Confronted by the disorienting possibility that one or more of my progeny might have gone over to the dark side, might have become actual Democrats, I feel the need to identify political matters on which I confess to being in sympathy with the opposition.
Forget about abortion, gay-wedding cakes, legalized pot, immigration, the president’s tweets, etc. The fundamental difference between Democrats and Republicans is that Democrats love central planning and Republicans abhor it. “Central planning” was the term used by conservative icon F. A. Hayek 75 years ago (in The Road To Serfdom) to describe the governmental model preferred by all leftists – be they Democrats, Marxists, or anything in between. “Central” means government, and “planning” means anticipating everything that could ever happen and spelling-out how the government should reward the good stuff and penalize the bad. To Hayek, central planning embodies the delusion that humans can be smart enough to anticipate and plan for everything, every detail. Many Republicans concur; like Hayek, they think central planning hinders economic growth and leads to an authoritarian state – despite ostensibly-free markets. When a central planner finds a flaw in a regulation, he or she addresses it with additional regulation.
Central planning is implemented through Acts of Congress (“laws”), Executive Actions and Executive Orders of the president (“EOs”), or regulations (“regs”) issued by federal agencies. Laws are often short, but regs are often way-longer, and when you add EOs, you can get to thousands of pages for major legislation. Length is the identifying marker of central planning. Exhibit A of the governance model that Democrats love and Republicans detest is the Dodd Frank law and its associated regs and EOs. (See discussion at https://www.mercatus.org/publications/dodd-frank-one-biggest-regulatory-events-ever .) The number of laws, regs, and EOs, and their volume, increased exponentially during the Obama presidency, and many conservative commentators think some of it, especially Dodd Frank, is both too long and bad policy and the cause of enormous compliance-costs. One critic, writing for the Wall Street Journal, suggested an appealing, alternative approach to Dodd Frank that could be scribbled on the back of a dinner napkin: forget the hyper-regulating of banks, just raise the banks’ minimum capital-requirements and let the financial markets do their job of rewarding good banks and punishing bad ones; the object should not be to prevent bank failures but to prevent runs and crises and to avoid moral hazard.
America was founded by people who wanted the government off their backs, but today’s Democrats don’t want that; they depend on government. Republicans claim they aren’t buying it, but they are kidding themselves. First of all, all laws are inherently regulatory: laws tell you what you cannot do. It all depends on how complex, how detailed, how intrusive the regulating is. In America, as in ancient Rome, by joining a nation-state you limit your freedom: you submit to its laws, even the ones you dislike. America’s constitution and laws have never provided total freedom.
Secondly, Republicans don’t oppose all regulation; mainly,they oppose regulation that is inscrutable or unnecessary or just plain stupid, and regulation for which compliance is unreasonably burdensome or expensive. For sure, the president is not anti-regulation; compare the length of the USMCA (1,800 pages) to that of NAFTA (1,700 pages). But Republicans wonder, why should government approval take so long and cost so much for any project that might have even the slightest potential-impact on our air, water, wildlife, or environment in general, regardless of cost/benefit trade-offs? Why do you need a license to be a hair stylist when no license is required of business-consultants – whose job is often more demanding than the job of most lawyers and accountants?
Republicans are fine with protecting the public from unreasonable risks to life, limb, or property, or to the environment. But they object to the selective use of the regulatory state for political purposes. (See Lerner, Lois). They understand that inappropriate regulation incents businesses to compete for government-favors rather than for customers, that it tends over time to retard economic growth and invite corruption, and that it is the hallmark of the authoritarian state. (See China, People’s Republic of.) Democrats counter that in the age of the microchip, where technology can race ahead faster than even an un-gridlocked Congress and a disinterested judiciary could, regulation-by-Congress-alone is an ingenuous model. They favor a dynamic approach, with the White House and an activist judiciary joining Congress on the regulating team.
This debate has roots. Since Marx, leftists have believed that central-planning protects the little people from the greed and predation of the big shots. Today’s Democrats add that in the 21st century, the price of our huge advances in science and technology is a scary increase in the hazards that the people – little people or big ones – face, in the workplace, in locales affected by the operation and waste-generation of our factories and refineries, everywhere. The Left believes our social and environmental issues are so complex that they cry out for detailed specifics, not just general laws or constitutional principles. They believe that without governmental regulation of individual and corporate behaviors, America would be a foul and brutish place – bad air, denuded forests, a degraded water table, polluted oceans, harmful climate-change, dangerous workplaces, discrimination and harassment based upon race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, etc.
Surprise: Republicans kind-of accept most of that, even if they are loathe to admit it.The big exception is climate control: Republicans find it hard to take the Left seriously when it dreams about improving our planetary environment without any comparable commitment from China, the world’s worst polluter. But most Republicans, with a gun to their head and no recording devices nearby, would admit that they agree with the Democrats on the hazards and risks of living in the 21st century, would concede that their objections have more to do with the techniques of the regulating than with its purpose. In fact, most Republicans would probably acknowledge more readily than the Left that the age of the microchip presents certain issues that require detailed solutions – e.g., the growing concern over the growing exploitation of drone technology not just for commercial purposes but for terrorism or other malevolent purposes, which is not something that can be suitably addressed by the Constitution or our standard civil or criminal laws.
I think the Democrats do all citizens a favor by acting as stewards of our nation’s environment and natural resources and our quality-of-life. Too many Republicans refuse to accept the fact that a completely de-regulated nation, despite the benefits of free-market competition, would be a nasty place to live in. But I worry that the Left fails to grasp the fundamental principle that a centrally-planned economy will not grow as well as a less-regulated economy and will be prone to corruption and authoritarianism. One wishes each side had a better understanding of the other side.