Wednesday, March 5, 2008

What Conservatives Can Do for the Middle Class? Ignore Reality and Hope!

One of the more sane bloggers at Townhall is John Hawkins, and he gives us a nice summary of the conservative vision of America. I think it's worth going through and giving a reality-based assessment of the points he claims work in favor of conservatism. It illustrates well why so many of us have parted ways with the GOP of late:

"Conservatives believe in low taxes because we appreciate the fact that people work hard for their money. That's why we believe that we'll be better off as a nation if you decide where to spend your money, rather than having someone in Washington, D.C. do it for you.

The problem is that you have supported low taxes even in the face of increased government spending and the resulting deficits, creating an even greater debt burden that future citizens will have to pay. The history of Republican presidents over the last 30 years is frighteningly consistent: low taxes, no significant reduction in government spending, and frightfully large deficits. Rhetoric is cheap gentlemen. When your fiscal policy is "borrow and spend", you are wasting the common man's hard-earned wages by adding interest to his bill.

The second comment defies attachment to the real world. The government deciding how to spend your money rather than you? He makes it sound as if the government takes the money I was going to spend on Wonder bread and buys Mrs. Baird's for me instead. Individuals don't spend money on the same things government (should) spend money on. We buy bread. It buys roads, and bridges, and sewer systems.

When people make comments like this they are worshipping at the libertarian alter that intones the free market will solve all problems, since all individuals pursuing their own individual happiness always results in the most happiness for all. Except it doesn't. Any time people have to share a common, and limited resource (demand exceeds supply) with a nonzero proportional cost of usage, they run into a problem known as The Tragedy of the Commons, where each individual rationally pursuing his own happiness results in a situation with which no one is happy.

There are also issues of efficiency to consider. Take the interstate highway system. When roads were left to local jurisdictions to build, there was no sensible plan over larger land areas. Driving very long distances required a maddening zig zag of a route across states with different ideas about how to arrange their roads. It took a collective effort through government to get a straight path from Texas to Florida. In John Hawkins' world that trip would still take 15 hours instead of 8.

We have liberals in this country who think they should be able to tell you what light bulbs you should be able to use in your house, what kind of car you can drive, and what you should have your thermostat set at. Conservatives believe issues of that sort are none of their d*mn business and that this country will be better off if the American people, not government bureaucrats, make those decisions.

OK John, but what if the facts differ with your belief? What if it really is the case that we will pollute the planet to the point of killing all of our grandchildren if the government doesn't limit the bulbs we use, the cars we drive, and the energy we use? What then? Do you even allow for such a possibility?

See, this is the basic problem with modern conservatism. Hawkins' view here is based on libertarian ideology (to which I can wholeheartedly relate), not facts. It is faith-based, not reality-based. He doesn't care what the data is, because he already "knows" the answer. He is going to resist government involvement in such areas, regardless of the results. I offer the last 7 years as evidence of what kinds of results one gets when one doesn't care what they are.

Furthermore, conservatives believe that a man should be able to defend his own home. You have a Constitutional right to own a gun and a moral right to use it to defend your family and your property from criminals who want to do you harm.

I agree with this sentiment. However, I think it would play much more to the rational crowd if conservatives followed this up with calls for more efforts to keep guns out of the hands of lunatics like Cho. Let's see the NRA support mandatory prison time for convicted felons caught in possession of a firearm.

Moreover, if you rape, rob, murder or otherwise prey upon your fellow citizens, then you need to be severely punished and locked away. Sure people change and there are some criminals who can be rehabilitated. Those that do should be applauded, but our priority has to be on keeping criminals off the streets so they can't victimize innocent people.

The problem is not your willingness to put nasties away. The problem is you are too willing to put people engaging in all sorts of nonviolent, consensual behavior, away for as long or longer. We have mandatory minimum sentences for drug possession, but not rape or murder. As a result, we have over 1% of our entire population incarcerated, and guess what John? The vast majority of them didn't rape, rob, or murder anyone. No, those are the people we are letting out early because of overcrowding. Or are more prisons something else the government is supposed to borrow and spend our money on?

