Saturday, October 31, 2009

"The End of Liberalism"--a column of mine, published in The Los Angeles Times, September 21, 1993.

The point I made, 16 years ago, echoed the wisdom of the well-known political scientist Thoedore Lowi, who had written a book, The End of Liberalism, back in 1969, arguing that liberalism could not survive the complexity being imposed on it. Here's the text of my column:

The End of Liberalism

In what bids to be the defining event of his presidency, Bill Clinton laid out his "Big Offer" to the American people last night. Presidents who make sweeping change are remembered, for better or worse. Think of Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal, Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, or Reaganomics.

Clinton's offer sounds good. "Security... Simplicity... Savings..." We'll hear the buzzwords over and over again: "By 1998, everyone is paying less" for health care, Ira Magaziner predicted last week. This week the Clintonians sweetened the pot further, moving the date upon which we all start getting more health care for less money up a year, to 1997.

If Clinton is to be another FDR, this had better work. But the biggest challenge he faces is the deep public skepticism that the government really is here to help us.

Theodore Lowi saw it coming. In 1969, he wrote The End of Liberalism, a far-reaching critique of the post-New Deal welfare state. Lowi, a former president of the American Political Science Association now at Cornell, is no conservative. He would describe himself as committed to real democracy, which he sees as threatened by the delegation of legitimate authority to the Iron Triangle of bureaucrats, lobbyists, and special interests.

As government grows bigger and bigger, Lowi argued, representative government will inevitably give way to the undemocratic rule of insiders. Think about it: how many Members of Congress actually read the 1000-page legislative phone books they vote for? They can barely lift them, let alone comprehend them. So elected officials turn to un-elected officials to explain, interpret, and implement the law with thousands more pages of legalese. It's like the Marx Brothers movie "A Day at the Races": you need a code book to interpret the code book.

Lowi coined the phrase "interest-group liberalism," to describe the bargaining and brokering among the Washington elites that has characterized American politics since the 30s. What we will get, Lowi prophesied, is "a crisis of public authority" leading to the "atrophy of institutions of popular control."

Assuming the Clinton plan passes, consider just some of the thousands of to-be-determined questions that lawyers and logrollers will resolve in the shadowland between K Street and Capitol Hill:

-- The famous One Page Form. If you don't ask questions, how do you keep people from ripping off the system? The Reaganites simplified banking regulation so much that the S&Ls made off with 12 zeroes worth of our money. So, does this mean we will all have a chance to play Charles Keating? Unlikely. The EZ form is the tip of the red tape iceberg. The Administration wants $2 billion to hire additional auditors and overseers to keep track of us.

-- Medical specialties. "Regional review boards" will allocate slots in medical school so that we get the politically correct ratio of general practitioners to specialists. Stay tuned for the story about how Senate Baron Robert Byrd (D-WV) and the multiculturalists have cut the ultimate deal: affirmative action and quotas enabling all West Virginians, from Bluefields to Bleckley, to attend medical school, so long as they promise not be plastic surgeons.

-- The National Health Board. This new regulatory agency, its members appointed by the president, will have responsibility for making the whole trillion-dollar operation work. "NHB" is an acronym to remember, because it will be in charge of everything from baseline budgets for the health alliances (adjusted to reflect regional variations, of course) to providing technical assistance to help dawdling states get up with the new program.

Ira Magaziner is a smart guy: maybe even a genius. But even the most brilliant have their limitations. One is reminded of the scene in the 1981 film "Body Heat," when crook Mickey Rourke discusses murder with crooked lawyer William Hurt. In this business, Rourke advises Hurt, there are 50 ways you can [expletive] up. If you're a genius, you can think of 25. And you, Rourke tells Hurt, ain't no genius. Magaziner is trying hard on our behalf, but it's hard to see how we will bat more than .500. That's a superb batting average in baseball, but not good enough when our lives are at stake.

If popular sovereignty is to mean anything, then sovereign power has to be understandable to the populace. Lowi's book is a restatement of the truism: the devil is in the details. A quarter century ago, he warned us that the details were drowning us. Today, it looks as if democracy is about to take another dunking.