Monday, 2 February 2004

"Reform Conservatives": Pragmatic libertarians or unreformed nanny-statists?

Somewhat apropos of Sunday’s discussion of the failure of libertarianism, the Baseball Crank considers a new camp in the conservative big tent, which he describes as “Reform Conseratism”*:

Traditionally, the conservative movement has been driven by small-government conservatism, the idea that government is too big and intrusive and spends and regulates too much. Ever since the Reagan years, the small-government conservatives have been trapped in a sort of limbo: they’ve won the battle of ideas, but lost the political battle, most spectacularly with the failure of Newt Gingrich’s 1994 revolution to eliminate any significant government programs.

Partially in response to this, we’ve seen the growth of what (at the risk of adding another sub-category) I’ve long liked to think of as Reform Conservatism. The central insight of Reform Conservatives has been that the most important problem with government programs is not that that they involve the government, but that they take choices away from individuals. The classic Reform Conservative solution is including privately controlled accounts within the Social Security system; rather than stage a losing battle over trying to scale back or get rid of the program, Reform Conservatives have focused on introducing within it an element of private choice to make the operation of Social Security more like a non-governmental program. The other signature issue of Reform Conservatives, school choice, operates the same way: it’s still redistributing taxpayer money, but the decisionmaking authority over the use of that money is shifted to parents and away from school system bureaucrats.

The Crank contrasts this approach with something he unfortunately calls “neoliberalism”†, who share the conservative critique of government failure but “prefer[] instead to have government enforce standards that demand accountability [for the failure of New Dealesque social policies], rather than depending on individual self-interest” to reform them.

Overall, I think it’s an interesting discussion of a policy area where many small-l libertarians could be encouraged to agree with elements of the conservative platform. But I think the Crank overstates the case that “Reform Conservatives” make for choice: while they attempt to capture the power of the market in their reforms, the “decisionmaking authority” that citizens receive is narrowly circumscribed. You can only use school choice money for educating your children in certain settings (you generally can’t use the cash to send them to live in Africa for a year, for example, even though that’d probably be far more educational than shuttling them back and forth to a nearby charter school). You must set aside the “private account” in social security for your retirement, rather than investing in (say) your own education, a house, or a new car, things that the average 30-year-old needs more than a nest-egg for a far-off retirement (which, given the solvency of social security, he or she’ll be lucky to see before turning 75). In the end, it’s still a government bureaucrat that ultimately decides the scope of what you can do—reform conservatives just make the scope a bit bigger.

* This strikes me as more likely to be an appelation for a branch of Judaism, but I digress…

† “Neoliberalism” is generally regarded as the effort championed by leaders like Margaret Thatcher to deregulate and denationalize industry in European countries so they would be better equipped to compete in the global marketplace; as it refers to what Americans and most Britons would know as “classical liberalism” rather than “modern liberalism” the term is generally only used by academics and critics of neoliberal policies in English-speaking countries.