Saturday, October 01, 2011

A Response to Paul Ryan

In this opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) reviews a book titled, The Price of Civilization, by Jeffrey Sachs. While I have not read the book and cannot thusly respond to that, there are a few assertions which Ryan makes (and doesn't make) which merit a response.

He begins,

Free enterprise has never lacked for moral critics. In the mid-18th
century, for instance, the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau rejected the
proposition that the free exchange of goods and services, and the competitive
pursuit of self-interest by economic actors, result in general prosperity—ideas
then emanating from Great Britain. In a commercial society, according to
Rousseau, the people are "scheming, violent, greedy, ambitious, servile, and
knavish . . . and all of it at one extreme or the other of misery and opulence."
Only a people with "simple customs [and] wholesome tastes" can be

Of note is that Rep. Ryan does not dispute this premise. It is instructive to understand that Rep. Ryan does not, at any point in this article, dispute any of the moral criticisms directed toward capitalism, but rather offers his own moral criticisms of the author's suggestions. The article is hardly a full-throated endorsement of capitalism, and it isn't the type of ideological thumping which I've come to expect from anybody discussing politics these days. His responses are thoughtful, he acknowledges certain failings of our system, and even posits that there may be a better way forward, but that the author's suggestions are not it. In short, it's one side of the type of discussion intellectuals on both sides of the political divide ought to be having, would that we could shut out the noise. To wit:

Mr. Sachs is honest enough to acknowledge that the "rich" are not nearly
rich enough to pay for his ever-expansive vision of government. We're told that
"each of us with an above-average income" (i.e., $50,000 per household) must
"understand that if we are prudent, we can make do with a little less take-home

Such appeals to the citizenry to make sacrifices might be more
compelling if Mr. Sachs coupled them with calls for spending restraint in
Washington. Instead, his budget proposal insists on the need to "augment"
government spending by trillions of dollars in the years ahead. Thus the
sacrifices of citizens are to be made to increase the size and scope of a
federal government that Mr. Sachs admits has demonstrated little aptitude for
allocating resources efficiently or even fairly. This conundrum leads him to a
conclusion that would be comical if he were not deadly serious: "Yes, the
federal government is incompetent and corrupt—but we need more, not less, of

Rep. Ryan offers us a false choice here, however. It's not simply a question of "more government" versus "less government". There's also "efficient government", "effective government", and "useful government", as opposed to the often wasteful and clueless government we have now. In short, we could simply decide to cut spending or increase spending, as though those goals are ends in and of themselves, or we can decide which government agencies and programs are worth preserving, which are not working, and why. Once we establish the "why" of whether a program is working or not, we can decide whether it's a question of doing something better or whether it's not worth doing at all.

An example of a program which is worth doing but could be done better is the Department of Defense. Just because this is an essential agency does not mean that every expenditure by DoD is essential. Obviously. On the flip side would be the public housing program, which is widely acknowledged as a failure not due to a failure of delivery, but because the program as designed failed to meet its objectives. The larger point is that simply because programs which are designed to alleviate poverty often fail to do so (although that is up for debate) does not mean that alleviating poverty is not a goal worth pursuing. Returning to a pre-New Deal economic model is not the answer. To argue that we need to move away from a 20th century model does not mean that we need to move toward a 19th century model. We need to find a new model for the 21st century -- one which meets the challenges of the day.

Ryan wraps up with this:

The dialogue between capitalism and its critics is an old one, and it will
continue. But as citizens of a self-governing nation, Americans must choose from
time to time between alternative visions for our future. This book's budget
proposals and economic policies are profoundly revealing. They lay bare the real
agenda of those who wish us to abandon the American idea and consign our nation
to the irrevocable path of decline. If only in that sense, "The Price of
Civilization" is a useful contribution to the conversation we must have in order
to make informed political choices in the years ahead.

And in choosing that vision as his foil, I would argue that Rep. Ryan is reaching for low-hanging fruit. This may be an easy argument to defeat, but doing so isn't particularly enlightening. I give Rep. Ryan more credit than that regarding his intellectual acumen, so I can assume that this article was a way to frame the discussion as a choice between Republican policies and America's decline. The two are not mutually exclusive, frankly. Austerity is a sort of tacit admission of decline; it says we simply cannot afford the excesses of yesterday and we have to make do with less. This may or may not be true, but scaling back social safety nets to protect those most vulnerable is not a sign of strength. A truly virtuous and strong society makes a determination that those who have benefited most from our economic system have a responsibility to help those who have fallen between the cracks. A free market economy is not equipped to handle that responsibility. When profit is the ultimate virtue, then charity is a vice. Only government has the resources and authority to fill those gaps.

What is needed is a means by which to change or eliminate programs which are not meeting their objectives. Often, entrenched interests (be they civil servants or contractors who make their living off these programs) will resist efforts to eliminate programs which aren't doing the job. Writing performance metrics into legislation as a prerequisitive to continued funding may be a way to circumvent that. If, for instance, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act fails to substantially reduce the number of uninsured Americans, then it should be eliminated and replaced with something else. As it stands, it has yet to even be fully implemented. To call it a failure at this point would be, to say the least, premature.

I'm glad to see the Rep. Ryan wishes to engage in a real discussion as opposed to the shouting past one another I too often hear in the larger debate in this country. Simply winning the next election should not be our goal. Actually meeting the challenges facing our country today should be the end to which winning an election is the mean. I hope to see more of this type of debate.

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