On Safety Nets

“By treating any and all social safety nets as irreversible steps on the Road to Serfdom, we allow liberals and progressives to shape those policies in ways that are inefficient, ineffective, and overbroad – even though Adam Smith, Hayek himself, and Friedman each advocated for a form of social safety net, demonstrating that social safety nets can be consistent with libertarianism.” ~ Mark Thompson

I actually think a certain fusion of the best of 20th Century classical/market liberalism and welfare liberalism is the best political philosophy.  I also think it may be possible to persuade many other people of this, and that they will find it attractive.”  ~ Will Wilkinson

In many discussions I have with liberals there is this common refrain – if there are safety nets, then it isn’t libertarianism. Or it isn’t conservatism – or whatever.  The perception of libertarian economic thought (or modern conservative or classical liberal economics in general) is that it is simply against any implementation of the welfare state.  I know for a long time I was very critical of libertarian economic ideas because I felt that they were:

  • A) too impractical or too difficult to implement in our particular system of governance (required purity, etc.) or
  • B) did not pay enough heed to the importance of safety nets, or
  • C) that they ignored moral and ethical implications leveled by anti-consumerist, protectionists, and others skeptical of free trade and capitalism.

I have been largely disabused of these notions through various debates here at the League, though I still think that the political process we face makes limiting government very difficult and that too much cultural emphasis on profits, consumption, and so forth is socially detrimental.  There is still a need to apply cultural pressure to help Americans see themselves as citizens and neighbors (and fathers and friends, etc.) rather than as merely “consumers.”

I think government can work, but it is naturally inclined to not work very well, and seems to stop functioning by degrees the fewer its limitations and the greater its scope.  This is why, in theory at least, a local government completely corrupt with unlimited power within its small sphere is far worse than a big federal government well-restricted by a savvy constitution and responsible lawmakers.  “Big” and “small” are irrelevant terms compared to “limited” and “unlimited.”  Then again, this is also why local governments are generally more adept at running such things as schools and libraries.

Markets, we must remember, are merely the manifestations of many individuals and communities making choices about what they purchase (the demand) and those other individuals and companies who provide said goods and services (the supply).  Markets are not merely the consumers or the producers or the merchants or the laborers, but the process of interactions between all these various groups.  It is important to distinguish, then, between pro-market arguments (which takes into account all the afore-mentioned parties) and pro-business arguments (which focus on the supply-side).  Now add to this mix of freely associating parties, the government.

Government intervention into the markets is by necessity going to effect how we as individuals or communities make decisions – either by propping up specific suppliers over others (possibly creating monopolization) or by preventing us from choosing to purchase something we want or require (war on drugs) or by removing from the market a good or service and providing it instead (possibly health care).  A local government deciding to fund a school or a library has far less of an effect on the market than a federal government attempting to draft a national health care program, or subsidizing big agriculture vis-a-vis ethanol laws.

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Now, to distinguish there are welfare liberals and classical liberals (often called libertarians or fiscal conservatives, though all of this gets rather muddied up when you start weaving together various strains of conservatism, etc).  Welfare liberals score points on the safety net questions, but then take that as a signal to move into other realms – heavy regulations on economic activity, for instance, and over-reach in environmental protection laws, which not only put a strain on the economy, but also severely limit personal freedoms based on bureaucratic decision-making, or create corporate welfare subsidies at the expense of individuals and taxpayers.

This is hardly the vision of a classically liberal nation.  And the reason that welfare liberals have been so successful in pushing their agenda so far is that they have taken ownership of the safety net issue, and have effectively argued that the only way to go about implementing these nets is through welfare-liberal policies – Big Government, in other words.  Throw not just money at the problem, but bureaucracy as well, and lots of it.  Let the “experts” handle the problems, rather than leaving it up to individuals or communities.  Experts know best….

The fact is, there is no reason safety nets should only be provided by central planners, or that the subject of safety nets must remain the providence of welfare liberals and the progressive movement.  Often as not, central planning is inefficient, and barely takes into account the individuals these plans are intended to help.  Similarly, such programs – like many centrally planned regulations – are inherently vulnerable to strong lobbying efforts, capture, etc.

I think one area that most welfare liberals and classical liberals share more than they realize in common with one another is their distaste for large, monolithic corporations who tend to spend far too much time in bed with politicians.  Ironically, it is often the very systems put in place by central planners that result in some of the worst abuses of private/public collusion.  This is what happens when government subsidizes supply – either through creating public health plans that favor certain industry players over others, or by including hefty tax subsidies to insurance companies in the current health care system.

