Paul Ryan was prescient. After the release of his budget, with its prescription to save our entitlement programs by fundamentally reforming them, an interviewer asked him if he hadn’t given ammunition to the opposition. His reply: “They are going to demagogue us, and…yes, we will be giving our political adversaries things to use against us in the next election, and shame on them if they do that.”
First into the mosh pit: Barack Obama. When he countered with his grand deficit reduction speech on April 13, he peppered it with so much mischaracterization and demagoguery that it was clear the battle to be joined was not over reducing the deficit – it was over the 2012 Presidential election.
It is right that we have a vigorous debate over the role of government in this country. There are big things in the balance, and on current form, we can not pay for the promises our politicians have made. But that debate ought to be conducted in a mature fashion, with opposing sides putting forward their positions and the reasons for them. Instead, what we got from the President – and what we continue to get as he goes barnstorming around the country selling his “plan” – is this:
“…if our roads crumble and our bridges collapse, we can’t afford to fix them.”
“…bright young Americans who have the drive and the will but not the money to go to college, we can’t afford to send them.”
“research labs, solar facilities, …new infrastructure, …[we] can’t afford any of this.”
“…up to fifty million Americans have to lose their health insurance in order for us to balance the budget.”
And, time after time, “millionaires and billionaires,” trotting out that old leftie chestnut, class warfare – it works so well, the Democrats have chosen to use it even when it has no real world connection to the facts at hand. After all, Ryan’s plan calls for a reform of the tax system much like the President’s own Deficit Reduction Commission proposed – not generous tax breaks for m’s and b’s. But Obama, as he so often does, is getting mileage out of attacking a straw man.
Obama is right about one thing – the Republican plan is about “changing the social compact in America” – because it is precisely that social compact that has brought us to this perilous juncture. It must be changed. As I have said many times before, Federal programs are launched with the best of intentions, to use the collective wealth of our prosperous country to deal with a pressing problem. But once the program gets started, two things happen that undermine its mission: first, the availability of handouts will attract more and more supplicants to the trough, making the problem grow, rather than dwindle; secondly, a bureaucracy grows up around the program which develops an institutional interest in maintaining and increasing it. As Ronald Reagan said, “a government bureau is the closest thing to eternal life we will ever see on this earth!”
So once the entitlements begin, they grow far beyond the most pessimistic projections, and the money to pay for them just isn’t there. We have to change that dynamic, and the only way to do it is to change the nature of the promise.
For Obama, this is nothing short of throwing the old and the indigent overboard so the wealthy can party on unencumbered. What his characterization of the Ryan plan shows is that he fundamentally mistrusts markets, where free people making free decisions make the best use of their own – and by extension, the nation’s – resources. In his view, America is made up of a few exploiters and many victims, and it is up to government to make sure the victims get help.
Note how many times he says, “we” in his speech, when what he means is “the government.” I think, to him, they are synonymous. I think many conservatives would argue that the government is not “us,” it is “they.” This in a nutshell is the profound difference between the conservative and the progressive view of the roles of government and the individual.
The individualistic approach has the very great merit of standing foursquare for personal freedom, which, as Adam Smith showed us 235 years ago, also results in the most efficient allocation of resources. If government agencies were in charge, we would still be using computers the size of a room instead of the size of a wallet.
The collectivist approach, on the other hand, is illustrated by Obama’s recommendation for how to squeeze more savings out of Medicare: “strengthening an independent commission of …experts …who will look at all the evidence and recommend the best ways” to reduce spending. Rather than recognize that medicine is highly complicated and individual cases require individualized treatments, Obamacare plans to give us a menu of options at prices deemed fair by the bureaucracy. The inevitable result – truly inevitable, as in the way water will find a way to flow downhill – is rationed care.
It would be nice if our leaders put these arguments on the table and had the Great Debate. I have faint hope that that might take place during the 2012 election. But the hope is only a faint one – the more likely event is a rehash of attack ads and sound bite calumnies.
Apparently, Standard & Poor’s bond rating agency feels the same way, which is why within days of Obama’s speech they issued a warning that America’s AAA credit rating could be in jeopardy.