So this is just more ideology in lieu of data from the real world. Let all the "criminals" with no victims out of the prisons John, and then your talk of locking away all the nasties will sound like an informed opinion instead of the tough-guy posturing it is now.

Speaking of criminals, conservatives believe in putting an end to illegal immigration. Although there are plenty of out-and-out criminals who sneak into our country, most illegal aliens are decent people at heart who come here to get jobs, but they still harm Americans. They don't respect our laws, they drive up costs for the rest of us by using our hospitals and schools for free, and they take jobs from American citizens and drive down their wages. God bless anybody who wants to work for a living, but this is America and in this country, if nowhere else in the world, Americans have to come first.

I agree that Americans should come first, and that citizens should have more legal and political rights than noncitizens. But Hawkins' logic here escapes me. Illegal aliens are decent people, but they don't respect laws? And if they drive up our costs and take away our jobs as illegals, can't they do that as legals as well? It's not as if the illegal alien who works as a janitor is going to suddenly become an executive when he gets his citizenship. The only way that argument works is if one doesn't just oppose illegal immigration, but legal immigration as well. Nah, it couldn't be that.

The same thing could be said about our energy policy: Americans have to come first and shouldn't have to pay higher costs at the pump because we won't drill ANWR. Conservatives also disagree with the Democrats pushing a gas tax increase and don't think Americans should have higher fuel bills so that we can sign onto some unworkable cap and trade scheme that places a huge burden on middle class families in order to deal with "man made" global warming, a proposition that is looking more dubious by the day.

Again, this is ideology, not evidence-based reasoning. What if global warming is real, and we need higher taxes and higher fuel bills to deal with it? Then is it OK? Or are we supposed to sit and watch the problem get worse until we find a solution that conforms with Hawkins' low-taxes, low-fuel-bills ideology?

Then there's Affirmative Action. Discriminating against anyone because of his color is wrong and even if Affirmative Action hasn't done as much damage as Jim Crow laws, it's every bit as vile, immoral, unconstitutional, and un-American as those laws were.

Well, now let's not get carried away. Having a special college fund to target poor blacks is hardly in the same vileness category as Jim Crow, especially since one attempts to help the downtrodden, where the other attempts to hold them down. Still, Hawkins' general point is solid, if not a bit dated. Affirmative action doesn't seem to be that much of an issue any more, which has led to the the growing irrelevancy of people like Jesse Jackson.

We also need to make sure that people can afford health care because if you don't have your health, how much does everything else matter? Liberals will tell you the solution to our health care problem is to put the same government that's responsible for the IRS, FEMA, and ICE in charge, but since when has the federal government ever made anything more efficient, cost effective, or responsive to customers?

No, the liberals don't want the same incompetent cronies with which the current administration clogged these departments. They think it might be, I don't know, a good idea to put people in government positions who actually believe in what the government is trying to do, and have the qualifications to do it. It worked under past administrations, giving us roads, bridges, sewers, the military, the police, the fire department, etc.

Conservatives believe in taking a different path. Instead of giving tax breaks to companies for health care, we believe that they should be given directly to individuals so that you don't lose your health care if you lose your job. We also believe in driving down the cost of health care with tort reform, streamlining the regulations that make bringing a new drug to market so slow and expensive, health care savings accounts, and in allowing health insurance companies from anywhere in America to compete for business in any state. Conservatives could make health care cheaper and better for the American people if only liberals weren't so hell-bent on getting health care under the control of the federal government.

Again, Hawkins lets ideology get in the way of reasoning. The tragedy of the commons raises its ugly head again in our multi-payer health care system, which is why we have one of the most expensive and least successful (by most WHO measures) systems. It is also nonsense to talk about fixing the health care system with any kind of tax breaks, since the people lacking health care don't pay much in taxes as it is. It is ironic that people like Hawkins will bleat about how huge a proportion of taxes the rich pay when there is talk of raising their rates, and then turn around and act like it is the middle class paying all the taxes when they want to pretend tax breaks will solve, well, everything.

