Vouchered Reality

I think when the robot historians write the story of late empire America, one of the great villains will be Jack Kemp. It was Kemp who “figured out” that conservatives had to find some way to counter the Progressive monopoly on altruism in the public consciousness. Otherwise, elections would continue to turn on who most cares about the weakest, rather than who has the best ideas.

That sounded fine in terms of politics, but philosophically it conceded a critical point. That is, the state is responsible for the care and feeding of the citizenry. If someone is poor, it is the duty of politicians to figure out why and fashion a remedy for it. Kemp’s happy warrior dance is what eventually led to the Bush variant of “Compassionate Conservatism.” When Bush said, “We have a responsibility that when somebody hurts, Government has got to move”, he was channeling Jack Kemp.

The “conservatism” of Jack Kemp was decoupled from the traditional conservatism of America. Instead of being a cultural and philosophical counter to Public Protestantism, it was a different implementation of American Progressivism. The New Right accepted the fundamentals of the Left, particularly innate egalitarianism, they just had different ways to achieve the desired results.

The New Right offered tax incentives as an alternative to the bureaucratic and sclerotic welfare systems of the Left. Instead of building and maintaining public housing stocks, the New Right would create the ownership society. Of course, when it comes to education, the New Right offered vouchers and school choice as an alternative to throwing money at the union dominated public schools.

The trouble with all of this is it accepts a set of assumptions that are at odds with reality. Fundamentally, the Old Right differed from the Left on the issue of egalitarianism. The Right argued that people are born with a range of skills, talents and dispositions. There is a natural hierarchy within the human family and social arrangements must comport with the reality.

In contrast, the New Right signed onto the idea Reagan so cleverly explained in his famous A Time For Choosing speech fifty years ago. They “can’t see a fat man standing beside a thin one without automatically coming to the conclusion the fat man got that way by taking advantage of the thin one.” While the Left sees the invisible hand of avarice, the New Right sees a bug in the code of social policy.

This denial of biological reality is most evident with school choice. The assumption underlying these proposals is that every parent wants their kid to grow up to be a college educated high achiever in a self-actualizing profession. In reality, the degree of parental concern for offspring follows the normal distribution that tracks closely with economic condition.

Anyone who has spent time with the poor understands something that the social planners never grasp. Poor people make poor decisions. That’s why they are poor. They have above average time preferences, which is mostly due to a lower IQ and poor impulse control.

The drug dealer did not end up on parole because he thought things through and weighed the risks against the gains. Selling weed just seemed like a good way to get money at the time. He wanted money so he could buy stuff like a car and maybe a flat screen. Tomorrow is another country that he never intends to visit. It’s all about the here and now.

It’s why school choice programs don’t have a lot of supporting data behind them. This study linked on Marginal Revolution is the latest example debunking the claims of school choice. It turns out that there’s not a whole bunch of talented kids locked into poor schools after all. It’s bad students that make bad schools, not the other way around. Vouchers, at best, let middle-class whites move their kids further away from the poor kids.

Politicians of the New Right are so enamored with these programs, despite their dubious value, because of what Jack Kemp saw forty years ago. On the one hand, they promise the same results that naturally flow from freedom of association, which appeals to their base voters. On the other hand, everyone gets to pretend to care about the poor, thus stealing an cudgel from the Left.

The result over the last three decades has been a metastasizing welfare state that is served by an army of technocrats from both sides. Per capita federal spending, adjusted for inflation, has doubled since  the 1980’s because one party pushes compassionate liberalism while the other side pushes compassionate conservatism. Traditional America has been crushed between the jaws of this vice.

12 thoughts on “Vouchered Reality

  1. I think Dr. Johnson wrote the best refutation of progressivism:

    “How small, of all that human hearts endure,
    That part which laws or kings can cause or cure.
    Still to ourselves in every place consign’d,
    Our own felicity we make or find.”

  2. Left versus Right has become a choice between hard socialism or soft socialism, with the lefties screaming more loudly that anything but hard left is terrible and will doom us all. There are virtually no right-wing parties any more, only some who aren’t quite as utterly socialist as a few people say they want (until, of course, they find out that hard left socialism isn’t at all pleasant).

    When the UK got Tony Blair and his brand of leftism some 20 years ago, it was somehow assumed by any opponent that they must be left-leaning too. This why the Labour party here is torn between the Blairites and the non-Blairites (currently represented by their unkempt, ‘I-made-friends-with-terrorists’ pretend-leader Corbyn) and why the Tories thought they should be like Blair too in case no one voted for them.

