David R. Henderson  

Varadarajan on Frum

What is Special About Greece?... Incentives vs. Intentions...

Tyler Cowen cited David Frum's analysis of the Congressional Republicans' "mistakes" in the recent health care debate, saying he was "right on the mark."

I occasionally like to beat on Republicans too. They aren't called the "stupid party" for nothing. When asked on a radio interview on Monday how the Republicans could screw up in the November midterms, I answered that it would be by passionately defending two bad wars rather than being the antiwar party they were in the mid to late 1990s.

But I found Frum's analysis underwhelming. While I think the Republicans generally do a bad job of making a case, almost as badly as the Democrats do, I think they were above their average in the latest debate. I wasn't thrilled by their newfound passion for socialized medicine for the elderly, aka, Medicare, but that very big caveat aside, I thought people like Paul Ryan did an excellent job.

When I have done op/eds for the Wall Street Journal, two of the editors I liked to deal with were David Frum and Tunku Varadarajan. David did a nice job of shortening my 1990 article(http://www.davidrhenderson.com/articles/0902_sorrysaddam.html) in which I showed how implausible was the Bush/Baker/Kissinger case for war on Iraq because of Iraq's effect on world oil supplies. (Although the title he gave it made no sense and, in fact, undercut my article's message.)

But David makes a poor argument and Tunku calls him out particularly effectively. The whole thing is worth reading, but here's one excerpt:

If the GOP had done what David wishes, what would they have left to play for politically? How could they ever claim to stand for limited government again? They did enough damage to that with Medicare drugs and all the spending in the last decade. If they'd sold out here in the interest of "bipartisanship" or "polite conservatism," what would be left to distinguish them from the competition? Obama was never going to give them more than token gestures of support in any bill, anyway. He wanted an ideological bill, whose centerpiece is regulation and wealth redistribution, and he got it.

Of course, with or without their cooperation on this bill, the Republicans will have trouble, as they have always had, standing for limited government. Think bailouts, torture, nationalizing airport security, surveillance on Americans, supporting two wars of aggression, the USA PATRIOT Act, and the drug war, to name a few. But when I find someone willing to ally on holding back government, I treat him as an ally.

Tunku also goes on to "psychologize," that is, explain David's behavior. I generally don't like people doing this, even when it's to people I disagree with, but it fits everything I know about David Frum's career path.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (13 to date)
Stuhlmann writes:

Over the last year, I heard (or rather read) lots from libertarian bloggers on how market forces, the elimination of needless regulations, and greater cost transparency would lower the cost of medical care, thus making it affordable for more people. I very rarely heard such things from republican politicians. From them we heard all about socialism, death camps, Medicare cuts, etc. Paul Ryan was a voice in the desert, being drowned out by the a lot of hot wind.

Dan Weber writes:

Obama was never going to give them more than token gestures of support in any bill, anyway

This is an article of faith among hard conservatives; that Obama is some kind of hard liberal. That doesn't make it true, though.

But if the Republicans hadn't started off with the death panel nonsense, they could have really gotten some of what they've wanted in the past: limitation of government spending on health care.

Jesse writes:

How could they ever claim to stand for limited government again? They did enough damage to that with Medicare drugs and all the spending in the last decade.

And don't forget the talk of death panels and "don't cut Medicare!"

Wuh? The idea that Republican unity was the least that could be done in the name of limited government, instead of a political ploy that almost worked but will wind up backfiring... please.

david writes:

My suggestion for anyone who agrees with David Frum's approach is to read Hayek's article, "Intellectuals and Socialism" (http://mises.org/etexts/hayekintellectuals.pdf).

Key quotes:

"We must make the building of a free society once more an intellectual adventure, a deed of courage. What we lack is a liberal Utopia, a program which seems neither a mere defense of things as they are nor a diluted kind of socialism, but a truly liberal radicalism .... We need intellectual leaders who are willing to work for an ideal, however small may be the prospects of its early realization. They
must be men who are willing to stick to principles and to fight for their full realization, however remote."

"The main lesson which the true liberal must learn from the success of the socialists is that it was their courage to be Utopian which gained them the support of the intellectuals and therefore an influence on public opinion which is daily making possible what only recently seemed utterly remote. Those who have concerned themselves exclusively with what seemed practicable in the existing state of opinion have constantly found that even this had rapidly become politically impossible as the result of changes in a public opinion which they have done nothing to guide."

