Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Balancing individual and community

It must be the political crazy season. NPR shows highlighted two political books today.

The first was on Morning Edition. The book is The Road to Freedom: Moral Debate For Free Enterprise by Arthur C. Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute. Yeah, this is a conservative take on our current economic and government issues. The author's discussion with Steve Inskeep is under 8 minutes.

Brooks says the solutions to economic problems must be posed in moral terms. Hmm. Let's see, we've had the conservative moral viewpoint on abortion and gay marriage, so I have a guess where this is going. But Brooks wants the conservative moral viewpoint out for debate because those that don't like free enterprise (such as the poor) have been making moral arguments already. The economic debate will be fairness and that is a moral issue.

According to Brooks, people are happier with less government. That's a pretty big blanket statement and I can think of instances where citizens would very much like their government involved. But onward to the big question. How much less?

The government should do two things. First, provide a safety net for the truly poor -- food, housing, medical care. The problem with current government programs is that too many of them benefit the middle class.

Second, work to "rectify cases where markets don't give us the best outcomes: monopolies, cases of pollution." The government shouldn't get involved in "picking winners, social engineering, stimulus, bailouts."

Inskeep jumped on the inclusion of pollution on that list. Brooks went into a bit of detail -- yes, gov't should be dealing with global warming (or at least not issuing blanket denials), but a system like "cap and trade," though developed as a free-market system, is too open to corporate cronyism.

Another issue Inskeep mentions is the gov't programs that keep the middle class from slipping into poverty. Brooks doesn't answer that. Instead he looks at the moral argument for welfare and says that before the reform in the mid 1990s (that date is from me and I'm not sure of it) welfare hurt people more than it helped them. I suppose I'd have to read the book for his justification. Inskeep tries again. What about the small business owner who needs gov't help to keep the business afloat to prevent the owner from becoming poor? Brooks counters that owner would not need gov't handouts if we got rid of "regulatory barriers, the tax barriers, the labor market barriers, the environmental barriers."

Brooks concludes by saying we all want free enterprise in the abstract, but we're too willing to take the goodies politicians hand out.

Now for some of my thoughts. In his second function of gov't Brooks mentions "crime, public goods like the army." That would include the court system and these departments from the Cabinet: State, Justice, Treasury, Defense, Veterans Affairs, Homeland Security, and maybe Transportation (and other things related to infrastructure or "public goods"). But leaves me wondering about such departments as Interior (environmental quality good, national parks bad?), Agriculture, Commerce, Labor, Health and Humans Services, Housing and Urban Development, Energy, and the missing one that most caught my attention -- Education. Does Brooks think that gov't should not be involved in education? Maybe just not the federal gov't?

I don't know enough about what the Department of Agriculture does to tell whether its elimination would be an improvement. However, I wonder if the capriciousness of both free markets and weather might mean the end of the family farmer and if giant agribusinesses are an improvement. Maybe not. Then there is Health and Human Services. Because I think health should not be subjected to the whims of the marketplace I think gov't should get involved. And what about the health research and disease tracking done by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention?

I know Brooks missed education as an essential function of government. I could spend a while contemplating what else is missing from his list. Perhaps things that make life enjoyable, such as support for the arts or exploration of space (and I say this on the day the first commercial rocket is sending supplies to the Space Station). I'm also concerned about Brooks wanting to eliminate environmental barriers. I think we do more damage to the environment than we would classify as pollution. An example of this is turning wetlands into shopping malls.

Brooks says he is against government involvement in social engineering. Should government not have intervened in ending Jim Crow and passing the Civil Right Act? What about gay rights and marriage equality? Women's reproductive freedom?

A big aspect Brooks didn't talk about (at least not in this interview) is the contrast between his view of conservatism and what the GOP is pushing. Brooks says gov't shouldn't pick winners and provide bailouts. On the one hand I hope he means we should end all subsidies to the oil industry. On the other I think the gov't did the right thing in bailing out GM and Chrysler. I wonder what he believes about getting corporate money out of politics. It appears the GOP is pushing for the elimination of safety nets for the poor as well as programs that benefit the middle class -- while clamoring for more programs to benefit the rich.

The other book was on All Things Considered this evening. It makes a nice contrast to Brooks' book. It is Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent by E. J. Dionne Jr. In spite of the Tea Party claim that American is all about individualism, we have always worked for a balance between the individual and the community, between the I and the we. This search for balance was at work by the time of the Declaration of Independence. The authors talk about the rights of an individual, but in their signing statement recognize liberty is a joint effort.

There is also a long history of strong federal government. Alexander Hamilton saw a role for gov't in making America a manufacturing powerhouse. Henry Clay saw a governmental role in creating infrastructure. Before Social Security there was a big gov't role in Civil War pensions.

Yes, there needs to be a check on gov't power. But there also needs to be a check on concentrated private power. Capitalism is great, but can't do it all and sometimes needs corrections.
I think those who are called liberal or progressive now represent that tradition of balance, and that what we are for is refreshing, refurbishing the long consensus. But our arguments — certainly the argument of my book — is America governs itself best when it preserves [the] public, private, individual and the communal; preserves those kinds of balances. I think, temporarily, conservatism has been taken over by those who want to wreck and overturn that long consensus.

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