    • Or to quote Severian from Rotten Chestnuts:

      “News flash: The culture wars are over, and we lost. Big time. We lost Red-Army-in-Berlin, Enola-Gay-over-Hiroshima style. Leftism is now standard operating procedure, even on the Right. Think carefully: When was the last time you heard a Republican politician urging an actually conservative approach to anything? The GOP pitches itself as better at fiddling the welfare state’s knobs and switches than the Democrats. That’s been their strategy for going on two full decades now. How’s it working out?”

  3. Paul Ryan proved your point tonight on TV. He was talking about the conservative approach to reducing poverty. He must know there will always be poor people, that anything government does will only make it worse. If he doesn’t he’s a fool. He must also know that he can’t compete with the Democrats direct giveaway programs. It’s the typical politician’s inability to be honest that sickens people.

    • Paul Ryan is interesting because he is the one guy in DC who seems to get that the party is coming to an end. He demanded his party suppress the infidels in their ranks as a condition for taking the job. He has now rushed through every liberal legislative item for Obama to sign. My sense is Ryan knows his tribe is running short of time.

      My bet is he switches parties in 2020 and runs for Senate as a Democrat.

      • May he roast in hell. That doesn’t make him interesting. It just makes him a Democrat. So sad.

  4. Very thought provoking essay on a verboten topic. You mean to tell us that all children are not “above average?” People like Arthur Brooks and Michael Medved still push conservative progressive-ism.

  5. I’ve been tracing this seam too, but started from the healthcare perspective rather than education.

    It seems to me that we used to have a pretty good way of taking care of the healthcare needs of the poor in the country. We had systems of state and county hospitals and clinics that provided low cost treatment to the indigent and unfortunate. But if you could afford it, you paid your own bills either directly or via insurance. This arrangement generally kept costs down since the states and municipalities are innately frugal (not being able to print money) and most members of the middle class, having taken grandma or alcoholic uncle Harry to County General once or twice, had no desire to use those services.

    The inflection point in spending (not just with healthcare, but also with college education, and school vouchers as you point out) always occurs when money (usually state or local money with federal matching funds and strings attached) enters the market.

    Several things happen at that point. First, there is a lot of corruption (Medicare fraud, for profit colleges, etc) since poor people cannot find honest service providers in their neighborhoods or lack the judgement to differentiate a shyster from a legitimate professional (or they are criminal and are getting a kickback,which is what my gut tells me is the case, but I can’t ever find any research along those lines). Second, politicians realize that they can use the (inflated) payments for services as a way to buy votes. Finally, the middle class decides that it too wants the benefit and subsidy, and since it doesn’t have to cross the railroad tracks to get the service (they now get a voucher or cost reimbursement instead) they can go on the dole with their heads held high (your school voucher example).

    College education was very similar. You had state and private schools. State schools were low cost but with large class sizes and less access to elite professors and employers. Once the politicians gave into middle class lobbying and started providing subsidies so they could get their kids private school educations at state school prices, it was game over.

    The final negative outcome (and I can see how everyone missed this one… the state college finance wallah that figured this out first was a real evil genius) was that once the Feds were willing to subsidize the middle class to attend private colleges, the state colleges were free to increase their cost basis to that of a private school, not provide any additional services to students, and hire armies of parasites to be diversity counselors, *-studies professors, and assistant associate deans for student wellness. Of course the county and state hospitals have their share of $300K administrators now as well.

    It makes you want to find a crooked doctor, have him put you on disability, and spend the rest of your life abusing Oxycontin and surfing pr0n.

  6. A good article, and agree about Kemp, but really, Nixon did his fair share to blur the lines. Reagan was the outlier really. The GOP wasn’t really so interested in Reagan and his two terms were really just a time for H.W. Bush and the GOP to work on taking advantage of the opportunity. And so they did, with the rise of Kemp and those in his sphere. Would not Dole be in there?

    To me, the Kemp effect was the natural extension of the GOP not really having an argument vs the DNC running on giving Government money away for votes. Also, see the generational element. The great generation that spawned the spoiled kids that turned into the radicals of the 60’s were all seemingly ok with spreading the wealth and building on the magnificence of an all-powerful Federal government which their generation saw as a good from growing of age in the 40’s and 50’s.

    Am I wrong?

  7. When you turn on your TV and someone mentions “….efforts to close the achievement gap….”, do you:

    –Scream
    –Laugh
    –Knit brows in serious worry about a surmountable challenge.

    50 years hence, the absolute best we can hope for is that it doesn’t WIDEN even more, given that 70+% O.O. wedlock births appears to be the new normal.

  8. “…elections would continue to turn on who most cares about the weakest, rather than who has the best ideas.”

    It’s a foregone conclusion in election cycles. Ideas are running a distant second to what pol / party “cares” more / least.

    The left understands better- they deride “archaic ideas ” while presenting none themselves. They simply claim to care more.

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