Policy Minimalism in the Era of Big Government

George Will

4/6/2008 12:01:00 AM - George Will

WASHINGTON -- Hurling a compliment at Barack Obama in the hope of wounding him, Hillary Clinton's campaign has said that his proposals for responding to the economy's housing-related credit woes put him "to the right of the Bush administration." Her complaint is that the government spending and other market interventions that he proposes are a bit less flamboyant than hers.

Now, getting to the right of an administration that has increased federal spending twice as fast as did her husband's administration is a snap, and a virtue. But it is John McCain's policy minimalism -- these things are relative -- that merits compliments.

He says "it is not the duty of government to bail out and reward those who act irresponsibly, whether they are big banks or small borrowers." For now, he is with Senate Republicans in opposing the Democrats' proposal to empower judges to rewrite the terms of some mortgages, an idea that strikes at the sanctity of contracts and hence at the ethic of promise-keeping that is fundamental to social life. He opposes an additional dose of the toxin that has made the credit system sick -- he favors strengthening rather than weakening down-payment requirements for loans backed by the Federal Housing Administration. And he has admirably avoided the rhetoric of victimology, such as that used when The Washington Post editorialized that "Lenders pushed tens of billions of dollars in potentially high-interest mortgage debt on people ill-equipped to handle it."

Pertinent questions were elided by the Post's formulation of the problem, a formulation in the spirit of the liberal narrative about "predatory" lenders. How much pushing of lenders was required when they were being pushed by a bipartisan political consensus that, such are the community benefits from homeownership, it should be maximized? What portion of the subprime borrowers currently in distress -- 30 percent? 50? 70? -- lunged for loans requiring 5 percent or less (if any) down payments and fibbed about their financial assets and capabilities?

With the command-and-control propensity of contemporary liberalism, Clinton predictably advocates a policy that has a record, running from Roman times to the present, that is unblemished by success. It is the policy of price controls: Her proposed five-year freeze on interest rates would be a control on the price of money.

Obama says McCain's (again, relatively) noninterventionist response to credit difficulties proves that he favors a "you're on your own" society. McCain, a center-right candidate seeking to lead a center-right country, should embrace Obama's accusation as an accolade, saying:

This is the crux of the difference between the two parties -- belief in the competence, responsibility and accountability of individuals. When Obama characterizes my position as "little more than watching this crisis happen," he again has part of a point. The housing market must find its bottom, and no good will can come from delaying the day that it does.

The market, which bewilders and annoys liberals by correcting excesses without the supervision of liberals, is doing that as housing prices fall far enough to stimulate demand. Witness this recent Financial Times headline:

"Property sales pick up as prices plummet."

The story began: "Sales of previously owned homes in the U.S. rose for the first time in seven months in February, while sale prices fell by their most in at least 40 years." By golly, the Gershwins were right: The age of miracles hasn't passed.

McCain's only solecism is his loopy idea that mortgage lenders should make a "response" that is "similar" to General Motors' policy of zero percent financing immediately after 9/11. Patting himself on the back, as is his wont, McCain said he is too honorable to "play election-year politics" or "allow dogma to override common sense." Then he cast this issue as he casts too many issues, as a matter of patriotism, saying of lenders: "They've been asking the government to help them out. I'm now calling on them to help their customers and their nation out."

Good grief. Where to begin? GM initiated that policy for a corporation's best reason -- business rationality. The policy's purpose was to shed inventory, not make a patriotic gesture with shareholders' money, or in response to political pressure.

McCain practices the politics of honor: He thinks that whatever his instincts tell him is honorable must be so, and those who think otherwise are dishonorable. This makes him difficult to deal with but does no other harm, as long as it is kept separate from governing.