May 2004
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Day May 30, 2004

The Tired Norms of Political Discussion

After another puzzling literary encounter with Christopher Hitchens, and his detractors (of which more in a future post), I started thinking about how I’d label my own political beliefs. I tend to vote Democrat, but I have a feeling that I’d be labeled a “centrist” or even a “conservative” depending on what issue I was discussing.

And I think I know why.

Much of the time I look at liberal/progressive/Democratic platforms, there’s a mixture not only of goals, but of policy proposals. This is fine, but thinking rationally, one would hope that the goals are more important than the means. Sadly, this doesn’t turn out to be true. The reason I tend to identify as a liberal Democrat is that I agree with the goals. I often disagree with Republican goals, especially since that party has been “captured” by groups with a socially regressive agenda.

What I hate about my own party and politicians, however, is that the means seem to be as important — sometimes more — than the goals. There’s an orthodoxy about the acceptable means for providing universal healthcare, or handling the education problem. Single-payer is a good means for achieving universal care, regulated vouchers for private care aren’t. Education reform through the existing public schools and union regulations is a good means for fixing schools, whereas a program of variable teacher pay through merit, vouchers, and charter schools aren’t.

My party — the party of rights advocacy, equality, education, and internationalist foreign policy — is also a party wearing a bureaucratic straightjacket. We shy away from virtually any market-oriented solution if there’s a centralized bureaucratic alternative.

Thus, I’m a centrist because I believe in the goals but not the means of my party. I’m a businessman and entrepreneur (in addition to being a geek, of course). I’m not afraid of market solutions, if they’re regulated properly. I am afraid of bureaucratic solutions, which breed inefficiency and waste. Governments should do things that can’t be done by the market, and provide the structure that markets need in order not to crush the unlucky and disadvantaged.

Does this make me a libertarian? Hardly.

Hayek has a point about the evils of collectivism. But again, we confuse the goals with the means. We can have progressive social goals, without collectivist means. And we can have market forces that work to provide individual liberty and social welfare, without the evils of laissez-faire. We just have to get beyond the tired categories and norms.

We know that regulation can work to structure and stabilize markets, without removing individual incentives and competition. And there’s plenty of evidence that unregulated capitalism is incredibly bad for most, if not all, participants. California’s energy market in 2001; the stock market prior to 1933; much of the economy in general during the Gilded Age.

Proposals like Matthew Miller’s “Two Percent Solution” should be adopted by liberals as the most direct means of achieving our goals, provided that the means includes enough oversight and regulation. In my view, if we can give Americans universal health care by forging a bargain between government and private health care, we should do so without hesitation. The “road to serfdom,” to use Hayek’s timeless term, is about goals, as much as means. Not all collectivist methods are evil, just as not all market-oriented methods are evil. The goals matter, as do the ways we provide oversight and accountability.

I, for one, welcome carefully thought out market approaches to reaching liberal/progressive goals. And I’m tired of hearing politicians argue the same old methods. After all, one definition of insanity is doing the same thing, over and over, expecting a different result.