Daniel Patrick Moynihan, one of my favorite liberals and public servants, recently went on to his reward. My friend Matt Ladner sent me an excerpt from Moynihan’s book, Miles to Go, which is very instructive about him as well as liberal thought as we have come to know it. It seems that Moynihan and a member of the Clinton cabinet were involved in an exchange of letters about a proposed and quite expensive “family preservation” program in which the then Senator was questioning the evidence that such a program would actually work to achieve its desired results, citing two studies of similar programs known to demonstrate results to the contrary. The text of the last few lines of his final letter to the official is priceless: “I write you at such length for what I believe to be an important purpose. In these last six months I have been repeatedly impressed by the numbers of members of the Clinton administration who have assured me with great vigor that something or other is known in an area of social policy which, to the best of my understanding, is not known at all. This seems to me perilous. It is quite possible to live with uncertainty, with the possibility, even the likelihood, that one is wrong. But beware of certainty where none exists. Ideological certainty easily degenerates into an insistence upon ignorance. The great strength of the political conservatives at this time (and for a generation) is that they are open to the thought that matters are complex. Liberals have got into a reflexive pattern of denying this. I had hoped twelve years in the wilderness might have changed this; it may be it has only reinforced it. If this is so, current revival of liberalism will be brief and inconsequential.”
This is vintage Moynihan, as he critiques the liberal mindset of our time—measurable results of government largesse are secondary, good intentions are all that matter, as it operates in the fantasy of what Thomas Sowell named the “unconstrained vision” of an insulated elite convinced of its own virtue. Although I disagreed with a substantial majority of Moynihan’s votes, he was intellectually honest above all and his 1965 warning about the decimation of the black family in America and his subsequent perception of our cultural decline through what he famously dubbed “defining deviancy down” will long live as landmarks in social thought.
Lately I have been reminded from several directions of the efficacy in various applications of the concept of “public choice theory” as developed by economics Nobel Laureate James M. Buchanan. In a recent issue of “Imprimis”, Buchanan expounds on this theory, which to me is nothing more complicated than one that espouses a market-based system for delivery of public services. Critics of this theory seem to believe that people, when acting politically, for example, as voters or legislators, do not behave as they do in markets, that somehow they set aside human nature and become immune to the dynamics and incentives of market forces. But I believe that, after several generations of the failure of the top-down collectivist monopoly in the delivery of public goods dictated and controlled by those who have political “voice”, we are finally moving toward a bottom-up “choice” model based on empowerment of the users of public services.
Two areas in which this transformation is currently playing out are education, where school choice programs of various designs are being successfully tested in a growing number of states and school districts, and health care, where universal, one-size-fits-all government solutions have been discredited. There are other areas in which I believe choice can and will be expanded. One of them is transportation, where it is clear that the collectivized model has failed miserably in responding to mobility problems in almost every urban area. A second is social security, which will not be viable or credible for the next generation until it is converted to something resembling a defined contribution retirement plan. Yet another is welfare services, and here it is a shame that President Bush’s faith-based initiative wasn’t originally structured on a voucherized basis, so that the funding would have gone directly to the person receiving the benefit who would then choose the best option for the delivery of the service from among governmental, charitable, and private providers. Likewise, the federal Head Start program, the control of which the Bush administration has proposed to transfer to the states, could be much more effective as a voucherized program rather than as block grants to education bureaucrats.
Public choice theory is not a novel concept. An early variation of it was introduced by Adam Smith in his explanation of the “invisible hand” in the 18th century, and, incidentally, his discipline wasn’t economics, it was moral philosophy, which is grounded in a proper understanding of human nature. There are hopeful signs that we are returning to that understanding in our public policy.
My friend Stuart Schube related to me some conversations he has had recently with friends preparing for the upcoming Jewish Day of Remembrance observing the Holocaust. To one of them he commented (and I paraphrase), “If George W. Bush had been President in 1933 and available to respond to the Nazi threat in 1933-39, there would not be a need for a Day of Remembrance.” And I would add, nor a Holocaust Museum. Who knows how many thousands of innocents in the Middle East and possibly other places around the world will now avoid the necessity of a day of remembrance for the continuation and possible acceleration of the genocide of the regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Freedom is not cheap. And to paraphrase Churchill, “this is not the end, it’s not even the beginning of the end, but it’s surely the end of the beginning.” Many treacherous days lie ahead in a long occupation and difficult transformation of Iraqi society. After all, Nazi Germany only lasted eleven years, while the totalitarianism of the Iraqi Baathist Party was in power for thirty years in a culture with no legacy of self-governance, and no history of a Reformation or an Enlightenment. But, however long it takes, this mission was, and is, the right thing to do—a truly transforming event with positive consequences far beyond Iraq’s borders. George Bush understands this, just as he understands that freedom is God given, not conferred by the state or any regime, and should be universal, and that there are risks to be taken and prices to be paid to create a secure environment in which freedom can advance.
In February 2002 the Institute for American Values organized a group of sixty of America’s leading intellectuals to draft a declaration of the universal principles that are at stake in this war. Entitled “What We’re Fighting For”, they are not denominational or sectarian, but represent the received wisdom of the ages and are based on five fundamental truths, as follows: (1) all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights; (2) the basic subject of society is the human person, and the legitimate role of government is to protect and help foster the conditions for human flourishing; (3) human beings naturally desire to seek the truth about life’s purpose and ultimate ends; (4) freedom of conscience and religious freedom and inviolable rights of the human person; and (5) killing in the name of God is contrary to faith in God and is the greatest betrayal of the universality of religious faith. These serve as valuable reminders of the heritage that must be defended and passed on.
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst has floated his proposal for a successor to the flawed “Robin Hood” system of Texas public school finance, and while I applaud his initiative in doing so, I believe that his plan, along with most of the other ideas that have been suggested, approaches the problem from the wrong direction. Put simply, we don’t have a funding problem in public education, we have a cost structure problem. By any benchmarking measure, and particularly as it relates to performance, public education is more than fully funded in the aggregate and on a per-student basis. When Gov. Rick Perry calls for the special legislative session to consider school finance, the serious interim committee work should be focused on completely overhauling the school district cost structures and the most realistic way to do this is by ridding them of the perverse incentives that are by nature so deeply embedded in them. The current model is inherently flawed because it is “input” and compliance driven rather than “output” and performance driven. So, you say, assuming we fix the incentive structure problem, what do we do about the problem of funding equity? Here we confront the long-standing Texas principle of local control. My take on this is that most people I know would trade local control of funding for a statewide funding system that supplied equal funding per student, provided there was in place a credible performance based cost system. What will be required to induce such a massive cultural shift in public education? The introduction of competitive dynamics to the incentive structure through the adoption of comprehensive school choice, at least in our larger urban districts. Stay tuned.