Subsidizing the demand rather than the supply is essential to providing a more classically liberal version of safety nets.  This avoids many of the traps and pitfalls of central planning, and provides competition rather than monopolization.  Health care vouchers not only provide a viable safety net and a real alternative to whatever public option is created, they also keep the playing field more level than it is now or would be under the currently proposed health care reform.

Like Wilkinson, “I actually think a certain fusion of the best of 20th Century classical/market liberalism and welfare liberalism is the best political philosophy.”  Maybe the market can’t work out every kink in health care.  Sick people who need the care the most will be effectively pushed out of an affordable solution and their cost of care will fall on their own head in the form of bankruptcy or upon the hospitals and doctors who treat them, driving up the cost for everyone else.  There is room in this messy mix of inevitability for government to get involved and provide vouchers, catastrophic insurance, and so forth, but there is also room for private companies, cooperatives, and non-profits to provide their insurance plans as well.  And to avoid monopoly, exorbitant costs, and inefficiencies, we should avoid any avenue that subsidizes supply more than it does demand.  Vouchers can help to achieve this, while at the same time moving the country toward universal coverage and a better vision of safety nets for America.

Safety nets are an essential part of the public good.  The more they can be achieved at the local level the better.  The more private charities can care for our sick and elderly, the better.  The more we can rid ourselves of our own selfishness and care for each other and for our parents as they age and for our children as they grow, the better.  But short of that – short of the idealism that such a culture of selflessness requires – we should admit to the need for some government involvement.  And then we need to make sure its limited, effective, and honest to whatever degree possible.

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75 thoughts on “On Safety Nets

  1. It would be great if classical liberals invested themselves in the conversation about a safety net. Try posting that to Redstate, or some other such “conservative” web site and see how well it goes over. But if they want to then I think the place to start is not with describing the means you want to use, but with the goals you want to achieve. I don’t have a problem with the means you are offering but I doubt they will do all that you think they will. Charities are absolutely great at some things but also have many inherent limitations. As a someone who has worked in the safety net, we want all the help we can get from wherever it will come from. The objection to more charities, local involvement and societal investment in a safety net will not come from the left side of the aisle. And lets start with specfic goals first and try all the means to get there.

    “Let the “experts” handle the problems, rather than leaving it up to individuals or communities. Experts know best….”

    In some ways yes, the experts should handle the problems and have a large voice in how things work. FEMA should be run by people who have a lot of experience in running emergency operations. If you have cancer you probably want a cancer expert. One of the things that may rankle me at times is when people who have never worked in the safety net or mental health or whatever want to tell me how to do my job and how the system should be run without having had any significant experience. I’m not saying you are doing that E.D. since I don’t know your background. It’s just a general statement about these kind of debates. Nor do I believe that everybody who has experience in those kinds of jobs agrees with me, because that is far from true. It is just a part of our debates that Americans often feel free to bloviate at people about things they don’t know much about solely on their own political beliefs. I am sure I have never ever done that myself.

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    • One of the things that may rankle me at times is when people who have never worked in the safety net or mental health or whatever want to tell me how to do my job and how the system should be run without having had any significant experience.

      See, but I entirely agree with this – and that’s exactly the problem with ceding power to the bureaucrats. They are faux-experts at best. Look at education. Who is the real expert? The teacher or the Dept. of Education worker? Is the real expert the cancer doctor or some guy at the DHHS?

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        • One thing I’ve sort of noticed. When people encounter the government with regards to their own stuff, they tend to come back with stories about how inept the government actually is (also see: Journalism). They get this wrong, that wrong, the other thing wrong. Holy cow, they got basic *FACTS* wrong.

          And yet, when it comes to stuff outside of their sphere, the basic assumption is that the government knows what it’s doing (also see: Journalism).

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          • I spent several years covering the California community college system, and I could tell you a lot of anecdotes about things I’d like to see fixed about it.

            That doesn’t change the fact that, taken as a whole, the world’s largest system of higher education has done an enormous amount of good for the state of California. Democratizing college like no other place in the union is a key reason California is the nation’s leader in technology.

            Yes, the things government does are often imperfect. They are also often beneficial and irreplaceable.

