Choice and Reward vs. Force and Punishment

Michael Medved

2/17/2010 12:01:00 AM - Michael Medved

Embattled partisans can’t compromise in Congress because they disagree so profoundly on the core question facing any society: how do you get people to behave constructively? The left wants to shape conduct by regulation and force, the right by incentive and choice. Liberals rely on punishment; conservatives emphasize reward. These differences cut so deep and permeate so many issues that it’s nearly impossible for the two sides to locate that elusive common ground.

The debate over health care reform provides an obvious example of the contrasting world views. Democrats demand a national “mandate” that would force every American to secure government-approved health insurance. President Obama himself admitted under questioning that anyone who failed to get the required coverage, and then refused to pay the appropriate fines, would ultimately go to jail. The essence of this approach is compulsion—using the power of government to force citizens to take action that politicians deem necessary for the public good.

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Republicans agree that it’s beneficial to see more Americans purchasing health insurance – especially when that expanded coverage applies to young, healthy families that will put few expensive demands on the system and help lower premiums for everyone. But the GOP approach seeks to encourage the desired behavior through a system of incentives and rewards: providing tax deductions, and even refundable tax credits, for struggling families to buy insurance and allowing more choice by facilitating purchase across state lines.

Democrats insist that some citizens will fail to respond to any proffered benefits, but conservatives point out that some members of the public will also defy all bureaucratic dictates and threats. Liberal schemes, in other words, will inevitably leave a few Americans uninsured, while reducing liberty for everyone else.

The left and the right may largely agree on desirable choices for the public—like buying health insurance, or selecting fuel efficient cars, or creating new jobs. But liberals want to dictate such choices while conservatives seek only to encourage them – and that difference represents the essential contrast between socialist and free market economies.

Moreover, both left and right recognize that no government can expect anything like total success in its efforts to steer private choices in wholesome and beneficial directions, but they differ on how to deal with people who make foolish decisions anyway. Liberals want to protect citizens and even companies from the harsh consequences of their own mistakes – providing bailouts for floundering companies, subsidies for failing, non-competitive “green” technologies, and food and rent subsidies even for those whose poor choices (substance abuse, dropping out of school, criminality) have left them idle and unproductive.

To pay for this misplaced “compassion” the left inevitably punishes those who’ve made better choices and contributed more to society. Generally, we raise taxes to discourage conduct that carries with it a social and economic cost --- like consumption of alcohol or cigarettes. Why, then, do we raise tax rates for those who succeed in generating the profits that make economic growth and new jobs possible? We treat the creation of wealth like a vice, not a virtue – as if the pursuit of economic advancement represented a greedy, guilty habit that requires regulation and discouragement.

In other words, the left may talk of imposing governmental retribution against those who make damaging choices, but instead ends up punishing precisely those whose success most notably benefits the economy and the community.

The motivation for that punishment involves the distrust of individuals to make the right choices in spending the money they themselves have earned. The left believes public discussion and decision-making will produce better results and more responsible investments than individual quirks and preferences, and prejudices. The right acknowledges that private citizens will sometimes waste their own resources on foolish or wasteful indulgences but that free individuals remain more reliable than far-away bureaucrats in spending the money they’ve earned with considerable toil.

Moreover a free market, with the widest possible discretion for each independent participant, not only serves to expand personal liberty and freedom of action, but also works more efficiently to generate the growth and prosperity that benefit everyone.

This key insight motivates the impassioned Tea Party activists, as well as nearly all conservatives who yearn for a rebuke of Obama’s efforts to expand the punishing, supervisory role of the federal government. Republicans must remain focused on the most essential conservative principles –that society will benefit more from expanded choice than expanded regulation, and that the generally predictable gains and losses of an unfettered economy will encourage productivity far more than capricious bureaucratic intervention that often rewards failure and punishes success.

If the GOP in Washington recalls and honors these propositions they won’t make many split-the-difference deals with the president and his cronies, but they will begin to regain the confidence of an angry and disillusioned electorate that longs for a return to common sense in the nation’s Capitol.