The health care debate is just one battleground—albeit a major one—in a fundamental battle over domestic policy. Specifically, it is about the role government should play vis-à-vis the marketplace. To liberals, the marketplace is something to be overcome, with public rules and regulations to ensure everyone acts in accord with their overall vision for society. To conservatives, the marketplace is a virtual deity, whose “judgements”, to the extent that the collective wisdom of consumers and producers acting independently can be called that, are the closest thing to infallibility we will see on this earth. And most people fall somewhere in between the two.
Blue Dog Reaganite believes in the marketplace and that its judgements are more likely to be right than those of the government. But I also believe that the Right often goes too far and ignores the reality that the government must temper the imbalances that come from an unrestricted free market. And individuals can’t be separated from the society in which they live, and that with freedom comes obligations. These philosophical question runs through three key domestic policy questions. In addition to health care, there’s the issue of retirement planning and education.
The common thread is this: each issue involves something that is vital to participation in society and people taking personal responsibility in these areas are important enough that the government has to place mandates on individuals. And once a mandate is placed, the government has a corresponding obligation to help those who legitimately can’t afford it. On the flip side, these questions are all personal enough that allowing the maximum possible freedom is desirable.
When it comes to education, no one doubts that at least a basic one is an absolute prerequisite for entering the workforce and being contributing members of society. Americans would cry out in protest if people couldn’t afford to get K-12 education and were left on the street. We go to great lengths to ensure everyone with good enough grades and the desire to do so can attend college. We believe in personal responsibility—that people must take their own steps to work hard and get good grades. But we would reject any notion that took personal responsibility so far as to say that a person who made mistakes in their life should be denied the chance to get into school because their mistakes made them unable to afford the basics—or in this case if their parents were unable. So there is a government guarantee of access to education, and a mandate that everyone must attend for a designated period of time.
In retirement planning, no one doubts the importance of setting money aside for old age, when one can no longer work. We believe in personal responsibility in this area, enough so that there is no protest that some people who chose to live indulgently in their working years retire later and less lavishly than those who saved. But we would reject taking personal responsibility so far as to leave those who may have been foolish in their youth and middle age out on the street. The punishment would not fit the crime. Society is willing to guarantee subsistence income to any elderly person. And because of this there is an obligation—to contribute to the Social Security fund, and that obligation is enforced on every paycheck.
We’ve covered health care very extensively over the last month, so you can read the archives of August posts for a lot of the specifics here. But the fundamentals are the same. We don’t want anyone left on the street, so to speak, because they made bad choices. And the drive for an insurance mandate is meant to enforce the other half of the societal contract.
In the three instances above, I’ve outlined the case for government action. Its one component of what makes me a traditional pre-1968 Democrat, a Blue Dog (a Northern-style one anyway). But the other component is the Reaganite part of the equation. There is no reason societal mandates can’t be done by harnessing the marketplace, rather than treating it as something to be overcome. We should strive for individual ownership and direction in all these areas.
No one should have to pay for a state-run school if they prefer to send their kids elsewhere. Instead of receiving the guarantee of access to a publicly owned school system, parents should instead receive a voucher that they can spend at the school of their choice. The same societal guarantee and mandate is in place, but money is used to enhance individual choice rather than limit it.
In retirement planning, the money that is currently going to the Social Security fund should be eligible to be directed into workers’ 401(k) or other such accounts if they so choose. The same societal guarantee and mandate is in place, but people should be able to invest the way they choose, rather than having to pick the public option. For those who may look at the current performance of the stock market as evidence that this is a bad idea, I would ask this—how many well-off liberals do you think have pulled their money out of the market and asked to instead increase their payment to the Social Security Trust Fund? Actions speak louder than words.
And the same logic should apply to health care. A mandate that individuals own health coverage. A guarantee for those who can’t afford it. But the tax system should be structured to encourage individual health policies, the same as exists in auto insurance, property insurance and life insurance. Let’s not trade dependence on the employer to dependence on government.
The vision I have laid out was called “The Ownership Society” by George W. Bush, and consequently has a Republican label on it. And the GOP rank-and-file would indeed support much of what is written here. But Democrats, particularly moderate to conservative ones, should recognize that it’s not abandoning the role of government, nor the party’s best traditions to support individual ownership within this framework. Such a vision would be truly progressive, in the finest sense of the term.