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            • Fair enough. Though I think California as a whole should be seen more as a cautionary tale at this point than anything else, but yes – I think there’s a lot to learn from their Higher Ed. system.

              And there is a really great place for expert educators to move to after they teach students – into programs that teach teachers, or into charter-school development programs, etc.

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              • The only reason California is a cautionary tale is because of the ridiculously unbalanced tax structure forced upon it by Prop. 13.

                With negligible property taxes, compared to other states, California has to rely heavily on income and sales taxes that are way too high. The two-thirds majority to pass a budget is a ridiculous requirement that gives a tiny minority excessive power.

                Prop. 13 needs to be repealed so that the state’s taxation can be sustainably rebalanced.

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                • Umm that’s a gross oversimplification of California’s problems and to say its all Prop 13’s fault ignores any number of bad laws, bad legislators, bad governors, bad ballot propositions, and a dysfunctional political system to boot.

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                  • Prop. 13 was the spark that ignited the ballot-box budgeting revolution. I’ll agree that plenty more came after, but ultimately much of what came after were Band-Aids applied in the wake of Prop. 13’s effects.

                    For example, Prop. 98 established a Constitutional state funding guarantee for K-14 education. It passed because after Prop. 13, local property taxes weren’t enough to fund public schools and the state had to start kicking in general fund money. Education interests wanted to make sure the state Legislature could not significantly cut their funding, and managed to get Prop. 98 passed.

                    Prop. 98 is enormously restrictive and almost certainly damaging to the state budgeting process. But it’s politically untouchable.

                    Peter Schrag, a longtime Sacramento Bee Capitol beat reporter, has written a couple books about the disasters of ballot box budgeting and the cautionary tale it leaves for the rest of the nation. Pick up “Paradise Lost” and “California: America’s High-Stakes Experiment.” They’re pretty stunning.

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                    • Oh I completely agree that ballot box budgeting is quite harmful, but I don’t think it’s fair to say that, if only, Prop 13 weren’t around/had been defeated, we wouldn’t have a budgetary mess.

                      Moreover, Prop 13 came about for a reason and the effect of automatically increasing property taxes in the 70’s wasn’t just inconvenient it was directly threatening to retirees, the elderly, and low income homeowners. As for state education funding guarantees, even without Prop 13, there’s no guarantee that the effects of Serrano v. Priest wouldn’t have resulted in Prop 98 or something like it.

                      The fact is we don’t know and it’s not like California hasn’t had 31 years to rig up an alternative system or devise a politically workable way of restructuring the state’s tax code.

                      When I get a chance to read those, I think I’d like to. My original point was simply to point out that Prop 13 isn’t the only reason California is in such a mess. In much the same way that this isn’t all Gray Davis’ fault or Arnold’s or the Dems or the Republicans or the voters or the public employee unions. They all played a part. We all played a part.

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                    • Oh, absolutely. Prop. 13 definitely came for a reason. No doubt about that. Some form of property tax reform was needed.

                      But the “solution” was so absurdly draconian that it didn’t really solve anything. It just kicked the can further down the road. Impossible to raise property taxes? OK, we’ll increase sales and income taxes to absurd levels.

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                • Let’s bust out the Rawls. I have, in my sweaty hand, a bowler hat containing 50 pieces of paper. Your child (your very own instance of The Children) will be going to a public school in the state written on the piece of paper I pull from this bowler.

                  Let’s say I pick out California. Is your initial response “yay”?

                  I ask because mine sure as hell wouldn’t be.

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                  • California’s performance is actually right about average, right? So my intial reaction would be something like, “Well, that could be worse. Or better.”

                    But I guess I wouldn’t lose too much sleep. Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, or anywhere in the Northeast would be great. The South would be awful. California is just… eh.

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                    • I tend to consider Kansas a quasi-Midwestern state, actually. The Midwest being generally well-known for getting education right, that seems to work here.

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                    • Well actually, California is next to last. Thank goodness for Mississippi.

                      …and you’d probably be surprised by the number of functionally illiterate children are cranked out of public schools in Connecticut.

                      But jaybird is doing you a favor by not including the District of Columbia.

