Monday, March 28, 2005

The GOP Becomes the Washington-Knows-Best Party

I had this Phil Gramm anecdote pulled on me during the 1994 campaign--but the other guy spoke last, so I didn't get the chance to say, "But what about the kids whose names you don’t know?" But the great thing about writing a column is that you get to recycle your material, even if it takes 11 years.

I submitted my column the same day as The Tribune published its magisterial, 1,000-word sidestep of the Schiavo issue, which you can read here. At the end, all they could say was "Boy, what a difficult issue" without disclosing what they actually thought about the case. Also, you'll notice the slippery sentence about "courts and legislatures" deciding what rules should apply. Legislatures--on a case-by-case basis? Wouldn't that normally be anathema to libertarians? Well, the editor said, normally it would, but "this isn't a normal case." Huh--like there are "normal" PVS/end of life cases? And what does it mean that there are fundamental principles apparently not as fundamental as a dispute between a woman's husband and her family, which the Florida courts have sorted out nearly 2 dozen times?

Yes, these are tough issues, but it's a huge mistake to go back to what we had prior to Cruzan--where doctors made the call and families were involved only at the periphery. We've actually got a pretty workable system in this country now, one where the law respects people's differing beliefs and values. But this particular circus could ruin life for every other elephant.

Newspaper format of my column is here.

East Valley Tribune, Mar. 27, 2005

Conservatives just love to tell a story where former Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, is debating some unsuspecting liberal. The setup is that the liberal arguing for some new government program ostentatiously claims that he either knows or loves Gramm’s children just as much as Gramm does. To which Gramm replies, “Then what are their names?”

It’s a great story, but one with a whiff of “urban legend” about it, because the tale mutates slightly in each retelling. The sex and type of the advocate changes, from “an official of Jimmy Carter’s Education Department” (Toward Tradition, 2000), to “a child-care bureaucrat” (National Review Online, 2004), to “a left-wing advocate of some sort” (Dick Armey, 1999), to “a liberal academic type” debating healthcare (National Review, 1999), to a “Lady Who Represents the Education Establishment” (National Review, 2001), to Princeton Prof. Paul Starr (National Center for Policy Analysis, 1997), to “an advocate” for education (Goldwater Institute, 2005).

But according to Gramm himself, in a 1994 speech to the Daughters of the American Revolution, the debate was about education, and it’s a female Department of Education bureaucrat who somehow claims that Gramm doesn’t love his kids any more than she does. (Who would be as stupid as that? Well, let’s not let the facts get in the way of a good story.)

I bring up this oft-used (and oft-embellished) tale because this past week, thanks to the Terri Schiavo case, Republicans are now firmly and proudly in the “Washington-knows-best” camp. They now claim to know better than her husband. Sorry, Phil.

The Schiavo case also shows the flip-side of Gramm’s little anecdote. The clumsy liberal wanted to help kids, even kids whose names she didn’t know. But Republicans have no desire to help people unless they know them personally -- and once they know their names, there’s nothing (not law, not reason, not science, and certainly not ideology) putting any brakes on what they would have government do.

Virtually every one of the Republicans who voted to get the federal government involved in an intensely private matter -- all those “small government conservatives” who feel qualified to opine as to the fitness of Michael Schiavo as a husband, who consider themselves elected to office so they could play judge and doctor simultaneously -- also just voted to slash healthcare funding for the poor and elderly.

This so-called “culture of life” theory has no problem with capital punishment, with wars of choice, or with thousands of people facing illness and premature death, so long as those affected remains anonymous. But Republicans know Terri Schiavo’s name, so we get unprecedented instant laws and Medicaid can keep paying her care.

Mark Schmitt calls it “Miss America compassion,” where a Republican grabs hold of one (and only one) problem, either something they faced personally (a child’s autism) or which may be politically useful (breast cancer research). But this “compassion” only extends to the one specific problem, without any deeper understanding that other problems may exist worth enlisting government in helping to assuage. And, as Schmitt notes, it certainly doesn’t extend to recognizing that to help those facing such misfortunes, government requires adequate institutions and revenues.

These Republicans don’t recognize that people they don’t know personally often suffer from misfortunes these Republicans haven’t faced personally. Conservatives have no problem ignoring crowds of people facing acute illness, or autism, or brain death, or foster care so long as they don’t know them personally. Teach them a name, and suddenly there’s no limit to what (and how far) government should intrude, spend, or control.

Only helping people you know -- and not recognizing a proper, practical, and just role for government in helping people deal with misfortune -- is also a recipe for corruption. As Ed Kilgore noted, if you don’t think government can do good, and your only goal is to benefit your friends, then graft and favoritism become almost inevitable.

Stalin reportedly said, “The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic.” Too bad that the unprecedented, unthinking, and thoroughly cynical response by the GOP Congress to Terri Schiavo’s tragedy only proves that Stalin was, apparently and unfortunately, right.

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