Change in South Carolina

George Will

3/25/2004 12:00:00 AM - George Will

WASHINGTON -- In every four-year cycle there are about 1 million American elections, most of which involve marginal differences between conventional candidates. This year's South Carolina Senate contest is one that matters.

It will choose the successor to retiring Sen. Fritz Hollings, 82, a six-term Democrat. If his successor is Rep. Jim DeMint, a Republican, the Senate will acquire a distinctive voice.

His congressional district, once called ``the textile capital of the world,'' seethes with resentment of free trade. Yet he has not flinched from supporting free trade, and now no district in the nation has as high a per-capita investment by international companies, such as BMW and Michelin.

Having served the three terms that he told voters would be his limit, DeMint, 52, wants to take to the Senate his concern about the rising trajectory of American dependency on government. With the Heritage Foundation, a Washington think tank, DeMint has developed an ``index of dependency.''

America is in, he says, ``an eleventh-hour crisis'' of democracy because it recently reached a point where a majority are ``dependent on the federal government for their health care, education, income or retirement.'' Tax reforms, from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush, have removed many Americans from the income tax rolls: ``Today, the majority of Americans can vote themselves more generous government benefits at little or no cost to themselves.'' DeMint asks: ``How can any free nation survive when a majority of its citizens, now dependent on government services, no longer have the incentive to restrain the growth of government?''

DeMint's fear, that dependency produces ``learned helplessness,'' echoes Tocqueville's warning about government keeping people ``fixed irrevocably in childhood,'' rendering ``the employment of free will less useful and more rare.'' It is, Tocqueville said, ``difficult to conceive how men who have entirely renounced the habit of directing themselves could succeed at choosing well those who will lead them.''

In the context of a welfare state devoted to assuaging the insecurities and augmenting the competencies of its citizens, conservatism's challenge is to use government -- collective action -- to promote individualism. DeMint believes dependency can be countered by policies that foster attitudes and aptitudes requisite for independence. He favors applying to public policy the axiom that ``no one washes a rental car.'' Which means: Ownership encourages rational maintenance of resources. Consider the pertinence of this to health care.

DeMint was one of 25 doughty House Republicans who, resisting intense White House pressure, voted against the Medicare prescription drug entitlement, partly because of its cost. And this was before the administration's ``$130 billion `oops!'" -- the projection of a 10-year cost that much higher than previously anticipated.

But DeMint says the Medicare bill's provision for individual health savings accounts is ``the grain of sand in the oyster,'' from which a pearl of progress may emerge. Containing costs is a prerequisite for progress -- in broadened access to care and in research that produces better medical technologies.

The key to cost containment is turning patients into cost-conscious health care shoppers, with a personal financial incentive to reduce the ``optional'' medical problems arising from known risky behavior (imprudent eating, drinking, smoking and driving, inadequate exercise, unsafe sex). Moving away from a third-party payer system means giving individuals ownership of personal health care resources -- those health savings accounts -- which they will have an incentive to husband.

Why has the cost of laser eye surgery fallen 22 percent in four years? For the same reason the cost of cosmetic surgery has been rising slower than the inflation rate. These elective procedures are generally paid for by individuals, from their own resources.

DeMint is stressing principles that candidate George W. Bush enunciated in 2000, when he contrasted ``two visions of government: a government that encourages ownership and opportunity and responsibility or a government that takes your money and makes your choices.'' DeMint's empowerment agenda includes personal ownership of accounts investing a portion of Social Security taxes, and ownership of tax-preferred education savings accounts.

His agenda continues a tradition of American governance that extends back to the 1913 law making mortgage interest payments tax deductible, thereby democratizing the accumulation of wealth through home ownership. And back beyond that to 1862, to the Homestead Act, which distributed the nation's primary wealth at the time -- land.

If DeMint wins the June 8 primary, his November prospects will glitter: not since 1962 has South Carolina elected a Democratic senator other than Hollings. DeMint has a House member's opinion of the Senate, which he says is ``where ideas go to die.'' Not if he gets there.