Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Individual Choices

Andrew Sullivan pointed me towards this article in the Washington Monthly by Paul Glastris, which offers a critique of President Bush’s Ownership Society initiatives and the conservative political agenda on choice. In his article Gratis attempts to carve out a progressive position between one-size-fits-all liberalism and the conservative ideal of reducing the size of government. I think that he does a good job of laying out the obstacles to increased individual choice, but I differ in the way to overcome these challenges.

Glatris outlines the conservative position as follows:
Talk to scholars at the Cato Institute or the Heritage Foundation or to movement organizers like Grover Norquist, and they'll walk you through the strategy. Big government and individual freedom, they'll explain, are opposed to each other; more of one means less of the other. The three big areas of non-defense-related government spending are retirement (mainly Social Security), health care (mainly Medicare and Medicaid), and education (mainly K-12 public schools). For political reasons, it is practically impossible to cut spending in these areas. But it is possible to dismantle the government bureaucracies that administer them in a way that enhances personal freedom and makes possible big cuts down the road: privatize the benefits.
He goes on to describe the circumstances of some of the areas where conservatives and President Bush have attempted to insert individual choice into government programs and have either failed or achieved at best mixed results. Examples include school choice in Washington DC where less then ten percent of parents opt to send their children to another school, low participation rates in a Medicare prescription drug discount card program, and the falling public support for privatizing a portion of Social Security. Each of these initiatives seem to fail due to a combination of the apparent complexity of the choices offered, the natural tendency of people to procrastinate, and the individual’s propensity for risk aversion.

Undoubtedly those are the three reasons why some people would prefer to have others make their choices for them as opposed to making the choices themselves. In the particular case of Social Security, people who truly believe that the government will take care of them would never want to switch to a complex system where they have to make choices and bear the risk of failure. However, for people like myself who do not expect to see any return from the payroll taxes that we send to the Social Security system the real risk is leaving our security in the hands of the government.

The three hundred million people living in the United States make countless decisions every day without the influence of government. The aggregate of these decisions results in the economic output, social service, and personal development of our nation and in general these decisions have resulted in the highest living standards in the world. Individual citizens just do not need government intervention in their decision making process to be wildly successful.

What is interesting, however, is that in areas where government has encroached into the ability of individuals to make their own decisions the capacity of individuals to make their own decisions has atrophied. Where individuals can make decisions about what career to pursue, they cannot make decisions about how to save for retirement. Where individuals can make decisions about where they live, they cannot make decisions about where to send their children to school. Where individuals can make decisions about what car to buy, they are unable to make decisions about their health care. The objective of increasing opportunities for individuals to make choices should not be primarily about the role of government but about the decision-making capability of individuals. We will never achieve utopia because of the inherent flaws of human nature so living in a society where individuals are capable of meeting and overcoming adversity, even if it means making choices, raises the quality of life for all.

Glatris concludes his article by stating:

There are plenty of good reasons, then, for progressives to embrace the idea of designing more choice and individual control into government programs. But doing so means facing down some major opposition—from corporations that don't want tobe regulated to liberal interest groups that often oppose choice initiatives. Liberals also have to stop accepting the right-wing proposition that choice and empowerment are somehow inherently conservative ideas.

But it's conservatives who face the bigger obstacle. They are committed to a strategy of using choice as a Trojan horse to undermine government, yet it's impossible to
make choice work in the real world without strong measures from government. With choice, as with so much else, conservative have mastered the art of winning
elections with abstract language voters agree with, even as they push policies
voters don't much like. They can't pull that trick off forever. At some point,
conservatives themselves are going to have to make a choice.

I disagree that we need government in order to make choices. I believe that the government has an obligation to provide an environment where citizens can flourish, but part of flourishing is having the confidence and ability to make their own choices. This is not about government, it is about people, their dignity, and the quality of their lives.


Travis said...

Nice post Bangart. Good rebutal of this guy. I think by and large the media skewers Conservative proposals so that people end up being against the proposals because they have been explained by the media in a twisted way.

on vouchers, I couldn't disagree with this guy more. There are waiting lists to get into charter schools and to get vouchers all across the country. This guy says:

"Only 7 percent of families with children eligible for the vouchers have applied for them."

Well, that may be true and probably many were not even aware they existed. But he doesn't mention that:
(biased story btw)

"By contrast, 518 eligible applicants came from private schools. Only 43 percent of those students got vouchers. Of the 1,251 other public school students who applied, 85 percent were admitted into the program."

So, 15% of low income students who applied for the vouchers were rejected and 67% of those elliglbe who were already in private schools were rejected. (those who are elliglbe are poor parents)

The demand is greater than the supply and governmetn needs to open the doors. IMO

Michael Bangert said...

Thanks Travis, and thanks for the color on the situation with vouchers in DC.