The false dichotomy

Markets versus governments is not what divides Republicans and Democrats

For politicians, depicting the conflict between right and left as a matter of markets vs. governments is convenient. It allows liberals to portray their opponents as anarcho-capitalists who believe that the fire department should be privatized, and lets conservatives pretend their rivals want the government to make every medical decision for its people. So long as this either-or binary paradigm is accepted by the voters, politicians don’t need an intellect capable of explaining difficult and nuanced policy trade-offs — instead they simply need the money to run ad campaigns reminding voters of the past successes and failures of governments or markets.

The paradigm is false, not just as a matter of policy, but also as a generalization about the parties. Outside of Ron Paul, no Republican contests the government’s role in firefighting. Outside of Michael Moore, no Democrat believes in abolishing healthcare markets. For most policy questions we face, the degree of government or market control is neither the most relevant consideration, nor even a useful measure for categorizing options. What really divides Republicans and Democrats is their fundamental conception of a just society.

For Democrats, the hallmark of a just society is equality. To them, America’s wealth distribution is criminally immoral. “How can it be just,” they ask, “for a Bill Gates to enjoy such unimaginable luxury, while many of his fellow citizens go without food or medicine?”

For Republicans, the hallmark of a just society is freedom. To them, no man should be forced to bear the costs of another, or be allowed to reap the benefits of someone else’s effort without that man’s consent. A man is entitled to take from society only that which he has provided it.

Never was this contrast more apparent than when, at a campaign stop in Ohio, then-candidate Obama took a question from a plumbing contractor named Samuel Wurzelbacher. “Joe the Plumber” objected to Obama’s tax plan, in essence saying that it was contrary to the American Dream to have hard-working, ambitious individuals pay a greater share of the burden of government than their fellow Americans. To Obama, this was an entirely foreign concept — it was inconceivable that Wurzelbacher would object to the principle of wealth redistribution so long as he could be convinced that he would be a beneficiary of it. When Wurzelbacher maintained his objection despite the best efforts to prove to him his taxes would be cut, Obama flailed, suggesting a variety of truly odd beliefs — including that a flat tax is impossible, wealth redistribution improves the economy, and Wurzelbacher’s success somehow prevents others “behind him” from being successful — before beating a tactical retreat to the tune of “I support small business.” The two men came from such different philosophical backgrounds that they could not see eye to eye.

In a sense, there is a natural predisposition of Republicans for markets and Democrats for governments. Republicans embrace markets because a system of voluntary exchange enshrines their principle of social justice. What better way to ensure that no man can take from another than to declare that whenever a person wants something, he must give his fellow man something else of equal or greater value in order to obtain it? Democrats embrace governments because equality is rarely a natural or voluntary condition, and must be achieved through a monopoly of force.

One might ask then, what is the harm in letting a difference in values manifest itself as a conflict between governments and markets? If it all comes down to intractable differences in values anyway, then how could some other paradigm make our discourse less combative and polarizing?

There are two reasons why we would do well to drop the rhetoric of governments vs. markets.

Firstly, markets and governments are each merely means to an end. A Democrat doesn’t really want a “government” solution if it exacerbates inequality. A Republican doesn’t really want a “market” solution if it forces some participants to pay for others. By perpetuating the false dichotomy, we are obscuring the true nature of the choices we are making, and worse, we are prejudicing voters and politicians against potential solutions based upon labels.

Moreover, politics is not simply a zero-sum game between mutually exclusive goals and values. There are many things that all Americans want: a more productive economy, smarter children, less crime, and so on. Even if the question of governments vs. markets mapped perfectly to our values differences, a legislator is not trying to purely maximize on the values of his constituents, he is also trying to maximize along a set of other — relatively values-free ­— goods. If he dismisses out of hand any solution that he considers “privatization” or “government intrusion,” by automatically assuming that it could not improve the provision of these other goods, then he is, in effect, ignoring these other considerations and reducing our politics to a zero-sum battle.

Secondly, and in the same vein, the markets vs. governments debate leads us to presume that there cannot be any compromise when opportunities really do exist. The health care debate is a flawed, but recent example. Admittedly, Republicans were unlikely to ever support insurance mandates, because at its core, an individual mandate forces the healthy to subsidize the unhealthy. Why should a person who eats right and exercises pay the same amount for insurance as an obese, binge-drinker with a two pack a day smoking habit? Or, for that matter, why should a man pay the same amount as a woman, if statistically their health care costs are different? From the perspective of a conservative, Democrats needed to demonstrate some pretty powerful improvements to the efficiency of insurance provision to justify such cost-shifting.

At the same time, it is useful to remember that individual mandates were once a Republican idea. George Bush billed them as a solution to the problem of uncompensated care, a way of preventing emergency-room free-riders from passing on their health care costs to the rest of society. Phrased in this way, as a policy of personal responsibility, it’s clear what the conservative appeal was.

The health care narrative spun by the White House was tuned perfectly to the ears of liberal Democrats. Insurance companies are rich. The uninsured are poor. We should get insurance companies to pay for the health care of the poor. Nearly every speech the president gave contained some reference to an American who lived in poverty or was bankrupted by health care costs. For a person with Obama’s values, these stories were justification enough for reform — how could we, in good conscience, allow such inequality to persist? As a conversation between those with different ideas of justice, it was as hopeless as the Q&A with Wurzelbacher.

We are a nation divided. But fighting our values battles by proxy is not the solution. Getting past our differences means confronting them head-on — getting to bipartisanship means understanding the real reasons that we are partisan.