Liberty, Community and the “Blue Beast”
A very liberal colleague of mine opined recently on Facebook if God was more concerned about budget issues which in his view only affected the rich, or in making sure that health care was expanded.
I tend to think that most of my pastor friends, who tend to be liberal are thinking the same thing. They tend to believe that making sure that people have health care is not only the moral thing to do, but it is something God requires of all people and damn the cost. For them, this is an issue of justice, not economics.
While I share some of their concerns about the lack of access to health care, I do think that budgetary concerns are an important issue. They can’t be the only issue, but they are important. If we enter a Greece-style situation, then we will have to slash all these domestic programs we have enacted, but never truly funded. It’s far better to make sure these programs are sustainable in the long run instead of whistling past the graveyard.
What this comes down to is what economist Greg Mankiw notes as a trade off between equality and efficiency or between liberty and community. Neither side is necessarily bad, they are just two ways of look at American society and government. Liberals have always concerned themselves more with equality and community. This explains why they were so adamant on health care. Having millions of Americans with no access to health care and millions more in danger of losing it, is something that Democrats can’t tolerate. In their view, this leads to a breakdown in community. Conservatives tend to focus more on efficiency and liberty. Conservatives wonder about the cost of something, especially a government program. They worry about debt and dysfunction (or at least they pretend to worry). They see government as something that can intrude up liberty.
I grew up with parents that took the equality and community issue to heart and some of that remains with me to this day. But I also believe in efficient programs and gives its people a modicum of liberty.
As David Brooks notes today, the Democrats have it in their DNA to ensure community via a social welfare system, with near-universal health care as the crowning achievement. But when it comes to efficiency, someone else is going to have do the dirty work:
The task ahead is to save this country from stagnation and fiscal ruin. We know what it will take. We will have to raise a consumption tax. We will have to preserve benefits for the poor and cut them for the middle and upper classes. We will have to invest more in innovation and human capital.
The Democratic Party, as it revealed of itself over the past year, does not seem to be up to that coming challenge (neither is the Republican Party). This country is in the position of a free-spending family careening toward bankruptcy that at the last moment announced that it was giving a gigantic new gift to charity. You admire the act of generosity, but you wish they had sold a few of the Mercedes to pay for it.
Brooks is taking on something that writer Walter Russell Mead has talked about in the past: taking on the “Blue Social Model.” Mead describes it as such:
In the old system, both blue collar and white collar workers hold stable jobs, a professional career civil service administers a growing state, with living standards for all social classes steadily rising while the gaps between the classes remain fairly stable, and with an increasing ’social dividend’ being paid out in various forms: longer vacations, more and cheaper state-supported education, earlier retirement, shorter work weeks and so on. Graduate from high school and you were pretty much guaranteed lifetime employment in a job that gave you a comfortable lower middle class lifestyle; graduate from college and you would be better paid and equally secure.
Life would just go on getting better. From generation to generation we would live a life of incremental improvements — the details of life would keep getting better but the broad outlines of our society would stay the same. The advanced industrial democracies of had in fact reached the ‘end of history’: this is what ‘developed’ human society looked like and there would be no more radical changes because the picture had fully developed.
Call this the blue model, and the chief division in American politics today is between those who think the blue model is the only possible or at least the best feasible way to organize a modern society and want to shore it up and defend it, and those who think the blue model, whatever benefits it had in the past, is no longer sustainable.
In many ways, the health care bill that has just been signed into law is part of that blue social model. It’s a holdover from the glorious days of the blue social model in the 50s and 60s. However, like the introduction of Medicare Part D before it, the health care bill enters a new age where the model is breaking down.
Mead argues that we can’t expect the blue beast to keep going forever. Government as he notes, is breaking down:
The real crisis today is the accelerating collapse of blue government. It’s a colossal, multi-dimensional meltdown that affects our lives and our politics in many ways. Today there are three elements of the blue government meltdown in particular worth mentioning.
The first is the government’s role in providing the benefits associated with the blue system. When we talk about ‘runaway entitlement programs’ today we are talking about commitments by the government to provide retirement and other social benefits that originated as part of the blue system social contract. Workers could retire as early as 62 with a combination of Social Security, private pensions and, as of the 1960s, Medicare coverage. These costs are now exploding and it is clear that the government can’t pay them into the future.
The second crisis is that the government is now the last true-blue employer in the country. Federal, state and local governments are often staffed by lifetime civil servants, whose jobs are protected by law and by some of the last truly powerful unions in the country. That means it is incredibly expensive for governments to do anything at all, and they are poorly equipped to respond nimbly to the fast-changing conditions of America today. The cost problem is aggravated because quasi-governmental sectors of the economy (like the health and university industries) are also by and large pretty blue: high wages, stable employment, cumbersome procedures — and powerful unions. Government is simply too unproductive, too unresponsive and too expensive to do what needs to be done at a reasonable cost. (Government also still has the anti-consumer mentality of the old blue monopolies: if you don’t like the crappy services government provides — move.) Public schools are increasingly expensive to run, and yet they do not provide improved services to match those exploding costs.
Finally, culturally and intellectually, bureaucrats and politicians often remain blue. That is, they think instinctively in the old ways, come up with blue solutions to non-blue problems, and often fail to grasp either the constraints or the opportunities of the new era.
That said, people rely on many of the programs of the blue social model like Social Secruity or Medicare. Since these were programs that were created by the Democrats, the breakdown of the blue social model or “blue beast” affects the Democrats greatly. Mead notes, the people know that the model is going away, but still see the importance of said programs.
So what do we do?
I think for Republicans, we have to find a way to support these “blue” programs with some innovative “red” thinking. Red thinking does not mean repealing the new health care law. The fact is, most Americans want some form of health care protection. As the reforms take place, most of us, including myself, will warm up to the new plan. But the fact is, we can’t afford the plan in the way we could back in 1958 or 1963.
This is where the conservative penchant for efficiency comes in. We have to find ways to get the best bang for the least bucks. As Brooks notes, it means having to add consumption taxes, and cutting benefits for the middle and upper classes. It probably includes other things no one has even thought yet.
It’s time for the GOP to grow up and deal with the situation at hand. We lost our chance to stop this bill, but we now have chance to make it better and more efficient.
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