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                    • The stuff I’ve seen says California gets an F. I’m sure that there are parts of the state that are the bomb, of course… but if I put a list of counties into that same bowler, you would *SERIOUSLY* be crossing your fingers.

                      http://www.uschamber.com/icw/reportcard/default

                      This looks to me like a list of states being graded on crappiness of the winters. If you’re above a certain part of the map, you’re likely to have a crappy winter/decent education. Below it? You’re likely to have a temperate winter/crappy education. Rhode Island (!) and West Virginia (.) being notable exceptions.

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            • Yes, the things government does are often imperfect. They are also often beneficial and irreplaceable.

              Unproven hypothesis. I’m all for recognizing what and when government does something well – which is a lot of things in a lot of places, but it’s too much for me to take to presume how invaluable government is or progressive solutions are using not only unproven hypotheses but often untestable ones.

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              • Which unproven hypotheses are we talking about? On the issue of health care, for instance, we have various systems all over the world that outperform ours. We have a straight-up cornucopia of evidence. The unproven hypothesis is the one that claims, for whatever reason, none of those things can work here.

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                • My I know they can grow olives in California in November, but I’m mystified as to why I can’t in Maine.

                  Just because something works in Place A is absolutely no guarantee that it will work in Place B. If you say oh look, rich, industrialized country and stop your comparison. Sure we’re exactly like Europe. However, if you go further and look at political cultures, cultural homogeneity.

                  The choice isn’t between xeroxing Germany and health care reform can’t happen here. It’s a debate over what kind of health care reform is needed here and what will work. However, Travis’ generalized statement about the irreplaceable benefits of government leave much to be desired in the area of convincing arguments.

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                  • What’s the evidence it won’t work? We haven’t tried it, have we? So how do you know it would totally fail?

                    Why would our cultural heterogenity make a difference in the cost of providing health care?

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                    • Umm…first that’s not the argument I’m making. I provided an example to bolster my point that the transitive property works in math but not always in public policy.

                      In fact, asking for evidence that something doesn’t work is shockingly backwards. That’s not how good science works, that’s not how good social science works, that’s certainly not how good policy is made. I’m not saying health care reform in America is doomed and wouldn’t work. I’m just saying I think you’re case makes some very unwarranted assumptions. I’d like to test those before embarking on a trillion dollar experiment.

                      It seems to me that the burden of proof is on those seeking change not the ones who aren’t convinced.

                      Finally, I didn’t say or imply that cultural homogeneity has any effect on health care costs…though I’d be curious to know if it did in Japan. No cultural homogeneity has to do with acceptable trade offs, political culture, and what can be sustained by a populace. If the American people aren’t willing to support health care for the long haul, it’s a very valid situation if we’re setting ourselves up for even more catastrophic failure down the road.

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              • Unproven hypothesis? Not in the least.

                Iraq showed us exactly what happens when we outsource military functions to mercenaries, for example. Are you suggesting that Blackwater was anything but an epic fail?

                The bloody repression of 19th century strikes by armed thugs wearing tin stars told us that private police forces were a terrible idea.

                As Ryan mentioned, there is ample evidence provided by any number of Western nations that government-operated health care systems work just fine.

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                • And yet, the Vatican has outsourced protection of the Pope to the Swiss guards for centuries. They haven’t failed yet.

                  As for health care systems that work “just fine.” So does ours. It’s not great but the sky isn’t falling and our population is growing.

                  The point is I think ideas should be tested rather than assumed. That goes for conservative pet ideas like lower taxes and deregulation as well as liberal ones.

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                  • Well, our system “works just fine” in the sense that it’s in the neighborhood of the other OECD systems. It’s also among the very worst of those and is, by a significant margin, the most expensive. It is by no means the great shame of the universe, but it is also by no means “the greatest health care system in the world” (as many Republicans are constantly telling us).

                    The point, of course, is not that ours is fine. It’s that ours, relative to the other kids in the class, is at the bottom of the curve.

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      • Why are you assuming that the Dept. of Education worker hasn’t been a teacher and that the DHHS worker hasn’t spent his career researching cancer?

        You fall into the trap of automatically assuming the worst of government.

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            • Not at all. See my above comment – I think there’s lots of good he can do. But what I doubt he can do very well is dictate to the nation as a whole how best to handle education.

              In any case, this is not really meant to be an education thread. Maybe I’ll work up a piece on education reform soon…

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    • This perhaps goes without saying, but I second the bit on experts here. I think ED – and the other conservative/libertarian types here – tend to devalue government workers without that much evidence. The “experts” in the bureaucracy tend to be very smart people with a lot of experience and a lot of knowledge. These are people who have built careers out of knowing the literature, the economics, and the big picture of these issues. Some of them are quacks, for sure, but many of them are very, very good at what they do.