This is the Republican Peter Pan economic policy in a nutshell: sprinkle the magic pixie dust of tax breaks on the problem, wish real hard (some call it "praying"), and expect the problem to magically solve itself. It is exacerbated by Hawkins' suggestion that more insurance companies competing in the health care market will make the problem better, when in fact that is what has made it problematic in the first place. Competition only works when the consumer is also the buyer, and is informed. None of those things are true in our health care system, since it is employers, not individuals, that buy the insurance. Their motivation is short term cost reduction, not long term health.

Then there is a public school system which is being ruined by teachers’ unions whose first priority seems to be protecting bad teachers and whose last priority seems to be educating our children. We need to make it easier to fire bad teachers, we need merit pay for good teachers, and we need to allow parents trapped in failing schools to get vouchers so that they can send their children to the same sort of private schools that rich people do. We're already expending enough tax dollars per child to do that, but liberals would rather children be held back for life by a poor education than offend the teachers’ unions by supporting vouchers.

This is simply pie-in-the-sky nonsense that ignores what is currently happening in the education system. Teachers' Unions?! How about creationist sabatoge of the science curriculum? How about NCLB, which has reduced classrooms to a tedious exercise in rote memorizing and guessing "strategies". It doesn't make any difference how good a teacher is if merely saying "evolution" could get him harrased or fired, or if the teacher cannot cover a history course because "it isn't on the test". Hawkins is completely out of touch. It sounds like he fell through a timewarp from 15 years ago.

Moreover, if we want to make sure that we leave a better country to our children than we have today, we cannot ignore cultural issues or stand by idly while this country turns into a moral sewer. If America ceases to be a good nation, full of decent people, it will also inevitably cease to be a great nation. That's why conservatives believe in sticking up for Christianity when it comes under assault. It's why we believe the Left should leave the Boy Scouts alone. It's why we think mothers killing their own children through abortion is wrong. It's why, even though it didn't turn out to be popular, we stuck up for life in the Terri Schiavo case. It's why we have no problem saying that marriage should be between a man and a woman and ideally, it should be for life.

Again, ideology over facts. Should, should, should. All this amounts to is Hawkins saying "we aren't a moral nation unless we follow MY morals". Never mind that we have far less racism, sexism, and brutality in this nation than ever before, and that all of these issues were WORSE when those who share his view ran things. Never mind that technology like the internet has allowed us all far more freedom in what we read, and what we view for entertainment.

Nah, to Hawkins we aren't free unless the Boy Scouts can be bigoted without criticism, women can be forced to give birth to unwanted children, brain dead people are kept alive to financially bankrupt their families, and people in love are prevented from entering a legally binding relationship for life if their private parts do not match in a way that doesn't offend Hawkins. Isn't it interesting how freedom is something Hawkins only wants to extend to those who agree with him?

Hawkins' summary of the conservative position seems fair and complete, but it is hardly persuasive to a thinking educated person. Time and again, he ignores evidence in favor of ideology, and at times seems over a decade out of time with current issues. This is the problem with consrvatism in a nutshell: the idea that faith and tradition are enough, and reality can be ignored.


Peter L. Winkler said...

Excellent critique.

Luke H. said...

And he is one of the saner ones?
I have noted that my conservative friends are wont to fantasy. One such fantasy shows up here, WRT the 2nd amendment. "A man has a right to defend his home", note the singular pronouns. I think they watch too many Clint Eastwood movies, because they have this image of pulling out a gun and dispatching the bad guy, assuming it is really that clear-cut and that easy. I tend to fantasize more about the well-regulated militia part. How about a Constitutional right to own a gun and a more and legal responsibility to use it to defend your community when called about to do so. That was how it worked in early America.