Monday, July 26, 2004

My friend Anne left a comment worthy of discussion in my post regarding liberalism and conservatism below, which demands more response than can fit in my comments box.

Anne says:
It's odd, John, but I've always thought it was pretty much the opposite, with the Republicans being the ones convinced people will do the right thing if left to their own devices, therefore not requiring governmental interference.

You know, Big Business doesn't need a bunch of safety regulations, for the people running it will Do The Right Thing. We don't need environmental laws for people will Do The Right Thing. We don't need malpractice laws for doctors can be trusted to police themselves, i.e. Do The Right Thing.

Great snakes, John, the reason we have so many laws (and I'm not against all of them by any means, BTW) is because of the base assumption that left to their own devices, people will NOT Do The Right Thing.

And that's quite right. They won't.
And now, my too-lengthy response:

First of all, my original post concerned Right vs. Left (or conservative vs. liberal, if you prefer), rather than “Republican vs. Democrat.” Unfortunately, there are a lot of liberal Republicans, and I know of at least one conservative Democrat, so the party labels don't really nail it down. Far too many Republicans seem to believe in the perfectibility of man, judging by their actions in government.

Our system of government was institued by the Founding Fathers precisely because they believed that people will often not do the right thing. Because they believed in the falleness of man, they were adamant about keeping government power in check. Because those in government are just as prone to malfeasance as those in private life, conservatives (in the tradition of the Founders) are dubious of governmental power above all. The guy next door to me who thinks he knows how my life should be run is merely a nuisance; the government official who thinks he knows how my life should be run becomes a tyrant.

Conservatives believe in law (which is why I believe libertarianism isn’t really conservatism). However, conservative laws tend toward restraining evil. Liberal laws tend toward micromanaging human behavior to bring about a desired positive result (such as equality, tolerance, etc.)

I think you have a misunderstanding as to why conservatives favor deregulation in so many instances. Deregulation is not a statement about the goodness of man; it’s a statement about the ineptitude of government. The conservative notion is not that people will “do the right thing” if left to themselves, nor is it that they will “police themselves.” The conservative notion is simply that people will (because they are fallen) generally do what's in their own self-interest, and that they know better what this is than some bureaucrat in Washington. The genius of conservatism via the free market is that it has found a way to use man's self-interestedness in a way that benefits all of mankind.

For instance: cures for diseases are developed in the U.S. more than any other nation because there is a financial benefit for being first. Desire to be first creates competition. Competition drives ingenuity. There is a good reason China isn’t cranking out important new medicines.

The liberal notion is that such self-interest is crass, and that it can be bred out of people with the right education and training. Instead of a free market, we will have a few enlightened elites who know what's best for everyone and will impose that on them for their own good. Instead of having the market compete to produce, say, a miracle cure, they’ll institute a governmental Department of Drug Development, where people will have governmental job security (which means they can almost never be fired) and unlimited time and resources with which to produce miracle drugs. They’ll be paid the same whether they do or don’t produce these drugs (motivated only by their own, pure altruism), and shockingly, no actual miracle drugs will ever be produced. This sort of central planning has proved historically disastrous.

This same way of thinking is operative in all that liberals do. Think about it: “Our schools would work if we’d only fund them more!” How many times have you heard that one? And yet the more money that’s dumped into them, the worse the schools get. The city of Washington D.C. spends over $15,000 per year per student, and yet most of them are hardly even literate.

The reason conservatives believe in deregulation in favor of competition is not because corporations (or individuals) on their own will "do the right thing," but because free market competition will do a better job of developing efficient, responsive companies than some paper-pusher in Washington who’s never worked in a corporation nor lived in the area he’s “protecting.” The market does the policing.

People, out of self-interest, will tend to patronize the companies that produce the best products at the best prices without fouling their water and air too extremely. The people, as a market, will decide what level of water and air pollution they’re willing to tolerate in exchange for the product they desire. And corporations (out of self-interest) will do what they have to do to appeal to their customers. If they pollute more than the market will accept, someone who pollutes less will get their business. The market finds a way of striking a much better balance than bureaucrats ever seem to.

Regarding the medical issue, I don’t know any conservative who thinks there should be “no malpractice laws” (which, again, sounds to me like libertarianism, which I maintain isn’t truly conservative).

But a conservative recognizes that not all bad results in medicine are the result of malpractice. We live in a fallen world and bad things happen, and it’s not always someone’s fault. There are inherent dangers in health care. Sick people sometimes die or get sicker. Sometimes the mother or the baby dies in childbirth, and the only person to blame is Adam.

The liberal mind looks for someone to blame. Since imperfection is not inherent in the world, when something bad happens in the O.R., it’s someone’s fault and they must pay so that it doesn’t happen again. Thus we get lawyers like John Edwards who sue the pants off of doctors who deliver babies with cerebral palsy. As a result of such unfettered lawsuits, many places (like Florida) no longer have enough doctors who are even willing to deliver babies. Those who do deliver babies will frequently perform unnecessary C-sections rather than face such lawsuits. As a result, C-sections (and thus longer hospital stays, more risk of complications, etc) have shot up by huge percentages in recent years, while the birthrate of cerebral palsy babies has remained the same. The malpractice law that was supposed to “protect” the patient has actually resulted in fewer doctors, more dangerous procedures, and longer recuperation times. But the liberal is never responsible for the unintended consequences of his do-gooding.

Conservatives believe that, because man is fallen, no one of them should have too much power. The enlightened elites who have it figured out for the rest of us are the most dangerous of all. There must be laws to restrain and punish evil. But other value judgments (such as: would I rather spend my two dollars on gasoline or apples? How much clean air am I willing to trade for the ability to drive my own car to work?) ought to be left to individuals acting in their own interests.

I'll close with a quote from the website of Dennis Kucinich, possibly the most crazy-left member of the House of Representatives:
If you believe that humanity has a higher destiny, if you believe we are all ultimately perfectible, if you believe we can evolve, and become better than we are; if you believe we can overcome the nihilistic scourge of war and someday fulfill the dream of peace and harmony on earth, let us begin the conversation today.
Ultimately perfectible indeed.

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