      Because anecdote is the singular of data: I work for the FAA. The people around me are full-on experts in aviation issues. They understand the airspace, the economics of the industry, the trends and goals, and so forth. The FAA takes a lot of flack for things like delays, but these folks also run an incredibly safe, very efficient, and hideously complex system. And they do it basically from the top-down.

      There are plenty of reasons why this may not work for things like education and health care, but assuming the worst about the federal bureaucracy just because you’ve been to the DMV too many times is unfair to a lot of people.

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      • Nobody is “devaluing” them or their expertise. The question is one of power. Does their expertise give them the right or the power, etc. to make broad federal decisions or is their more value to autonomy and decision making at the smallest scale possible. Call it subsidiarity, or call it what you will, but I think that the closer we get to a problem or a community or a decision and its consequences, the better we are able to confront it.

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        • Hm, well, as I think we’ve discussed a lot, I’m not that interested in questions about rights and such. The only thing that really worries me is what works. I think there is plenty of room for some imposition of national standards – even a national funding model – that takes into account the things we basically know are true from extensive studying of the problem. That said, I do agree that a lot of decisions relating to the specific needs of individual children, are almost certainly better handled by their teachers. But I’m also not sure anyone – even high-end radicals like me – want a bureaucrat deciding who gets to go to latchkey or something.

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      • I actually agree you with Ryan, here. It’s counterproductive and terribly not community minded to treat anything and everything done by the government as inherently inferior and bureaucracy as tantamount to murdering the American Dream.

        However, I think where E.D. is coming from – and to a large degree I agree with him, is that there are limits to just how effective and responsive experts can be. That building a system that allows for communities to take more ownership of the problems that beset them can help ensure outcomes the community wants/likes/needs instead of getting a pre-packaged better outcome that was designed by somebody who doesn’t really know whether their solutions will actually work for said community.

        Maybe I’m reading too much into this, and E.D. please correct me if I am, but I read this as a proposal for balance. To build a system that provides federal support for local solutions rather than a system that provides national solutions to local problems.

        I don’t think it’s a terribly revolutionary or controversial idea (particularly after 1776) that people should have a fair amount of say in the government that affects their lives. As a corollary to that, the larger the pool of people, the less say individuals and less powerful interest groups have at the expense of really powerful interest groups.

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        • Pretty much. I think Mark is on to something with the Wyden/Bennett plan as striking some balance between fiscal sanity and universal coverage. Obviously the idea of vouchers would still require support from the feds and state level, but would still leave much decision making in the hands of smaller groups/individuals. Certainly cooperation is important. I just think the belief that centrally planning everything from the top down is the right approach, especially in a country as vast as ours, and with our particular customs, laws, etc.

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      • Ryan,

        Where were the experts on Bernie Madoff? A $65 billion Ponzi scheme should be a VERY easy thing to spot out, especially when you have a seasoned expert in the private sector who attempted to warn the SEC about this (repeatedly).

        If you answer this correctly, you’ll understand why expertise may not be worth the paper it’s printed it, and when you do, you’ll understand my skepticism towards government.

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        • I fail to see how non-federal agencies would have been any more successful in preventing Madoff’s scheme. Without the SEC, you just have more Madoffs bilking more people. This is an argument for more regulation, not less.

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          • It’s an argument for better experts doing the enforcing. The skeptic of government has a theory about how the market will self-regulate the Madoffs so that they should not be a great concern, or at least he should.

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  2. “There is still a need to apply cultural pressure to help Americans see themselves as citizens and neighbors (and fathers and friends, etc.) rather than as merely “consumers.”

    Oh, I think we are deep and diverse enough to understand ourselves and others as both, and even more.

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  3. Safety nets are an essential part of the public good. The more they can be achieved at the local level the better. The more private charities can care for our sick and elderly, the better. The more we can rid ourselves of our own selfishness and care for each other and for our parents as they age and for our children as they grow, the better. But short of that – short of the idealism that such a culture of selflessness requires – we should admit to the need for some government involvement. And then we need to make sure its limited, effective, and honest to whatever degree possible.

