Wednesday, August 26, 2009

A Centrist Lesson From Ted Kennedy

Senator Edward Kennedy died last night. He was a great liberal leader in the nation. He was also a great legislator. The practice of making legislation tends to make people act like centrists. If they do not reach across the aisle, they can make great speeches, but rarely pass anything important.

Ted Kennedy's great passion was health care for everyone in America. Early in his career he had a chance to work with President Nixon to pass national health insurance legislation. Kennedy held out for his favored plan, and health insurance for all Americans failed. Kennedy long regretted that he sacrificed the goal for ideological purity.

Centrist legislation always requires compromise with the other side. But it actually accomplishes some good things. This is true for liberals and conservatives. It is also true for centrists, who have to accept attacks on centrism from ideologues as the price for actually accomplishing something.

Ted Kennedy learned that to achieve any legislative goal, you have to plan on incremental changes over a long time. This is how we came to have Medicare, Medicaid, veteran's hospitals, Children's Health Insurance Plans in every state, universal vaccinations, smoking restrictions, drinking restrictions, clean food, air, and water regulations, seat belt laws, noise pollution laws - the hundred and one programs to make everyone's health better and their health costs shared more evenly. And we still have the most elaborate variety and highest quality of fancy health care in the world, though one could not call that a system. All of this was achieved in centrist increments. Some on the right denounce this a creeping socialism, and some on the left denounce it as Big Brother, but few of them actually want to give up the benefits of better health and better health care.

Centrists owe a great debt to Ted Kennedy for his long-term commitment to incremental achievements for a larger social goal.


TallCoolOne said...

I think you'll have to agree, Gruntled, that there are times when incrementalism just isn't called for: ending slavery, New Deal, 9/11, and many others. In fact, most of the significant legislation of the past half-century could be charaterized as "home-run swings," some of which connected, and most of which then called forth repeal measures from the other side.

In such a climate, where "ping-pong politics" is the accepted norm, I don't see the wide middle space opening which your panagyric to incrementalism requires.

Politics used to be the slow boring of hard boards. Now it's more the hard booring of slow bores.

Toby Brown said...

You're right. Socialism and the state's control over the smallest details of the lives of its citizens can only be accomplished incrementally in America.

jacob williams said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Halifax said...

From up here in the great white north, the US health system looks pretty attractive, but that doesn't mean I won't miss swinging Teddy and his one-nighters.

With regards to your list of government programs that make life better, clean food, air, and water regulations are the only programs that make any sense in a civil society in which individuals are understood as citizens and not as comrades engaged in some spurious common enterprise.

Swinging for the fences has a tendency to create a bit of blowback, to mix metaphors. The uniquely unconstitutional way that slavery was ended in the US created the conditions under which the black population suffered for 100 years. The New Deal, whether successful or not in economic terms, survived largely because of the emergence of the warfare state during WWII and the Cold War. The 9/11 security 'reforms' have been rightly decried as the worst piece of legislation since the Alien and Sedition Acts. Nationalizing health care (which is the ultimate goal of our new masters) will certainly improve the health care of the poor, but it is a sure bet to be the biggest boondoggle in American history, and will make us look back wistfully on trillion dollar budget deficits as our currency begins to look like the DM in the 1920s.

Gruntled said...

TallCoolOne, I have to disagree about each of your proposed exceptions to incrementalism. 9/11 did call for some immediate acts - tracking down Al Qaeda - but most of the appropriate responses had to do with improving relations with Muslim nations and promoting Islamic democracy. The New Deal was a hugely pragmatic project, which tried all sorts of things, especially in the Hundred Days. We did restrict slavery incrementally for a long time. I believe it could have been ended without a bitter and divisive war that is still not over in its effects.

Toby Brown, which elements of the state's involvement in improving health would you do away with?

Halifax, every health care system has major drawbacks, and in no country do a majority of citizens think theirs is working well. None the less, universal health care does seem to me to be a national necessity like universal literacy. Providing it to the poor only through emergency rooms seems to me the least just, efficient, and cost effective way to achieve that end.

Anonymous said...

Actually, my sister was the head er nurse at Parkland Hospital in Dallas (the public hospital) and she told me (in re the current question) that most of her patients were perfectly happy with er care. Once again, I would insist that the government should treat its citizens as adults who are capable of making decision and taking responsiblity for them. If the government does not do this, then who is to tell where its 'nosey parkerdom' will stop? Perhaps your morning cup of joe will be the next on the list of unhealthy activities to be stifled by the nanny state.

halifax said...

sorry, but anon was me.

Gruntled said...

