Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Stool Has No Legs

Writing at AOTP, FreeDem discusses the apparently curious electoral map that may be in the works for this fall, in which Obama could do far better than recent Dems in traditionally Republican areas like the Southeast and Mountain West, and far worse in traditionally Democratic areas like the Northeast.

To which I replied:

To me the most interesting thing about all this is the combination of Obama’s relative weakness in the Northeast and relative strength in the Mountain West. I’m not sure that Obama’s relative strength in the Southeast (outside of Virginia, which is a special case) will hold up in the end. But the numbers on the Northeast and Mountain West suggest that the coalitions are definitely shifting as the Republicans become officially the “anti-terruh” party rather than the party of the fabled “three-legged stool.” The Mountain West has tended to be Republican over the years mostly because of the libertarian-ishness of that region combined with the comparative strength of the
libertarian-conservative coalition. Obama’s strength in the Mountain West largely confirms what I’ve been saying for about a year now: the Republican-libertarian coalition is officially dead.

That said, there’s been a lot of talk that Obama’s support has decreased a bit the last couple of weeks. I haven’t seen much state-level polling in that period, but my suspicion is that the area where that support has dropped off the most is in the Mountain West states. If true, that would exemplify how and why Obama’s FISA vote was - contrary to conventional wisdom - bad politics that actually hurt him with more “independents” than it helped him with.

McCain’s strength in the Northeast (presumably not including Vermont and - maybe - New Hampshire) is largely attributable to the importance of the “anti-terrorism” issue in this area. This isn’t to say that the Northeast is necessarily a hotbed of support for the Iraq War, just that in recent years it has been far more willing to trade liberty for security (actually, that’s a pretty longstanding trend that largely predates 9/11- it’s safe to say that you’ll be hard-pressed to find two less libertarian states than NJ and NY).

The bottom line is that it's a tremendous mistake to think of the political map as being simply a divide between monolithic "red" states and "blue" states. That kind of thinking ignores the political reality that coalitions are ever-shifting, and just because the political map might look a particular way in one or two given elections there is no reason to believe that it will continue to look that way in future elections.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Good Intentions and the Path to Hell

Will Wilkinson, as is often the case, nearly made me fall out of my chair with this post. Money quote:

But simply dismissing the other team’s claims to moral conviction is way too convenient. It turns out that the Democratic party is also run by very, very wealthy people and interests. It also strikes me as lazy to assume that because the GOP isn’t beholden to various interest groups that claim to represent the working classes in the way the Democrats are, then the people with real power in the Republican party ipso facto have no sincere moral interest in the welfare of the working class. Yes, politics is a game of interests and coalitions. But coalitions often form around moral values. And people, even politicians, are moral beings and generally conceive of their interests in moralized terms.

This about hits it out of the park. I've said before that political coalitions tend to form around one or two umbrella BIG issues.* In the Republican Party right now, the BIG issue is quite clearly "national security" broadly defined. On the Dem side, though, the unifying issue is much more difficult to define. Probably the closest thing to a unifying issue is health care, but that is simply too specific an issue under which to form a broad coalition. Perhaps the party of the "little guy"? Not likely - as Wilkinson points out, the "little guy" is no more likely to be a Democrat than a Republican. On the whole, it's more likely that the Dem coalition is really now a coalition primarily united by several frequently overlapping, but far from mutually inclusive, sets of moral values: for instance, civil liberties (including civil rights), a less-aggressive foreign policy, and environmentalism.

I'd argue that the fact that coalition members on the Dem side do not all prioritize these moral values the same way gives rise to a party whose politicians are much more likely to lack discipline and unity as the politicians try to be all things to all coalition members. I'd also argue that the Dems have largely lacked a truly unifying umbrella issue since at least the end of the Cold War, maybe longer; the end of the Cold War had a similar effect on the Republican coalition, but the Contract for America cobbled it together again for a few years until 9/11 made national security THE unifying moral value for Republicans.