    From the more liberal side of the aisle, I agree iwth your closing statement. The basic problem most liberals have these days, however, is that the neoconservatives who have risen to lead the Republican Party (which is the national face of conservativism these days) reject ANY safety net as being anathema to market economics. In their view (Social Darwinism at its finest, FWIW), if you have welfare, social security, medicare, envrionmentalprotection, or anything that even remotely looks like them – you suppress the competitive drive that humans supposedly have, and you make people dependent on something other then market based capitolism for their success. Such a world will not do for these neocons, and so they fight tooth and nail to destroy it.

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  4. I like the idea of using vouchers to provide universal access to health care. And yet, without restructuring the current health insurance industry, it’s not going to fix the cost problem. Nor will it remove the motive insurers have to provide less and less coverage in search of higher and higher profits.

    In general though, I agree with the idea of implementing safety nets through government grants and vouchers versus the supply side. Harness the power of the market to make government more responsive and efficient. But that doesn’t mean we can just leave business alone, especially if they’re cashing in on those grants and vouchers.

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  5. I am skeptical for two reasons:

    1. The so-called liberaltarians (or whatever) like Wilkinson talk a great game about what they would like to see the safety net look like, and then they oppose every single meaningful measure that comes out of Congress. There’s no logical contradiction here, for sure, but if the only bills that attempt to take seriously things like climate change and expanding health care coverage are met with sneering contempt from people like Wilkinson, it’s hard to take seriously his claim that he’s with us on principle.

    2. You talk a nice game here about things like vouchers, but I’m not sure I’ve seen a lot of evidence for the system. Maybe I’m just unfamiliar with that branch of the literature, but is there some empirical reason to believe that vouchers will achieve what we’re after. The only analog I can think of – which is weak for all sorts of reasons – is school vouchers, which have been a pretty anemic example of how to improve government services. (Setting aside the arguments about not making them available enough, etc, the evidence is that they’ve been at best a marginal improvement.)

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    • 1. To my knowledge, Wilkinson’s problems with climate change legislation are precisely that he thinks it hurts the world’s poor; on health care, I think I’ve shown that it is at least a good-faith position to argue that the public option (at least in the form that it is likely to become law) will do more harm than good.

      2. On vouchers – I have seen mixed data on the question of whether they improve performance, though the mix tends to be “yes, they do” versus “they don’t do any good or harm.” I haven’t seen anything to show that they actively make performance worse. Beyond that, though, the best and most important argument for vouchers (in any context) has little to do with performance; instead, it has to do with the idea that individuals are best situated to make their own decisions about what is “good” education, health care, etc. Vouchers are a way of acknowledging that one size does not fit all with regards to certain arenas but that it is nonetheless important that people at least have access to those arenas.

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      • 1. I know what Wilkinson’s problems are. But I don’t know what he thinks is a good idea, necessarily, or what he would compromise in order to get it. The thing about being a blogger is that you don’t actually have to deal with reality. That’s good for ideas and bad for policy.

        2. I understand that voucher proponents believe they are an important way to exercise one’s freedom, but as I’ve said elsewhere, I’m just not compelled by that argument. The “right” to choose which school your kids go to is, at best, a tertiary kind of freedom. It’s far more important to create an education system that works rather than one that caters to the warm and squishy feelings of people who just loooooove freedom. And the evidence seems to indicate that vouchers probably do some good for some people but basically don’t represent a useful solution for the deep problems of the system.

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        • But the whole point is that there’s no consensus on “what works”! There’s a disturbing lack of agreement on what constitutes the “deep problems of the system” beyond a general agreement that we want kids to do really, really well at reading and math.

          Experts and, perhaps, bureaucrats are fine at making positive or empirical judgments; however, they are terrible vehicles for making normative judgments. Unless there is a clear social consensus on a normative judgment, individuals should be able to pursue their own normative ends.

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          • Notably, despite our agreement that we want kids to do really, really well at reading and math, our kids, um, don’t do that well. So maybe we start there. Let’s ask some experts how to improve our reading and math scores. And then let’s actually take their advice.

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              • I was not under the impression that all federally-funded services are provided in the exact same way in every place. Is that false?

                Notably, there are lots of things experts don’t agree on that we just try our best with because it’s the right thing to do. I guarantee a lot of people would like us to run things differently in every part of the federal government. That said, just because I think the Post Office should do some things differently doesn’t mean I think every locality should have an independent postal service.

