A Case for Less-Principled Government

During the classic 1976 Ford-Carter debate sketch on the first season of Saturday Night Live, Gerald Ford (Chevy Chase) famously responded to a question as follows.

Liz Montgomery [Jane Curtin]: “Yes. Mr. President, you said that the Humphrey-Hawkins bill will cost a possible sixty billion dollars. But isn’t it true that the jobs provided by the bill will create up to a hundred and fifty billion dollars in increased production — using Walter Heller’s figure that for every one percent unemployed, there is a resulting thirty-seven billion dollar loss in GNP. Now, at the present rate of taxation on GNP of thirty-nine percent, doesn’t this come to about the same sixty billion dollars in increased revenue?”

President Gerald R. Ford: [ sweating ] “It was my understanding that there would be no math… during the debates. Now, I — I am prepared to answer any domestic, uh — questions. Perhaps you would like to know something about me and Betty?”

That delightful phrase:  “It was my understanding that there would be no math.”

I, on the other hand, love math and the data that supports it.  Our politics should be full of it (as opposed to simply being full of it — if you know what I mean).  Today’s politics (and especially political campaigns) is all about principles and sadly deficient in explanations of how what it offered or proposed would actually work.

In other words, today’s politicians always seem to have what they claim is the right answer to every question, but they don’t show their work.

Take for example, Republican Presidential candidate (for now, at least) Rick Santorum’s recent brief dialogue with a student at a Christian college in Iowa who challenged him on healthcare.  The student told Santorum, “I don’t think God appreciates the fact that we have 50-100 thousand uninsured Americans dying due to a lack of healthcare every year.”  Santorum replied, in pertinent part, “People die in America because people die in America. And people make poor decisions with respect to their health and their healthcare. And they don’t go to the emergency room or they don’t go to the doctor when they need to. And it’s not the fault of the government for not providing some sort of universal benefit.”  He added that people should be free to make their own choices on healthcare and not be under a federal mandate.

Notice that the issue is framed entirely in principled terms.  Universal healthcare is either a moral imperative (per the student) or a governmental program that undercuts the morally superior value of freedom. 

I would frame the issue differently.  I would begin by asking whether health insurance coverage is a good thing.  Since I presume we could (mostly) all agree that it is, I would then ask how best to accomplish it.  The best answer might include a governmental component or it might not.  But that answer should depend upon the data — not upon a principle. 

I am not claiming that principles have no place in politics, simply that appeals to them are overused. I understand why politicians rely on them the way they do.  Sounding principled is generally a good thing — it makes them seem strong.  Principles also make for better sound bites than the sometimes intricate (but imperative) weighing of data. 

As a governmental and political skeptic, I need to be shown that government can be effective in an area before I can endorse a proposed policy.  I would prefer to see and hear many more debates about the effectiveness of a proposed policy based upon solid data and less about its being required (or prohibited) as a matter of principle.  Unfortunately, neither major party has much of place for me in this regard.  Both place far too much faith in government for my taste, albeit largely in different areas. Each side has their own set of sacred cows.  Sometimes (see this post I wrote yesterday, for an example), both sides ignore the data to perpetuate some alleged principle.

Give me more data and less principle.  Please.


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