20th Century Lite
In my RealClearPolitics newsletter, I linked to a commentator at a left-leaning publication—Slate's John Dickerson—calling for a "healthcare.gov witch hunt." It was an unusual recognition, or semi-recognition, that ObamaCare's explosion on the launch pad may have some wider implications about what happens when the government sets out to manage the economy.
[T]here are big national issues at stake that have nothing to do with the specific issues of sickness and health. Can government do big things? Sen. Lamar Alexander famously said during the health care debates, "We don't do comprehensive well"—meaning that any law that is big and complicated will fail. Is that right?
Alternatively, have partisanship and gridlock created a situation where small flaws in a law can't be fixed through tweaking legislation because such legislation can never pass? Is there something about complex technology that confuses the bureaucracy? Is the procurement system nuts? Does the political nature of all administration activity mean that no one is capable of reporting that the launch of a key element of the president's signature legislation is going to throw a rod?
This line of questioning is still kept narrow and carefully proscribed. It's not socially acceptable to ask whether the whole enterprise of regulating the economy might be invalid. Instead, we have to ask whether it was a bad idea to launch a takeover of the health insurance industry on a Tuesday when it was raining and whether things would have worked out better on a Wednesday when it was partly sunny.
More widely, I was amused by the idea that we have to use ObamaCare as some kind of special test of the government's ability to "do big things." I thought we already had such a test. It was called "the 20th century." It was a century that began with an overwhelming confidence, on the part of "progressive" intellectuals, that government would be great at running railroads, pouring steel, manipulating currencies, and just about everything else you can think of. By the end, the society in which the government did the biggest "big things" had collapsed, and we had seen enough evidence in every field to justify some skepticism about government's ability to do anything.
Consider the biographical sketch recently offered by conservative pundit Charles Krauthammer describing his own transition "from Walter Mondale to Fox News." He admits that "The path is well trodden, most famously by Ronald Reagan, himself once a New Deal Democrat, and more recently by a generation of neoconservatives, led by Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz." Here is how he describes this common late-20th-century conversion.
The origin of that evolution is simple: I’m open to empirical evidence. The results of the Great Society experiments started coming in and began showing that, for all its good intentions, the War on Poverty was causing irreparable damage to the very communities it was designed to help. Charles Murray’s Losing Ground was one turning point. Another, more theoretical but equally powerful, was Mancur Olson’s The Rise and Decline of Nations, which opened my eyes to the inexorable 'institutional sclerosis' that corrodes and corrupts the ever-enlarging welfare state. The ’80s and ’90s saw the further accumulation of a vast body of social-science evidence—produced by two generations of critics from James Q. Wilson to Heather Mac Donald, writing in The Public Interest, City Journal, and elsewhere—on the limits and failures of the ever-expanding Leviathan state.
As I became convinced of the practical and theoretical defects of the social-democratic tendencies of my youth, it was but a short distance to a philosophy of restrained, free-market governance that gave more space and place to the individual and to the civil society that stands between citizen and state.
Even this conversion has its limits. When he says that the welfare state had "good intentions," he means that it had altruistic intentions—and he does not pause to question whether the morality of altruism is actually good. So the biggest lesson of the 20th century still goes unlearned.
But you would think that at least we could learn the smaller lesson of the 20th century: the disaster that happens when we let the government "do big things" to us.
For a while, I've been describing the Obama years as "20th Century Lite," an era in which we will have to relive—hopefully in a shorter and shallower form—all of the disasters of the 20th century, as a cultural refresher course. Perhaps the crash of ObamaCare will do for some of the young people in this era what the failures of the Great Society welfare state did for those of Krauthammer's era.