When the poor use emergency rooms as their ordinary medical care they cost everyone more and make themselves sicker. This seems to me to be a bad idea.

TallCoolOne said...

Try the "slavery should have gone on longer" line on your "colored" students. (Assuming you have any, I mean.)

Your reading of the New Deal machinations is suspect, but that's a long conversation that can't take place here.

And I'm not at all clear how you can just forget most of the initiatives taken in the last eight years which had NOTHING to do with improving relations with Muslim nations and promoting democracy therein.

But, for a Calvinist to espouse incrementalism, there must be something very wrong in an uncritical devotion to Americanism.

halifax said...


I don't disagree that the use of emergency rooms as the primary care facility of the poor and unemployed is a bad idea. However, I'm still of the old-fashioned opinion that replacing something that isn't perfect with something which is definitely worse is not a good idea. I'm not a policy wonk, so I don't have a silver bullet to solve this particular problem, but dirigiste solutions never really transfer wealth from the rich to the poor anyway. Instead, they transfer power and money from citizens to the central government.


I can only suppose that you need a remedial course in reading if you believe that I suggested that 'slavery should have gone on longer'. I merely stated, and Beau and other reasonable people have agreed, that the violent and unlawful way that slavery was ended in this country (and then the way that their supposed saviors abandoned the ex-slaves) poisoned race relations in the US for a century. The US was the only country in the Americas in which a war was used to end slavery (this might be news to you). In terms of the New Deal, my claim is certainly debatable, but by the late 30s, the US had sunk back into a serious depression and the government was increasingly seen as incapable of dealing with it. It was success in the war that renewed optimism about the capacity of government, which was a rather stupid conclusion since success in war only proves that governments are good at killing people (something that we should all know by now). In terms of your last incoherent claim, the American government has done absolutely nothing worthwhile in the last eight years (including the short stint of the new messiah).

halifax said...

By the way, Beau,

I actually think that your point about the moderating effect that lawmaking usually has on policy is a good one. Butterfield once wrote that 'beneficent legislation…might have to be suspended or delayed for a shorter or longer period, if its immediate achievement would divide the country too sharply and embitter political life at the next stage of the story; or if its enactment or its execution would entail too great an exercise of power.' Good legislation is moderate in this way: it reflects the consensus of the political community.

I have appended some of the moderating maxims that I think of when considering policy issues (though few would likely call me a moderate). These are all quotations from the real Lord Halifax.

‘’Tis the highest imprudence to run into real, present, to avoid possible, future evils.’

'To know when to let things alone is a high pitch of good sense.'

‘In a corrupted age the putting the world in order would breed confusion.’

‘A rooted disease must be stroked away, rather than kicked.’

‘Eagerness is apt to overlook consequences…; for when men are in great haste, they see only in a straight line.’

halifax said...

And, by the way again, when the nanny-in-chief says 'we are God's partners in matters of life and death', does that cause at least a momentary doubt about where all this is going? Soylent Green is people, after all.

TallCoolOne said...

General Notice -- this is the only message in this thread that I am writing to Halifax: dodging the issues with pseudo-rhetoric accomplishes nothing but rendering the discussion sterile. Which, in retrospect, this issue has been from the beginning.

halifax said...

Tall Cool One,

I apologize for my snappy response (though it is unclear to me what you mean by 'quasi-rhetoric'). It appeared to me that, with your non-sequitur about slavery, you were relying on the first refuge of the dishonest and dishonorable in American politics, i.e. calling your opponents racists. If you were responding to Professor Weston's posting instead of mine, then my response would still be that your post is both ignorant and inane. Your last post to me is so incoherent that it is proof positive that you are a professor (probably of education).

In fact, since I read Professor Weston's blog regularly, I have seen your previous posts, which manifest an intellectual vacuity similar to your posts here, but you should certainly keep posting. Even a blind squirrel eventually finds an acorn.

Anonymous said...

Best thread ever!

Gruntled said...

‘In a corrupted age the putting the world in order would breed confusion.’

Is there any age that is not corrupted?

TallCoolOne said...

I have waited, both so that I could post calmly, and to see whether the earlier "response" would prove acceptable to the members of this "community." That no one objected told me everything I needed to know, namely, that "reason" is used as code here for clubbish snobbery.

As, however, that is a privilege of this kind of endeavor, I will respect it's exclusivity and wish it whatever good it will be able to accept from lesser breeds (rodents and such).

I must, however, state clearly that I am not a professor, of education or otherwise, anymore than my name is "TallCoolOne." If shame can be felt vicariously, I feel it for the kind of easy abuse a group can take from people who ought to, and most probably do, know better.