In any event, the nature of political coalitions is that they result in some very inconsistent policy-making (aka "pu-pu platter partisanship") while coalition members wind up honestly believing that the coalition's preferred policies are all completely consistent with, even necessary to, furthering the coalition's core moral values.

*These aren't issues upon which virtually every coalition member agrees, but rather are fundamental moral imperatives that serve to rally people into the coalition.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Four Legs Good, Two Legs Bad

There is an assumption in both conservative and libertarian circles that anything that the private sector is inherently better at doing things than the government. And on many things, this philosophy is, I think, correct (it is also something that liberals/Progressives agree with more than they get credit).

But where it gets tricky is when you get to the concept of "privatization" of various things. Libertarians and conservatives hear the root word "private" and they reflexively think that it is better than "public." But "privatization" is different from "free market," and in many cases "privatization" can mean the worst of all worlds.

For instance, if by privatization, you mean the contracting out of various government services and needs, you are often just asking for trouble. Why? Because this is a setup for the epitome of "crony capitalism." Sometimes, to be sure, this kind of "privatization" is a necessity in instances where the government is seeking to obtain products or services that it simply has no ability to provide on its own. Frequently, however, where the government is contracting out a product or service it already provides or can easily provide, this kind of "privatization" at best has the effect of doing no more than adding an extra layer of bureaucracy. At worst, though, it is an invitation for corruption and a particularly convenient means of avoiding government accountability. Far from allowing market forces to take over, this kind of privatization creates a market that would not otherwise exist, in which firms seek to please only one customer: the government. And contrary to popular belief, "the government" is not synonymous with "the people," but is rather more frequently synonymous with "elected and/or appointed government officials." What privatization does in this context is to make the purpose of the service provider to please the government official who awarded them the contract - not to offer "the people" with the best possible services at the lowest possible price. Oftimes, pleasing the responsible government official means nothing more than shielding the official from responsibility for the implementation of that official's policy preferences.

The other type of "privatization" that libertarians and market conservatives should fear is anything that suggests a public-private "partnership." Such partnerships all too often take the form of placing the risk of loss on the taxpayer while placing the benefits of profit on the private ownership side of the equation. To say the least, this creates frequently undesirable market distortions best exemplified by Amtrak, and, now, the collapse of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

The bottom line is that "privatization" only works if it actually allows genuine, basic market principles to play out. Where "privatization" simply means that the government will seek to make purchases in a market that would not exist at all without the government intervention, it is a virtual guarantee that the "privatization" will result in no more and no less than something resembling the much-maligned and ever-expanding military-industrial complex. Where "privatization" means a "partnership" under which government agrees to back what would otherwise be a purely private entity, the government is both granting that company an unnatural market advantage and virtually begging that company to engage in really, really bad business practices. Finally, I would add that the manner in which government has incentivized employer-based health insurance is another example of a "public-private" partnership gone terribly wrong.

This isn't to say that "privatization" is always bad - far from it, and I remain a firm believer that market forces are the far superior manner of economic policy. Indeed, where "privatization" literally means the selling off of a government asset to the highest bidder, no strings attached, I would rarely disagree with it. But when it creates a situation where the entire raison d'etre of a firm is to serve the government or where the government has immunized the firm from market realities, the effects of privatization can often be worse than the disease.

The fact is that as between public ownership of an asset and the fictional "privatization" of that asset, I think public ownership is superior (again, if the choice is between public ownership and actual private ownership in a free market, then the free market wins hands down). At least where a service is entirely provided by the public sector, you know who to blame (and how to blame them) when things go wrong. In a representative democracy, this can be a non-trivial power. But when that service is provided by the private sector on behalf of the public sector, the question of who to blame and how becomes much more muddled....and frequently I suspect that's the point.

So as far as libertarian blind spots go, the belief in the private sector is often the "four legs good, two legs bad" of large segments of the libertarian movement.