04 August, 2008

Liberal Fascism, pt. 1 1/2

In my previous post on the topic, I mentioned the following:

This is part of the problem with conservatism as it is popularly understood: it attacks liberalism, it attacks government regulation, and it especially attacks taxes. But what does it offer? Unless your name is Terri Schiavo, it doesn't seem to offer much at all.

This is grossly unfair to conservatism, which has a lot of really good ideas that I want to see implemented.
I want to elaborate on that, and I want to do so in a way that illustrates just how grossly unfair conservatism is popularly portrayed. Here is an excerpt from an op-ed in today's Washington Post:
So [conservatives] advocated creating health savings accounts, handing out school vouchers, privatizing Social Security, shifting government functions to private contractors, and curtailing regulations on public health, safety, the environment and more. And, of course, they pushed to cut taxes to further weaken the public sector by "starving the beast." …But in practice, those ideas have all failed to deliver on the promises the conservatives made, and in many instances, the dogma has actually created new problems.
This should strike the reader as curious.
  • Health savings accounts are underutilized. I doubt most people even know they exist, and many people who do know that they exist confuse them with Flexible Spending Accounts, where unused money reverts to the employer.

    I had a vague impression of HSAs, but had forgotten about them until I took my current job; USM offers a health plan that carries an HSA option. I jumped at the chance to take it, and would much rather not part with it. I'm hoping to build up enough savings in that account to switch to a lower-cost insurance plan in the near future. Unfortunately, my second daughter slowed the process of building up that account.

    If these had been available when I was a younger man, it would be another story. Since HSAs are only 5 years old or so, it is too early to judge their effect. I doubt anyone was convinced that IRAs would be successful after the first 5 years. If all employers offered HSAs, and if people didn't confuse them with Flexible Spending Accounts (where one cannot build wealth, and which employers are happy to offer for all-too-obvious reasons) HSAs could become quite popular.
  • Handing out school vouchers: Waitaminut. I live in Mississippi, supposedly the most conservative state in the nation, and I don't have school vouchers available. In fact, I lived mostly in Virginia and North Carolina over the last decade. They're supposedly conservative too, yet they don't offer school vouchers either. What gives?

    On the other hand, if I lived in Washington, DC, one of the most liberal locations in the nation, I would have access to school vouchers. Likewise a few other spots (Minneapolis-St. Paul among them, as I recall). My vague understanding has been that school vouchers have been most popular with the people who use them—people who are, often enough, unable to afford private school, near the bottom of the socio-economic ladder, and not traditionally identified with conservative voting habits. In spite of the vouchers, Washington DC still spends more per capita on its public schools than any other locality in the nation, and still fails to educate them.
  • Privatizing social security never happened, largely because various interest groups managed to scare certain voting blocks—mislead them, often enough— and mobilize them against any reform. The closest genuine privatization I know of Social Security that actually took place is the Individual Retirement Account. According to Wikipedia, the origin of the IRA is nearly forty years ago. Again, I understand that IRA's are quite popular among people who actually have them (my father is ecstatic with his) and IRAs have made Social Security more solvent over time, not less.

    The only recent attempts at privatization that I know of involved proposals to allow folks like me to direct part of our Social Security tax towards an IRA-like vehicle. But, as noted, this has never once been enacted.
  • Shifting government functions to private contractors: Here the author has a point, but only partially. While it's a favorite whipping boy of liberals that the Bush administration has done this, in fact the Clinton administration did an awful lot of it, with mixed results. In many cases, contracting has made things more efficient and less expensive: a good example bandied about among conservatives is the House Cafeteria, as opposed to the government-run disaster that is the Senate Cafeteria. In other cases, it has made things less efficient and more expensive, even disastrously incompetent. (Hurricane Katrina.) But the picture simply isn't as one-sided as he claims.

    Unfortunately, many conservatives do savage government, but I'd like to think that this is a misrepresentation of Reagan's idea. People quote Reagan's phrase, Government is not the solution to our problems; Government is the problem. But this is only a partial quote; it starts with four crucial words: In the current crisis… I maintain that Reagan was essentially correct: government is well-suited to solve certain problems, but not all of them. For the crisis the country faced then, government was not well-suited.
  • Curtailing regulations on public health, safety, and more: Ah, yes. Remember President Bush's attempt to poison our children with unsafe drinking water? Government regulations on arsenic in drinking water were not considered problematic until a few weeks before President Clinton left office. That President Bush should have returned the regulations to the state they were for nearly all of President Clinton's term is a disaster.

    Likewise, John Stossel of ABC has an excellent documentary about our misconceptions as to how safe we really are. This shouldn't make us any less vigilant in rooting out things that are genuinely unsafe, but the drumbeat that 8 years of President Bush has made us significantly less unsafe strikes me as untenable.
Conservative ideas of reforming government are, to a large extent, much like Chesterton's quote on Christianity: It hasn't tried and failed; it hasn't even been tried.

My biggest gripe the Republican party is that, in six years of controlling both the White House and the Congress, they failed to enact any of the fascinating, genuinely conservative ideas on government reform. Instead, they spent most of their energies enacting a new "New Deal". The biggest accomplishments of the 6-year Republican hold on government was Medicare Part D and removing Saddam Hussein.* Neither of these ever struck me as especially conservative, even if a number of conservative talk show hosts in love with the president went to bat for both.

The previous six years with President Clinton and a Republican Congress enacted many more conservative ideas that not only worked, but were popular: streamlining government, for example; reforming Welfare, for another.

*Admittedly, "removing Saddam Hussein" may not seem like an accomplishment at times, but while I was not in favor of the war, I am glad that Iraq is no longer under his thumb.

1 comment:

Clemens said...

Jack - it is late and I have to go to bed so we can drive to Tampa, but this looks like exactly what I was (non-rhetorically) asking about American conservatism. Even my young conservative friend and Repub activist seems demoralized by what has become of the conservative movement.

Anyway - I intend to read your long post when I get to Tampa, huddled by the air conditioner, and give it some thought.