Posted by: bmeverett | August 27, 2010

Three Cheers for Paralysis


I find Joe Scarborough’s “Morning Joe” program on MSNBC fascinating. The political discussion is occasionally interesting, but the real spectacle is Joe’s gradual conversion from conservative southern conservative to New York liberal. I guess the uniformly left-wing views of MSNBC’s other hosts (Chris Matthews, Rachel Maddow, Keith Olberman and Ed Schultz) and Joe’s co-hosts (Mika Brzezinski, Willie Geist, Gene Robinson, Mike Barnacle, John Meacham and others) tend to rub off after a while.

This morning’s show (Friday, August 27) included a segment in which everyone, including Joe, bemoaned the fact that a likely Republican takeover of the House of Representatives this fall will lead to national paralysis just when we most need concerted government action to solve the pressing problems we face. In reality, I believe that most Americans actually like gridlock. Why? Because most of the actions the federal government takes are damaging to our freedom and to the economy. The Founding Fathers recognized that there are some things only government can do: defend the country, establish a currency, set patents and copyrights and a few other activities. That’s why they attempted (largely in vain) to limit the power of the federal government. Politicians, however, have never bought into this view. They have always been unwilling to say to constituents that there is nothing the federal government can or should do to address certain grievances. Instead, they believe that government must always DO SOMETHING when anyone is unhappy.

When Republicans controlled the White House and both houses of Congress, we got the largest entitlement expansion in history (the Medicare drug program), protectionist economics (the West Virginia steel tariff), deficit spending and Tom DeLay’s “K Street Project” to provide preferred government access to GOP donors. The voters understandably threw them out. When the Democrats controlled the White House and both houses on Congress, we got the disastrous Health Care Bill, the financial reform mess and unbelievable deficits. Voters look set to throw the Democrats out in November. To be fair, the TARP and stimulus programs, which smothered the economic recovery in its cradle, were wonderfully bipartisan efforts.

The medical profession provides a good analogy here. We expect our doctors to be able to diagnose illnesses and to understand the benefits and side-effects of possible treatment options. We also expect them to tell us when they have no effective treatment options available. When you have a cold, any doctor worth his salt will tell you to go home, get some rest and drink plenty of fluids. Doctors don’t (or at least shouldn’t) take the view that they have to DO SOMETHING whenever a patient shows up in their office.

When New York Mayor Rudi Giuliani was diagnosed with prostate cancer, he made an interesting observation: surgeons invariably recommend surgery as the best treatment, while radiologists almost always recommend radiation. Why? Because that’s what they are trained to do. Research strongly suggests that ob-gyns do many more Caesarean sections and hysterectomies than are warranted. Why? Because that’s what they are trained to do.

Politicians are trained to make policy. That’s what they do. Unlike doctors, however, they never recommend government inaction, even when that would be the best approach. Democrats are very comfortable with this process, since they tend to believe that expanding the scope and power of the federal government is the best way to solve any problem we face. Republicans are uncomfortable with the expansion of government but are reluctant, perhaps afraid, to recommend inaction. Instead, they tend to recommend tepid government programs which cost less and do less harm than their Democratic counterparts. This process leaves Republicans vulnerable to the accusation of obstructionism (The Party of No). Republicans should stick to their guns and make the case to the public that the market works better than central planning and, left to its own devices, the economy will recover more rapidly than under government management.

The public cannot rely on the Republican Party to do the right thing, only to do somewhat less of the wrong thing. Hence the best outcome for the country is to have Republicans and Democrats at each others’ throats, only occasionally coming together when some compelling and obvious need (such as sorting out the Afghan War) needs to be addressed. That’s exactly the way James Madison envisioned the process. Celebrate it, and don’t mourn it, Joe.

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