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            • While there’s a consensus that math and reading are important, there’s no consensus (nor could there be) on how much more important they are than other subjects ranging from history to science to geography to gym to….. What has happened as a result of federalization, though, is that schools are often being forced to treat them as so important that if they don’t meet certain more or less arbitrary benchmarks, then those subjects need to be almost to the exclusion of just about everything else.

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          • Also, let’s be clear on one thing, because I don’t think I’ve said anything terribly radical for a few minutes. We are not talking about “individuals pursuing their own normative ends”. We are talking about parents enforcing their normative goals on behalf of their children. Insofar as one doesn’t believe that children are property of their parents, one may be somewhat skeptical of plans that call for radical parental authority over these kinds of choices.

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            • “Those children are not your property!” is a fine sentiment.

              It’s the “therefore, they should be raised *THIS* way” is where I start to freak out at your illiberality.

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              • Oh please. I’m not telling people they have to feed their kids 3 servings of broccoli a week. I’m telling them they have to send them to schools where they’ll learn how to read and write and do math. No one is advocating for any kind of hyper-hippie communism here.

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                • Fine as well as it goes. It’s the opposition to vouchers and the idea that we need to double down on school districts that currently are not teaching the three Rs where, again, I freak out about illiberality.

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            • Well, but if there’s no universal or national consensus on what those normative goals should be beyond some vague parameters (math and reading are important, corporal punishment is child abuse), then aren’t parents better situated than just about anyone else to set those normative goals for their own children since they actually know their own children?

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        • If vouchers don’t improve the deep problems, hasn’t it been discovered that, at least, they don’t make them worse (seriously, I’ve seen that sort of thing).

          As such, isn’t catering to the bullshit ideas of “liberty” that stupid hillbillies have something that might be a positive good in and of itself?

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          • I’m open to that idea. Do we allow the social utility function to account for how good it makes people feel that they get to make choices that don’t make any sense? Maybe. But, again, they are making these choices on behalf of other people, not themselves.

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              • Whoa whoa whoa, what?

                A) Those decisions often do result in harm. Choosing to give your kids a worse education because you have moral objections to the way their school does something is, in fact, harm to someone else. I don’t really care what people do to themselves in the name of liberty, but children aren’t generally given a lot of choice w.r.t. parental authority.

                B) Butchering what now? I think we’ve already been over the part where I’m not really that interested in rights-talk. I’m also not that crazy about legal abortion, if that’s what you’re getting at.

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                • “Those decisions often do result in harm. Choosing to give your kids a worse education because you have moral objections to the way their school does something is, in fact, harm to someone else.”

                  Which brings us back to ‘It’s the “therefore, they should be raised *THIS* way” is where I start to freak out at your illiberality.’

                  For example, do you believe that raising your children without them being told about Jesus of Nazareth’s death and resurrection is not doing them eternal harm and risking eternal damnation?

                  If you think that, no, you’re not actually harming your kids by leaving that out, perhaps you begin to understand my attitude about how much leeway I’m willing to give “everybody else” when it comes to “raising my kids”.

                  You want to raise some kids? Pinch some out.

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                  • No one can tell you to raise your children without telling them about Jesus of Nazareth. It’s just a question of what else they do need to be told. And when push comes to shove, you ultimately can do whatever you want with your kids. If your religion forbade the teaching of math and you insisted on home schooling, you would ultimately have your right to raise your children vindicated. The question is what is taught to the kids of parents who do choose to partake of the public offering of the education that is made available to those kids — and whether there are sufficient resouces to teach those things well — and, crucially, whether the staff who attempt to do that teaching are equipped with techniques that will allow those resources to be used efficiently, which is where some partial and shifting politically-mediated quasi-consensus, or at least acceptance of official decisions, about those techniques and curricula become indispensable.

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  6. Interesting post, E.D. A lot of good points to think about. I rather especially liked,

    “Big” and “small” are irrelevant terms compared to “limited” and “unlimited.”

    and

    It is important to distinguish, then, between pro-market arguments (which takes into account all the afore-mentioned parties) and pro-business arguments (which focus on the supply-side). Now add to this mix of freely associating parties, the government.

    Government intervention into the markets is by necessity going to effect how we as individuals or communities make decisions – either by propping up specific suppliers over others (possibly creating monopolization) or by preventing us from choosing to purchase something we want or require (war on drugs) or by removing from the market a good or service and providing it instead (possibly health care). A local government deciding to fund a school or a library has far less of an effect on the market than a federal government attempting to draft a national health care program, or subsidizing big agriculture vis-a-vis ethanol laws.

