“Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it,” my grandmother used to say when serving a food that seemed, let us say, unappetizing. The same advice ought to be applied to public policy.
In the Outlook section of The Washington Post recently, Greg Anrig, vice president of programs at the Century Foundation, gloated that conservatism is in decline, slowly being replaced by what he labels “progressive” ideas. These days, he writes, “conservatives are the ones who are tongue-tied, as demonstrated by Sen. John McCain’s limping, message-free presidential campaign.”
Well, hold the phone for just a moment, there.
First, John McCain is anything but a full-throated voice for the conservative agenda. He’s better than, say, Barack Obama. But McCain earned his vaunted reputation as a “maverick” by often opposing conservatives on issues such as judicial nominations and tax cuts. That’s why, during the Republican primary process, conservative publications such as National Review went all out for Mitt Romney.
Next, let’s look at what Anrig lists as conservatism’s failures, since it could instead be read as a list of partial successes. “They [conservatives] advocated creating health savings accounts, handing out school vouchers, privatizing Social Security, shifting government functions to private contractors, and curtailing regulations on public health, safety, the environment and more.”
Let’s take just a few of these examples. Health savings accounts are the single good feature that was included in the bill that created Medicare Part D. That legislation added a massive new entitlement (putting the federal government on the hook to buy prescription drugs for seniors) to an already-too-expensive entitlement program.
HSAs are the opposite of a government subsidy. They allow individuals to control their own health care. And they allow healthy people to save up money in accounts they control. By putting the customer in charge, HSAs encourage patients to shop for value and be concerned about price -- thus bringing free-market principles to bear on health care.
It’s too soon to claim HSAs have worked, but they certainly haven’t failed. In fact, they deserve to be expanded.
How about the next item: school vouchers?
Here’s another conservative idea that is working, but remains, as they say in Hollywood, in “limited release.” In the nation’s capital, for example, the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program allows some 1,900 children to attend the school of their choice, instead of the “government school” they’d be assigned to.