Dan Weber writes:

Wait, are people trying to say the Republicans lost because they stuck to their ideals?


david writes:

"Wait, are people trying to say the Republicans lost because they stuck to their ideals?"

I don't think so. I think perhaps it's more that they are taking issue with David Frum's view that it would be better for Republicans if they weren't encumbered by any principles whatsoever.

Dan Weber writes:

I just don't see that in Frum's article. Unless "we should have negotiated" is now the same as "we should have had no principles."

I dream of a world in which the Republicans actually held to their actual principles and supported spending limits on Medicare. Unfortunately I live in the world where the Republican party argued for the opposite of that.

eccdogg writes:

This is all hindsight bias.

This bill came VERY close to failing even though the Dems had big majorities in both houses and the White House.

If your goal was not to expand entitlements then pretty much any bill is going to suck. So in my opinion the republicans did a pretty good job, they almost defeated the bill in the face of huge disadvantages.

David R. Henderson writes:

I agree with eccdogg and with Dan Weber's second comment. The Republicans could have done a much better job. I simply think they did a better job than usual.
Also, I strongly disagree with the first sentence of Dan Weber's third comment. Knowing how David Frum has been telling Republicans to compromise their state principles for some time now, I think it unlikely that he was not saying that here.

Mercer writes:

I think it depends on which preference you place a higher value on: Do you want influence on the most important legislation in 40 years or do you want political posturing that appeals to your hardcore supporters.

The GOP and WSJ would have preferred the tax exemption for employer benefits ended sooner and a carbon or vat tax as a means for paying for the bill. The Dems would have probably agreed in exchange for GOP support. The GOP would not bargain so what did they get? A new tax on unearned income. Exactly the kind of tax that most upsets the WSJ.

The federal budget is headed for a fiscal train wreck. At some point revenues will have to be increased. Does the WSJ want any influence on what taxes are raised or do they prefer to let the Dems decide?

David C writes:

"But when I find someone willing to ally on holding back government, I treat him as an ally." - David Henderson

I'd rather ally on reasonable discussion and "serious" proposals than agreement about which direction to head in. For any policy proposal, I have to consider the possibility that I'm wrong. I'd much rather have a group in charge that I disagree with almost all of the time, but can understand why highly knowledgeable, fair, and rational people might agree with than to have a group in charge who a third of the time will do something I like and the other two thirds of the time will do something that anybody who understands the issue will agree is stupid.

MikeDC writes:

I've come to the conclusion that the biggest failure in all of this is of the libertarian intelligentsia.

The reality is you guys, and I'm looking in the direction of the bloggers here, and guys like Tyler and Scott Sumner generally engage on the "Republican" side of arguments, but rarely provide anything constructive insofar as support.

The left has lots of intellectuals that are willing to get involved in the messy business of actual politics, even though it's difficult, and you're frequently ignored.

But, if you build relationships, you ultimately gain some influence and your general outlook gains some currency.

I tend to think the unwillingness of anyone meaningful (I guess perhaps aside from Mankiw) to really get involved with and go to bat for the Republicans is at least partially due to the sad state of academics in general. Even if economics is relatively balanced politically, universities are decidedly not, so it's a much easier proposition for a professor who's not a Democrat or socialist to gain cover by saying he or she is not a Republican and throwing out a tired line about their bigotry or social heathenism. Or poor economic policies, which is a laugher given the alternative.

Scaring and shaming smart Republicans into non-participation in Republican politics ends up making the Republicans that much more anti-intellectual and dependent on the shallow, shrill and socially oriented ones. As with many things, it's a potentially vicious circle that will require leadership and foresight to overcome.

Dan Weber writes:

If your goal was not to expand entitlements then pretty much any bill is going to suck.

The Republicans could have done the "grand bargain" to change Medicare/Medicaid from open-ended liabilities into finitely-funded programs. I'm not 100% that it would have worked, but I know that as soon as Obama took even one step in that direction, Republicans came out with DEATH PANELS, making it pretty much impossible.

Not all the Republicans did that, to be sure, but the reasonable Republicans should have reined those folks in. Ryan's bill was a very honest attempt, but how many Republicans were willing to back him?

As for Frum, I don't read him regularly so there may be some history that I'm unaware of.

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