What happens when the people who talk the most and are listened to the most about our nation’s most serious problems do not have a plausible solution to any of them? What I think happens is the current state of affairs.
Let me explain. Sometime in the mid-1970s, near the end of the Vietnam War, liberalism in America died an intellectual death. Since that time, virtually every new idea — whether good or bad — about how to solve our most important economic problems has come from the right. Virtually nothing has come from the left.
Do you doubt that? Okay, it’s test time. Tell me what the liberal answer is to the problem of our failing public schools. …..tick, tick, tick ….. I’m waiting …. tick, tick, tick …. Give up? What about the liberal solution to the failed War on Poverty? … pause….. pause ….. pause …. No luck there either?
Okay, let’s take what President Obama says is the biggest domestic problem we face. What is the liberal solution to the huge unfunded liabilities in Social Security and Medicare? ….. Can’t think of one? What about solving the problem of unfunded pensions and post-retirement health care benefits for state and local workers? …. Not even a vague suggestion or two? Wow. We seem to be really striking out.
Well, can you tell me what a liberal income tax code would look like? Zip. How about a liberal international economic system? Nada.
Note: I’m not asking if you have a liberal acquaintance who has an opinion or two on these matters. I’m asking if you can produce a solution that would be generally recognized as the liberal solution.
If I asked what are the conservative solutions, you probably wouldn’t hesitate for very long. For education, there is school choice. For a failed welfare system, tough love. For unfunded entitlements, personal accounts so that individuals can save and invest and pay for their own retirement benefits. Instead of the current income tax code, a flat tax. In international affairs, free trade.
Is there anything that is comparable to these solutions on the left of the political spectrum? I believe not. The reason it’s so easy to rattle off the conservative answers is because for the last 30 years or so those are the proposals the nation has been debating. The nation has not been debating liberal ideas because there haven’t been any liberal ideas.
I believe this is also true in health care, by the way, despite ObamaCare. More on that below.
Don’t get me wrong. Just because liberals don’t have anything to say doesn’t mean they are going to clam up. They are just as talkative, just as politically active, just as emotionally committed as ever. They write editorials. They write essays and books. They appear on talk shows. They completely dominate our elite colleges and universities. They dominate the East Coast media. They dominate Hollywood. They are neither humble nor shy.
The chattering class, after all, chatters. And for the past 30 years it has been mainly chattering about … well about conservatives.
Let me clarify where I’m coming from. These “conservative ideas” are not self-evidently “conservative.” Sweden has a full-blown school voucher system, but most Americans probably think of Sweden as “socialist.” Thirty countries in the world have either partially or completely privatized their social security systems with private retirement accounts. Yet you would probably call most of these countries “welfare states.”
What’s happening isn’t that conservatives have all the good ideas or that they are smarter than liberals. What’s happening is that conservatives are trying to solve problems and liberals aren’t. Ironically, if liberals were equally intent on finding solutions, the two sides might agree 90% of the time!
But as it is, liberal commentators have been largely on the sidelines in almost all the important public policy struggles. The school choice battle has been raging all over the country for the last two decades. But that has been mainly a battle pitting conservative reformers against special interests (the teachers unions). For the most part, liberals haven’t really been involved. Similarly, the struggle for welfare reform, the flat tax, Social Security privatization, etc., has cast conservative reformers against special interests and entrenched bureaucracies. Liberals have been mainly irrelevant.
Health care might seem to be an exception to all this, but it really isn’t. The only people on the left who have a firm idea about what to do about health care are the socialists. They want everybody to be in a Canadian-type system. And almost all the serious health care debates of the past two decades have pitted conservatives against socialists, not conservatives against liberals.
Precisely because there really is no liberal solution to health care problems, the legislation we finally got was a Rube Goldberg contraption put together by competing special interests. Not only is it completely devoid of any ideological underpinnings, it’s not even clear that most liberals even regard ObamaCare as liberal legislation. (See Paul Krugman, for example.)
Don’t believe me? The next time you’re in conversation with a liberal friend, ask him to explain how ObamaCare will actually work. Odds are he will have no idea.
The special irony in all this is that the conservative presidential candidate John McCain had a health reform proposal that was more progressive and more radical than Barack Obama’s. (By more progressive, I mean more egalitarian — a lot more egalitarian.) Think about that. Had the Democrats in Congress endorsed McCain’s plan they would have had a reform far more consistent with their professed values than the plan Obama campaigned on. Instead, they completely sacrificed principle and let the special interests write the law we are all supposed to live under.
These observations are the best explanation I can offer for the extreme bitterness that permeates Washington, the editorial pages of The New York Times and our overall national public policy discourse.
Liberals used to be the reformers. Liberalism provided the new ideas needed to reform institutions and solve problems. Conservatives, by contrast were viewed as reactionaries. They clung to the past and resisted change.
Today those roles have been completely reversed. In a very real sense liberals aren’t liberal any more.
I think they are angry about that.
John Goodman is President and CEO/ Kellye Wright Fellow of the National Center for Policy Analysis.