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A Dangerous Attitude

Today I ran across an article about an on-air spat between Michael Moore and CNN's medical correspondent Dr. Gupta about Moore's movie "Sicko". I haven't seen the movie and the background is largely irrelevant for my purpose. What I want to comment on is this:

"The government actually used to do things right," Moore said in response. "The problem is who we put in power."

This is an extremely dangerous attitude.

It is also extremely common. Liberals and conservatives alike expend enormous energy on getting elected with the goal of using government power to change whatever is bothering them. Too seldom they consider what will happen when the government apparatus they create falls into the hands of their political opponents. Then they will be furious, watching their glorious system be twisted to support those opponents' goals.

This is inevitable. In this democracy constitutional republic, no political party or ideology has maintained control of the government over long periods of time. It hasn't happened and it isn't going to happen. People you dislike, distrust, or hate will be elected — and they will wield the power your well-intentioned programs provide. And you will not like what they do with it.

There are fundamentally only two methods for strengthening a program against the people who run it.

The first is to have a solid process. Embed the policies of operation into the program and give little flexibility to the people running it. Those people must assume the role of administrators, not policymakers. They must be unable to exert their policy preferences. If you succeed in laying down the correct principles at the beginning, what you have created will survive for a long time.

The problem with this approach is that the kinds of government programs people want to create are all about policymaking! In the inevitable political compromise to get anything controversial enacted, you won't lay down the principles you wanted. Everyone will be dissatisfied and tempted to tinker, and this tinkering will erode the solid foundation you wanted the program to have. It will accumulate things you disagree with, and you will want the administrators (who currently think like you, of course) to have the flexibility to disregard the bits you don't like. The program is now susceptible to the whims of whoever is in charge, and you will be as unhappy as Michael Moore when your political opponents come to power and appoint new administrators who will corrupt your once-beautiful program. (Even if the administrators aren't political appointees, over time there will be turnover, and you might not like the new guys.)

The second approach to building a strong program is to recognize the futility of the first approach and to give up on the whole endeavor. The only true protection against a program becoming corrupted is to not create the program in the first place. If you wouldn't want your ideological adversaries to wield a power, you must forbid it to your ideological friends as well.

I'll provide one concrete example to make the problem clear: If Michael Moore got his wish for socialized health care, would abortions be covered?

<crickets chirping>

Liberals cry "of course!" and conservatives shout "hell no!" and it's obvious that this is exactly the sort of policy issue that would sour the program. Political fighting over this would open the floodgates — cosmetic care, heroic care, quality-of-life care… it would all become tragically politicized in a once-size-fits-all system rather than left up to the decisions of the individuals involved. If we let people keep their money, instead of paying the higher taxes to fund a socialized system, they could afford "controversial" care and would not be subject to the whims of politicians.

You should run, not walk, from anyone pitching a government program that will only work when "our guys" are in power. When (not if) they lose an election, you'll have given the "other guys" more power. I don't think you want that.


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