July 8, 2014


The End of Progessivism (Peter Lawler, 7/07/14, Imaginative Conservative)

The primary experience of most ordinary Americans these days is the erosion--with the prospect of implosion--of the various safety nets of our relatively minimalist welfare state. The change we can actually see has been, and will continue to be, from defined benefits to defined contributions. Private and even public pensions are done for. They will continue to be replaced by 401(k)s. That kind of change will also be true of health care, as employer-based plans become unsustainable. It will also soon be true of Medicare and probably Social Security--if not quite as soon as Representative Paul Ryan thinks. Ryan, it is already obvious, will come to be known as a man just slightly ahead of his time. In that sense, just as obviously, he is the real progressive--the prophet of the more or less inevitable world to come. And his opponents, who are called Progressives, are just as obviously the real reactionaries.

The good news here, the new birth of freedom celebrated by the Tea Party, is more choice--a lot more choice--for individuals. The bad news is that risk is being transferred from the employer and the government to the individual. All of our entitlements will have to be transformed in a Lockean or individualistic direction in what might nevertheless be futile efforts to save them. Other, related changes that Lockeans should believe in include the fact that unions, both public and private, are also done for--despite President Obama's efforts to prop them up. Their reactionary attempts at protectionism have no place in a globalized and rigorously competitive marketplace. The same can be said of the ideal of employer and employee loyalty. People will be able to be--and will have to be--a lot more entrepreneurial and self-employed. One reason among many that employer-based health care cannot survive is that it depends on an increasingly obsolete model of employment. The present health-care system is actually not particularly good for the self-employed--which is to say, for more and more of us. Fear of losing insurance shouldn't be a reason for passing up an entrepreneurial opportunity, and guilt about an employee's health-care situation shouldn't be a reason for not firing superfluous or inadequately productive employees.

All these economic changes have, of course, both good and bad aspects. We might say that they are changes we can sort of half believe in. The Tea Partiers are enthusiastic about a new birth of freedom and a return to the Lockean Constitution of our Founders. And there really is a lot of good to be said about a renewed emphasis on individual responsibility, just as there is a lot of good to be said about perfecting the productive meritocracy that is the main source of our prosperity. Perhaps there will also be a new birth of voluntary associations--such as the extended family, the church, and the neighborhood--and voluntary caregiving for the social support even free individuals need to live well. Lockean political and economic reform is not incompatible with Christian charity, and anxious, lonely individuals futilely pursuing an ever-elusive happiness and even more futilely trying to cheat death might have more reason than ever to turn to the organized and relational religion of the personal Creator. Certainly the usually solidly churched, big-family, and otherwise communitarian Tea Partiers don't really share the comprehensive libertarianism of our sophisticated autonomy freaks.

It would be wrong, however, to call these changes popular. The Tea Party has peaked, and it never got anywhere near to a majority of Americans. People can't help but be conservative when it comes to preserving the entitlements on which they have come to rely. Consider that, at present, the Republicans continue to dominate the debate on health care; people remain convinced that Obamacare will wreck their employer-based plans without replacing them with anything nearly as good. Republicans are mostly campaigning against the president's bigger-government change without offering a clear alternative. They know, of course, that the employer-based schemes don't have much of a future. The Republicans' advantage over the president might fade quickly if they were to begin emphasizing the reasonable view that there is really no alternative but to have each individual buy his own private insurance, and have means-tested subsidies to make it possible for everyone to be covered. Individuals would have their own insurance; they would have more choice and could be cost-sensitive consumers; but they probably wouldn't get the coverage they have now at (to them) such a low cost.

When it comes to health care, most people are neither Progressives nor Lockeans. They are status quo conservatives, believing that change in any direction will not be progressive in the sense of serving their personal interests. But like it or not, change in the Lockean direction will come, and the institutionalization of Obamacare over the next few years will only delay the inevitable in a needlessly costly way. For now, however, this is a message no one seems prepared to hear.

With Medicare, the Democrats now have the advantage. They seem to be the status quo conservatives, defending the existing, defined-benefit, fee-for-service program. Americans have forgotten, for the moment, that one source of funding for Obamacare will be cuts in Medicare. And the Democrats don't deny that sustaining the current program will depend on waves of cuts. Newt Gingrich was clearly wrong when he called Representative Ryan's Medicare reform plan "radical social engineering"--branding it with the kind of attack Republicans usually reserve to describe Progressive experiments in bigger government. Payments under the Ryan plan would go to private insurance companies, and the resulting competition might well drive costs down (as they did in President Bush's unfairly maligned prescription drug benefit program). The Ryan plan would likely stretch the government dollar in ways which give people the best deal they can get in a time of diminished resources. But Gingrich did play to the true popular mood when he created, in effect, a moral equivalence when it comes to any significant change in the present entitlements regime. People think all change is risky and undesirable. Although everyone really knows that Medicare and Social Security as we now know them cannot last, devolving responsibility to the prudent calculations of the individual is, at best, ambiguous news.

The dying away of Second Way Progressivism merely signals the rise of Third Way Progressivism, which is neither wholly liberal nor conservative.  The key is not just that the new entitlement regime will be defined contribution, rather than defined benefit, but that society will make that contribution for everyone who can't afford to make it themself.

There is a necessary danger that after several generation the wealth effect will have made individuals so wealthy that we will lose some of our under-valued social interdependence, but that's a good sort of problem to have.

Posted by at July 8, 2014 6:43 PM

blog comments powered by Disqus