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  7. Interesting post, but I’m a bit wary of one of the things that seem to be a recurring theme in your posts, E.D. Specifically that there is something inherent in vouchers (ie providing everyone with the means to “choose”) that would automatically put power back into individuals vis-a-vis corporations. To some extent, I do agree it’s preferrable to let individuals decide over large, overarching bureaucracies, but on the other, I think there’s something indeliably lost when you try to atomize people to the extent that you force them swim alone, rather than act collectively.

    That is, the things you’re describing I think are more appropriately named Life-Lines, as opposed to Safety-Nets. (The former implies that there’s a single anchor point (government vouchers/money) as opposed to a multiple anchor point to catch everyone (say a communal response)) Vouchers for example do not substantially increase an individual’s bargaining ability, because by nature they’re being delinked from collectives that would on the whole increase their value. (For example, employer provided healthcare provides a way for employers to act as a collective bargaining body vs. a health insurance provider, a public buy-in would do something similar)

    As much as there is a problem with a private-public colaboration in increasing corporate power, I think there’s also as much an important point to be made on the dangers of furthering the atomization of individuals in the name of liberty or classical liberalism. Mind you, I’m as much an individualist as anyone, but consumption and the idea that we have a one to one relationship in choosing things where we shop, have on the whole NARROWED our choices rather than expanded them.

    Why? Because to a great extent, what we believe to be a good deal (eg the relative price of a pound of beef) is structured much more by mass culture/media advertising and superficially instructive items such as price, rather than a nuanced understanding of what we’re paying for. Everything from the Sub-Prime Crisis, to our current problems with the food supply, or overconsumption, consumer credit, etc. can be traced to what has effectively become a mass assymetry in both information and power between the suppliers and consumers.

    In fact I would much rather have a system where communities would be forced to work together in some fashion on the level of say a block, or a local municipality to make use of vouchers rather than simply making individuals pick themselves. Have some way to pool knowledge and resources. Otherwise in an era of mass communication, well frankly we don’t stand a chance.

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    • Excellent points and concerns, Nob. One thing about placing vouchers alongside a public option – or doing something very similar like the Wyden plan calls for – is that it allows for real competition. People could opt into the public plan, but private plans would also be able to be competitive, so you’d drive quality across the board. The public plan alone would not face a similar sort of competition and quality would not be nearly so guaranteed.

      I think atomization is certainly always a social concern, but I don’t think that giving people the ability to make this decision will lead to that. Ideally, I’d say it may lead more low-income people to be able to pay into health care cooperatives that in fact placed the opposite sort of value on choice and health care – that brought people together across social classes.

      Bargaining ability would be increased by the fact that those people on vouchers could very well choose to go on the public plan if they wanted, and by the mere fact that providers would need to compete unlike in today’s system.

      Lots to think about though.

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  8. Let me try a concern that one might file under the heading “Paternalism”:

    What poor people call “vouchers,” rich people are more likely to call “money.”

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    • I mean, at one time we had something that was actually called “Welfare,” and for a short period of time the stigma that was attached to it was not terribly much greater than that of being poor to begin with. One thing it did do was grant people the respect of assuming they were able to figure out how to spend the resources they had/were given. Somewhere along the way, we decided that needed to be supplemented with aid in purchasing food and along came food stamps, which could be used to purchase food but (mostly) only food.

      Then things changed in the 1980s with the introduction of the concept of a “Welfare queen,” and in the next decade Welfare (“as we knew it”) was brought to an abrupt halt. Shortly thereafter it was determined that our public schools were failing, and a solution that was offered was for a new kind of money, called “education vouchers,” which could be spent on private school tuition.

      Now today we see a proposal for vouchers that could be used to purchase health insurance only. (To be fair, I’m not clear on the specifics of the proposal but these vouchers may be envisioned to be available to people of greater means than the previous examples). I think it’s safe to assume there are more examples of novel forms of currency with limited domain that have been invented in an attempt to provide those in need with access to specific goods that I am not thinking of at this time.

      Am I alone in thinking that we seem to be slowly rebuilding the rejected “Welfare” model, but in an overweening, nanny-statist way that dictates spending decisions in a way that you would think would be anathema to a libertarian perspective? How about some good, old-fashioned redistribution?

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