Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Big Government Choice

Professor Bainbridge links to two conservative authors, the former, Michael Barone, praising the state of conservatism, the latter, Chris Demuth, lamenting it. Specifically, Barone is thrilled at how in the past 50 years, society has become more competitive, with more choices, and more accountability. Demuth, by contrast, mourns the loss of a limited government and decries the "activist" Courts for their imposition on democratic order.

Umm, may I play the role of putting two and two together? Amongst the non-communist left, "choice" has always been an important value. Not just the number of choices available, of course, but also the number of people who can effectively choose. It is indeed nice to have a wide variety of luxury cars available (somehow, I think Professor Bainbridge would agree here). But it is also important from a "choice" paradigm to have more lower-price cars so that more people can choose to become car owners. Liberalism has especially focused on the latter, and--and here's where it splits radically with conservatives--it is far from confident that markets and private society acting alone will provide them. And, counter-intuitively perhaps, they also don't believe that an optimific level of choice will be achieved simply by saying "here everybody, do whatever you want as long as you don't kill each other."

Hence, liberals who like providing greater choice have pushed for programs that seek to meet this end. Unlike stifling communist collectivism ("everybody in the commune must grow wheat!"), the purpose of these programs was to allow individuals to find greater self-fulfillment, however they themselves define it. Rather than an assorted governmentally selected goodie-bag, the new liberal model has been along the lines of a toolbox, giving resources so that people can build their own communities, achieve their own dreams, define their own destiny. Sometimes, paradoxically, this means restricting certain choices (like the choice to discriminate). And of course, like any group, "choice" is not a trump value. But most liberal philosophy of the past several decades has been heavily choice-influenced--and it's reflected in the policies we propose.

Some of these programs have been successful, others, obviously, have not. But if we put Barone (overall, choice has gone up) and Demuth (government has gotten more intrusive) together, do we not conclude that liberals have hit on something? Our model is working, or at least it's working if one agrees with the top-end goal (giving more people more choices on how to live their lives). Voters have more effective choice because the Court chose to intervene in Baker v. Carr. The ability of African-Americans to effectively choose and participate in public life can be directly traced to interventionist government, be it judicial (Brown v. Board) or legislative (the 1964 Civil Rights Act). And yes, the very real and very important choice of how to conduct one's intimate affairs has been strengthen by court decisions (Griswold v. Connecticut, Lawrence v. Texas). Somewhere along the line, choices that otherwise would have been unavailable, out of reach, or flatly illegal have been created because of liberal governmental and legal theory.

This may not affect Bainbridge too much, because, as he makes clear, he's not a choice-conservative (being more within the Burkean model). But for the conservative types who see choice as a value in of itself (and there are many), this has to be addressed. Conservatives seem to admit it themselves: government has continued to play an important role in our lives, and people still have more choices. We must have something right here.

1 comment:

Eman said...

To that point, conservatives have certainly been willing to rally behind certain government programs designed to enhance choice. The most visible and recent example of this would probably be the school choice movement, in which conservatives have been open to expanding government expenditures on education so long as the increased expenditure is coupled with increased individual choice. Housing vouchers are another example.

One traditional conservative complaint about government action is that government action tends to squeeze out private options, thereby restricting individual choices. It would appear that not a few conservatives are open to the idea that an activist goverment which acts to expand, rather than constrict, individual choices may be something to support, rather than attack.

For me, the jury's still out on the merits of the theory, and I tend to be wary of the idea of "taxing ourselves into prosperity," but I certainly don't think that activist government is necessarily anti-conservative. Depite the "smaller government" rhetoric, conservatives have generally been open to big budgets in practice--so long as the money was spent on their preferred projects (military, police, highways, etc.)