By Arnold Kling
Following up on Hypothetical Bargains (read that one first), let me offer some hypothetical agendas for a tea-party influenced Republican Party, as a way of explaining the relationship between the soil and the weeds.
Think of the four agendas as Bismarck, Barton, Buchanan, and Bye-bye.
Bismarck means what you care about is having a great nation with your faction in power. If putting in place an efficient social insurance system is what you need to do to achieve that, then fine.
Barton refers to the Congressman who the other day said we owe BP an apology for shaking them downto create a political slush fund. Bless him. But you find, like Barry Goldwater, that proclaiming a heresy does nothing but get you excommunicated.
Buchanan refers to James Buchanan. The idea is to establish a Constitution of limited powers and This Time We Really Mean It.
Bye-bye means finding a way to escape the state.
Below the fold, I elaborate.1. A trim-the-weeds agenda (close to Bismarck). The two weeds that stand out are unsustainable entitlement promises and excessive compensation of workers in the public sector. It has become quite centrist (read the Washington Post editorial page, for example, or follow the expert consensus on Europe) to view these as weeds in need of trimming. The Republicans could focus on these issues. One might interpret Voegeli as an advocate for this, although that might be a stretch.
The trim-the-weeds agenda tends to look like political suicide. You are basically letting the Democrats take credit for their generosity and doing the dirty work of fixing their budget for them. Cleaning up after the donkeys, so to speak. You could win votes by opposing Wall Street bailouts, but there is no precedent for gaining popularity by reducing paychecks for government workers and entitlement spending on the elderly.
2. A Constitutionalist agenda (close to Buchanan). Dick Armey, of Freedomworks, seems to lean in this direction. Try to restore limited government through adherence to the original Constitution. But what does this mean in practical terms? Congressional resolutions and Supreme Court appointments designed to influence the Court to enforce an originalist interpretation of the Constitution? If you succeed, you risk creating chaos, as long-standing Federal programs are suddenly shut down by judicial fiat. More likely, you do not succeed.
In theory, it would be nice to reinstate the Constitution as a bulwark against centralization of power. In practice, I do not see how you get from here to there.
3. A big-government conservative agenda (another variation on Bismarck). Go with Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam, and use government to support the sort of families and small businesses that you think underpin a society of self-reliant citizens. In Henry Olsen’s words (see my Tea Time post), you “help people help themselves.”
The advantage of this is that you are giving people goodies (bigger tax exemptions for children, more portable health insurance) instead of nothing but painful budget cuts. The disadvantage is that you are replenishing what I call the soil of the unlimited-government state. That is, you are working with, rather than against, a romantic conception of the state and of the ability of expert technocrats to solve problems without having to compete in the market.
4. A secessionist agenda (bye-bye). The idea is to enable people to escape the power of monopoly government. This could be all-out escape, as in seasteading or charter cities. Or it could be incremental escape, as I propose in Unchecked and Unbalanced, with vouchers, charter communities, and competitive government, meaning mutual associations and standard-setting bodies in which people enter and exit voluntarily.
Under competitive government, you would not have an FDA, but you would have several private companies that certify pharmaceuticals. It would be up to individuals to decide which certification companies to trust. You would not have government-provided deposit insurance and bank regulation, but you would have several mutual associations to which banks might belong. It would be up to individuals to choose a bank in part based on confidence in the mutual association to which the bank belongs.
While I can see the appeal of the other agendas, the secessionist agenda appeals the most to me.The fact that we would have to overcome the negative connotations of secession strikes me as a feature rather than a bug.
Secession is viewed as unpatriotic or misanthropic. I would push back against that, and argue that the state is not “us.” Lose the we.
Secession is viewed as dangerous, because we need our Progressive betters to overcome our moral backwardness. Only a strong central government can protect us from our racism, sexism, and homophobia. Again, I would push back against that.
Secession is viewed as dangerous, because competition in government would give ordinary people too much room to make mistakes. It will be argued that we really do need to give technocratic regulators the monopoly power of the state, rather than subject them to a market test. Again, I would push back against that.
The process of arguing for the secessionist agenda would force us to try to change the soil that is so hospitable to centralized power. We would have to argue against romantic conceptions of the state and against mystical faith in monopoly technocrats.