Sunday, October 16, 2005

The Ideal Political Platform Part #1

Often during conversations with friends across the political spectrum, we arrive at a point where we jointly acknowledge that the two mainstream political parties in the U.S. are both extremely lacking, and that voting for either one of them is typically a “lesser of evils” type of decision. This is not to say that voting is unimportant or that there aren’t significant differences between the Democrats and Republicans, only that both parties support so much that is offensive that we have to grit our teeth when we vote for them.

For those who generally lean towards the Democrats (such as myself) the nagging feeling that they have truly have become an odd assortment of special interests groups without a clear unifying message is extremely troublesome. The “we need more money for programs X ,Y, and Z” without any assessment of how well the programs are working or how they could be improved is also problematic, and so is the complete lack of courage on the social issues front. If one Democrat could simply come out and say that they support gay marriage a weight would be lifted from my shoulders every time November rolls around. Add to this the resurgent anti-free trade/pro-protectionism nonsense that is making the rounds in Democratic circles and it’s enough to make me want to bang my head against the wall. And don’t even get me started on the endless pleas for economic populism that have failed for the last three decades (please, no more stories about mill workers, we’re in the 21st century already!).

On the other side, for those who typically vote Republican, the main grievance is that the GOP is being taken over by religious extremists who want to curtail freedom and impose their own narrow views of morality on the rest of this (putting aside the fact that there is widespread disagreement and virulent animosity even amongst the different Christian groups that vie for the GOP’s loyalty). Most traditional Republicans were originally attracted to the GOP because of its libertarian leanings, but these have slowly eroded as the GOP has now taken an official position in support of amending the Constitution to deny gay people’s rights. The abominable displays of heavy-handed government intervention in the Teri Schiavo case are also enough to make people distrustful of “big government” very uneasy. Given that it has only taken five years of Republican dominance to prove that Republicans are even more profligate spenders than the Democrats and will bend over backwards to expand government as long as the money ends up in the hands of big business (and their political supporters), any pretense of fiscal discipline and small-government in the GOP has been shattered. Did I mention corruption?

So what is a thinking woman or man to do?

Come up with what an ideal political platform of course, since imagination is the mother of actualization. (And it doesn’t hurt to dream.)

Before delving into specifics, a few words on classical liberalism/conservatism are in order. Many people don’t realize that both of these movements, which seem so antithetical these days, actually have similar roots. The reasons they now appear so diametrically opposed is because they have so greatly diverged from their original foundations, and hence are largely unrecognizable from what they once were.

One of the most famous articulations of the classic liberal/conservative philosophy is Milton Freidman’s, “Capitalism and Freedom.” (I highly recommend that everyone read this if you haven’t already). That Friedman is largely vilified by those on the Left and praised, but largely ignored in practice, by those on the Right is a testament to how far we have strayed in America from a political common ground that had a lot going for it. Let me be clear that Friedman takes many of his ideas too far and history has proven him wrong on many accounts, but nonetheless, the basic political program he lays out is sound and is deserving of careful analysis. There is no reason to reinvent the wheel, and revising and updating the basic tents of classic liberalism/conservatism provide the best hope for a new and improved political platform that would attract large majorities of Americans.

Below, I outline five of the main points of the classic liberal/conservative program with some additional commentary:

1. The role of government should be limited to those things that the government does best or which only the government can perform- e.g. providing national defense or providing courts and a legal system. The beauty of this point is that it doesn’t by default favor a “small” or “big” government, just one that is most effective and efficient. If there are areas where government can do as good a job as the private sector so be it. Where it can’t, the burden of proof should be on those who want the government to perform these services and demonstrate what social purpose this serves.

2. To the extent that we want to provide a minimum standard of living for all of our citizens this should be accomplished in ways that are minimally distorting to the economy, which suggests a guaranteed minimum income instead of all sorts of complicated schemes to provide specific services such as food, housing, and medical care. The underlying rationale behind this concept is so simple that it eludes most people. If we added up all the money that the government currently spends on all types of social programs we’d realize that we (as a society) are not getting a good deal for our money. Public housing usually turns into ghettos, public schools in most cities are of such a low quality as to be criminal, and for all of the money we spend on health care, tens of millions of Americans don’t even have basic health insurance. Instead of all of the thousands of bureaucracies managing all of these programs, which create all sorts of perverse incentives in the economy, why don’t we just determine some minimum level of income and guarantee that all Americans earn at least this amount? Yeah, it’s welfare but so are all the other subsidies. Obviously, for such a thing to work, the “devil is in the details,” but the minimum would be low enough that virtually everyone would choose to work and it could be phased over a large enough bottom wrung of income that it wouldn’t create bizarre circumstances where people would earn very little more than the minimum when working a full-time job. In addition to the added efficiency, it would allow people to choose to allot their income the way they best see fit- e.g. a little more or less on housing or schooling depending on their particular family needs. (The concept of a minimum income seems quite radical today, but most people don’t realize that it was actually part of Richard Nixon’s 1972 presidential platform. Every conservative should ask themselves how it is that the party that campaigned promising a minimum income now seems to be concerned mostly with cutting taxes for the rich. And every liberal should ask why one of the arch conservatives of the 20th century is the only U.S. politician to ever speak openly about this concept.)

3. The tax system should be as simple and transparent as possible so that it is fair and so that we can minimize cheating- e.g. we should have just a few rates for different levels of income and no deductions whatsoever. (Although many conservatives currently argue for a completely “flat tax” system, where everyone no matter how much they earn pays the same percentage in taxes, a vastly simplified and more efficient tax code does not preclude progressive rates.) The benefits of a simplified tax system would be tremendous since so much money is spent on both preparing taxes and reviewing them, most of which would be saved under a new system. In addition, cheating would be made greatly more difficult since the system would be devoid of complicated schemes that can be exploited by lawyers and accountants. The savings would be so great that overall tax rates could be reduced.

4. Adults should be free to engage in whatever type of behavior they want to as long as it doesn’t directly harm others. This is generally thought of as social libertarianism, which has it roots in the writings of John Stuart Mill. The principle is simple; the burden of proof should always be on those who want to curtail liberty and freedom, rather than on those who want to exercise their liberty and freedom. Some logical conclusions from this philosophy are that gays should enjoy full legal rights, including marriage, and that almost all forms of personal drug use should be decriminalized. This doesn’t mean that the government doesn’t have a role in making sure people don’t harm people due to the influence of drugs or even discouraging types of risky sexual behavior that have dire social consequences, only that the restrictions on liberty should be tied as closely to the acts which harm society as possible; e.g. drunk driving is illegal, but consuming alcohol is not.

5. Put an end to corporate subsidies of every kind. Corporations should earn their revenue through the production of products that are desired by members of society and inasmuch as they cannot do so in a way that is profitable they should find alternatives. Again, the logic is simple and when one takes the time to realize how many hundreds of billions of dollars are doled out to profitable corporations every year one can see the huge potential savings that could be used to provide other societal goods (such as minimum income). Not only is there no rationale for corporate subsidies by they often encourage corporations to engage in activities that are damaging to society and would not occur in the absence of the subsidies (the environmental devastation wrought by agricultural and forest subsidies is case in point, but by no means the only example).

Next week: Suggestions on how these fundamentals should be augmented in order to meet the needs of America in the 21st century. In future weeks I will also touch on foreign policy.

J.S.

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