Shifting definitions of ‘liberal’

Ross Douthat is the New York Times’ wunderkind conservative pundit. Like anyone with a forced, public writing schedule, he writes some very smart things, but then he goes and writes some not-so-smart things.

His column today mainly argues that only time will tell whether conservatives or liberals are right about the health care bill that just passed. He guesses that it’ll take 20 years before the data is in, but after that, someone is going to be able to say, “I told you so.” That’s true, and it’s useful to keep some perspective on these matters. Don’t believe anyone who says they know exactly how this bill is going to affect the US health care system, health outcomes, the budget, and the broader economy over the next quarter century.

Where I part from Ross is when he calls the bill itself ‘liberal’, designed by liberals, and resting on naive liberal assumptions. He says that liberals believe “a bill this costly, this complicated and this risky can be made to work, so long as the right people are in charge of implementing it.”  He concludes, “As a conservative, I suspect they’re wrong.”

First, a liberal bill is a single-payer bill, which would put the federal government in charge of insuring everyone in the country (kinda like how the federal government is in charge today of insuring all seniors, veterans, and lots of poor people in the country through Medicare, the VA, and Medicaid). It works for many current US programs (Medicare for seniors, Medicaid for poor people, and the VA for veterans), and it somehow magically works for a large number of wealthy, industrialized western nations — despite Ross’s pessimism to the contrary.

That’s what a liberal bill looks like. A slightly more moderate bill, but still on the liberal side, would have created a government insurance program with a large price advantage that would compete head on with private insurers (ie, the public option). Clearly that’s not in the bill that passed last night.

A truly moderate, evenconservative, bill would probably retain our private, employer-based insurance system while creating new and deeper markets for private insurance in the individual market. Funny enough, that’s exactly what this bill does. It is by far a more moderate, even conservative bill, than that offered by Republican President Richard Nixon. In fact, the bill that passed last night looks most like the compromise bills Republicans were offering to President Clinton in the early ’90s, or the proposals of Bob Dole and other aging Republican luminaries from 2009. And it particularly resembles Republican Governor Mitt Romney’s plan in Massachusetts.

This cannot be repeated enough: the bill passed last night is a piece of moderate legislation, not a radical, liberal attempt at social engineering. Yes, it was backed by liberals and attacked by conservatives, but its a moderate, even conservative policy approach to start fixing the health care system. I don’t know when it became normal for conservative pundits to call increased competition, reliance on private enterprise, and creating new markets “liberal”.

My second point has little to do with the first, but it’s important nonetheless.

Ross’s pessimism about our ability to do anything, ever, with government is just plain weird. I wonder if Ross’s well-intentioned doubts about the ability of government to implement large, complicated bills apply equally to big things that Republicans like? What about the Bush tax cuts (much higher price tag than health care reform, with dire budgetary consequences)? Bush’s 2005 attempt to privatize social security (certainly a much more radical, sweeping change to social policy than anything in the health care bill)? The attempt to engineer a vibrant democracy in Iraq? What about  Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget proposal, which Ross seems to like (it envisions ending Medicare as we know it)?  Are any of these proposals just too big, costly, and complicated to actually work?

Or is Ross’s pessimism about government action less about philosophy and more about which party is making the proposal?

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2 Responses to “Shifting definitions of ‘liberal’”


  1. 1 david(p) March 23, 2010 at 7:07 pm

    I really agree with this analysis.

    I’ve always enjoyed this blog, but lately your writing has moved up to the next level, especially with the volume you’ve been pumping out. It’s approachable, meanginful, simple, and well thought through. You’d make a good NYT column. Great work.

    • 2 JSC5 March 23, 2010 at 7:12 pm

      Thanks, David. As always, readers, if you like what you see, recommend Joint Stock Company to your friends, family, neighbors, and co-workers. Half the fun for me is seeing the daily pageview count grow.


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This is a group blog. JSC5 currently writes from the US. JSC7 writes from behind the Great Firewall of China.

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