead of a vibrantly unemployed freelancer. To me, the Problem of Modern Liberalism is that too many sound like Camille Roy, and you scare us, and we want to have as little to do with you (and the party you're from) as we can.

Posted by: Mike G on December 23, 2003 06:41 AM

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Private police forces? Think competing warlords.

Posted by: Kosh on December 23, 2003 07:43 AM

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Mike G: "...who basically view every business as a criminal enterprise which needs to be restrained from its worst excesses by the guiding hand of the bureaucrat. "

I've been in the workplace for seventeen years, and that describes every employer I've had save one. Either I suck at picking employers, or the market really is full of rapacious bastards.

Posted by: Norma on December 23, 2003 10:49 AM

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"It's just the flip side of the Republicans' looming problem: you can't run against the government when you are the government."

Posted by: Matt McIrvin on December 22, 2003 04:20 PM

That's never stopped them before.

Posted by: Barry on December 23, 2003 12:56 PM

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In reponse to Richard: Medicare might have lower overheads, but in the most recent bill, Congress denied Medicare the power to negotiate prices with drug companies, while private providers have that power. That's the direction we're going in.

Posted by: paulo on December 23, 2003 01:29 PM

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Well, Norma, not to be snide but if it describes EVERY employer you've had then the employers may not be the problem.

It probably describes a plurality of the employers I've had, I will admit that. (There's one I'd be willing to testify against. On the other hand, there are a couple I send Christmas cards to 15 or 20 years later.)

Still, I never knew Hell until I dealt with the unemployment office. No one ever demeaned me like that; no one ever jerked me around through utter incompetence; nothing ever motivated me more to stay out of the state's grasp and trust to my ability to sell my talents in the marketplace.

Posted by: Mike G on December 23, 2003 02:34 PM

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Mike G:

"...I like the bracing realism of the market economy. If I didn't I'd be a miserable depressed tenured for life academic like so many of my friends, instead of a vibrantly unemployed freelancer...."

Mike for such extremely elite individuals such as yourself, perhaps libertarianism is the best philosophy.

Posted by: Barry on December 23, 2003 05:31 PM

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Okay, Barry, you've convinced me to come back to that festering pool of self-pity and diminished expectations known as "the mainstream Democratic party."

If you think making your own way in America makes you an elite snob, you really have lost faith in this country. Come to Chicago's Maxwell Street Market some Sunday and see all the extremely elite immigrants pursuing a libertarian philosophy.

Posted by: Mike G on December 23, 2003 06:44 PM

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Regarding libertarianism, we have an historical example of what happens when there is no government. The Roman Empire collapsed in the 5th century, and the result was feudalism. The powerful enslaved the weak, serfdom was initiated, etc. Something similar would happen today if governments collapsed. And you can bet that the geeky Randroids who populate the internet would not be the lords.

Posted by: rps on December 23, 2003 08:19 PM

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While I never thought I'd be favorably quoting P.J. O'Rourke, consider his comments: "If you really want to see the libertarian utopia in action, come to Albania... Hong Kong demonstrates just how much government-enforced law and action is necessary to make a free market work."

As far as I know, he's still a believer in minimizing government income transfers from the richer to the less rich. But the trouble with that -- quite apart from its social injustice -- is that it allows the established wealthy buy up politicians and set up laws to to strangle potential new business competitors. An overly inequitable capitalist society turns into a crony capitalist society and self-destructs economically. I take for granted that that will happen to the GOP at some point --probably 2008. But the Democrats should keep their eyes on the ball and reflect that the American people ALREADY prefer their domestic policies; their current political troubles are entirely because they have been working frantically for three decades to establish themselves as the Dove Party and now have to reverse that image, a process which will inevitably take a while -- and which will take longer if some of them keep irrationally insisting that the world is a less dangerous place than it really is.

Posted by: Bruce Moomaw on December 24, 2003 12:39 AM

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Funny that I still haven't heard the left-wing answer to Brad's dilemna.

The libertarian bashing here is an exercise in pure strawman argument. It's so stupid as not to be worth responding to.

Posted by: JT on December 24, 2003 07:58 AM

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Funny that I still haven't heard the left-wing answer to Brad's dilemna.

The libertarian bashing here is an exercise in pure strawman argument. It's so stupid as not to be worth responding to.

Posted by: JT on December 24, 2003 08:03 AM

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Mike G: I think it's more a function of having a far smaller selection of companies to choose from (Eastern Washington isn't exactly booming).

Posted by: Norma on December 24, 2003 09:27 AM

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The answer to the dilemma is a strong fourth estate -- the press -- as an independent watchdog.

Posted by: Hobhouse on December 24, 2003 10:41 AM

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Mike G: "Come to Chicago's Maxwell Street Market some Sunday and see all the extremely elite immigrants pursuing a libertarian philosophy."

Great to see you're also a spokesman for the sellers on Maxwell Street. I'm sure you have a lot in common with them. I'm sure they'd also gripe about unemployment insurance (if they had it).

Posted by: troy on December 24, 2003 09:40 PM

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Yeah, that's why they get up at 5 on Sunday morning. To gripe about America.

Posted by: Mike G on December 25, 2003 07:30 AM

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