The American Experimenters

Daniel Finkelstein argues that Conservatives shouldn’t fear Nick Clegg. His last point is instructive, and it has obvious yet important implications for Americans.

Although Tories have very big disagreements with Clegg, he talks openly about the problems of big government, state interference and monopolies in health and education. His election would help to shift the centre of gravity in the political debate towards the freedom loving right. This would be a very big gain indeed.

Consider that the leading Democratic presidential contenders are all promoting health care plans that leave a large and prominent role to the private sector. Not large and prominent enough, some might argue, but caricaturing these proposals as “socialistic,” or indeed as “Soviet,” in Mitt Romney’s memorable characterization, merely makes Republicans looks clueless.

So what is the right way of opposing these plans and other efforts to centralize power in the hands of Washington? First of all, it’s not always obvious that Republicans ought to oppose any and all plans advanced by Democrats. David Cameron argued against “Punch-and-Judy politics” for some time, and he’s right: opposition for it’s own sake doesn’t always make sense.

One potent argument, which is deployed all the time, centers on coercion. To what extent are individuals strongly compelled to do something? The fact is, sophisticated liberals have mostly moved beyond coercion, preferring default rules and other measures rooted in “libertarian paternalism.” But when a Democrat proposes an individual mandate for healthcare (or a Republican, like yours truly), the devastating counter-argument is always, “Let me tell y’all, I go to the doctor once a year. I think you should too. But if you don’t, well, that’s your business.” Etc., etc. That’s why I think Democrats will eventually abandon individual mandates. Apart from the inevitable difficulties in implementing the mandate, they represent a real political vulnerability.

That’s why a far more powerful argument, which has the added benefit of actually making the world a better place, is the argument from experimentation. I’ve praised Jim Manzi before, in large part because I think he’s developing intellectual frameworks that will be an important part of any conservative revival. One key idea of his is that we need to test policy proposals to the extent possible. This might sound obvious, but consider how rare this really is. Politicians propose vast and sweeping changes to the basic structure of our economy all the time, and amazingly enough they tend to rely almost exclusively on gut instinct or, for the more sophisticated, flawed analogies to deeply different societies (Slovakia has a flat tax! Flexicurity works in Denmark!).

This is utter madness.

The states are supposed to be “laboratories of democracy,” but of course they are no such, in large part because the federal government keeps such a tight leash on robust experimentation at the state level. That needs to change. If that means the federal government needs to enable Oregon to pursue, say, socialized medicine, that is what needs to happen. Former Oregon governor John Kitzhaber has called for a dramatic overhaul of Oregon’s healthcare system, but his efforts have been stymied by the realities of federal interference, not to mention the lack of vision on the part of his successor. Why not give Oregon the tools it needs to shoot for the moon? And then, after evaluating 50 different approaches, we’ll have slightly more knowledge than we do now about what works and what doesn’t.

That, of course, is very crude. There are many other ways to test policy ideas. The federal government has conducted many such experiments in the past, sometimes deliberately and often not. My sense is that Jim Manzi has some excellent ideas as to how, in theory, we could go forward.

This is important. Which party will be the party of top-down plans? And which party will be the party of evidence and experimentation? It goes without saying that Republicans have acquired a richly deserved reputation for know-nothingism, for repeating tired nostrums long after they’ve lost resemblance to reality. Perhaps those days are about to end.