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Moderate Republicans and the Ratchet Effect

Friday, September 24, 2010

While the Left claims to want bipartisanship and compromise, the incremental clicks of the ratchet only go in one direction: toward European-style social democracy.

Over the last few days, the liberal commentariat has bemoaned the influence of the Tea Party movement which is, they assert, driving out Republican “moderates,” a class of Republicans that the liberals have long claimed to like. Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne has gone so far as to declare the “end of Moderate Republicanism.” Says Dionne: 

Castle's defeat at the hands of Christine O'Donnell, a perennial candidate who may be the least qualified Senate nominee anywhere in the country, does indeed mark the collapse of the Republican Party not only of Nelson Rockefeller and Tom Dewey but also of Bob Dole and Howard Baker.

The Post’s Ruth Marcus is “despondent:”

First, I had thought the silver lining of this election year might be to produce a Senate with a more robust cadre of moderate Republicans. That caucus has pretty much dwindled to the two senators from Maine, with very occasional company from colleagues such as Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown and departing Ohio Sen. George Voinovich. It's awfully hard for a caucus of two to break with the party.

Why are liberals so unhappy to see “moderate Republicans” drummed out of the party? That’s simple: it’s because liberals have out-maneuvered such Republicans for decades. Moderate Republicans “compromise” in incremental steps toward liberal policies, while the liberals depict any “compromise” as being akin to genocide. Faced with such charges, moderate Republicans quickly surrender. This is particularly true in environmental policy, which I’ll discuss shortly.

Over at the liberal Mother Jones, Nick Baumann admits this is why liberals love moderate Republicans:

While some liberals might like to root for Democrats exclusively, the continuing decline of the moderate Republican and rightward shift of the GOP is bad news for progressives—and the country. Republicans are going to run Congress—and inhabit the White House—around half of the time. It's better for liberals if the people in the GOP are not radicals.

I call this the ratchet effect: while the Left claims to want bipartisanship and compromise, the incremental clicks of the ratchet only go in one direction—toward European-style social democracy. Peggy Noonan expresses the ratchet effect in terms of a yardstick:

Imagine that over at the 36-inch end you've got pure liberal thinking—more and larger government programs, a bigger government that costs more in the many ways that cost can be calculated. Over at the other end you've got conservative thinking—a government that is growing smaller and less demanding and is less expensive. You assume that when the two major parties are negotiating bills in Washington, they sort of lay down the yardstick and begin negotiations at the 18-inch line. Each party pulls in the direction it wants, and the dominant party moves the government a few inches in their direction.

But if you look at the past half century or so you have to think: How come even when Republicans are in charge, even when they're dominant, government has always gotten larger and more expensive? It's always grown! It's as if something inexorable in our political reality—with those who think in liberal terms dominating the establishment, the media, the academy—has always tilted the starting point in negotiations away from 18 inches, and always toward liberalism, toward the 36-inch point.

Democrats on the Hill or in the White House try to pull it up to 30, Republicans try to pull it back to 25. A deal is struck at 28. Washington Republicans call it victory: "Hey, it coulda been 29!"

In the field of energy policy, a solid conservative approach would be based on letting competitive markets work. That would mean stripping out subsidies to all forms of energy production, leveling the regulatory playing field among competing forms of energy, addressing true externalities with Pigovian taxes, and letting the market determine what the best form of energy is in any given place, at any given time, for any given use, at any given price. In Noonan’s analogy, that would be the position down at the 1” line on the yardstick. Is that what “moderate Republicans” have pursued? Not even close.

Moderate Republicans have generally gone along with an incremental tightening of environmental regulations far beyond the level needed to protect the public health.

Many Republicans have gladly gone along with such boondoggles as corn ethanol and biofuels (Remember George W’s switchgrass speech?). They have also promoted what might be one of the most economically foolish thoughts in recent history, which is that “we need all of the above,” meaning we need affordable and reliable fossil fuels, but also unaffordable and unreliable wind and solar power and environmentally destructive biofuels. And of course, there can never be enough nuclear power, regardless of the fact that the economics of nuclear power are dubious.

Now, let’s think about this for a minute. When you go to the grocery store, and see products at a range of prices from chuck steak to Kobe beef, do you think, “Hey, I need all of the above!” Probably not. When you talk to your investment counselor, and she offers you a range of potential returns from say, negative 100 percent to positive 100 percent do you say, “I need all of the above!”? Maybe, if you happen to be a government pension-fund manager, but probably not if you’re anyone else. When you go to the doctor for leg pain, and he offers you a range of treatments from cheap medication to major amputation, do you say “gimme all of the above!”? One seriously hopes not.

It’s a little more confusing in the area of environmental policy, because different people define “conservative environmentalism” differently. However, it’s safe to say what would not fit in any “conservative environmentalism,” which would be the destruction of property rights, the pursuit of zero risk regardless of cost, and the massive expansion of the regulatory state. Yet moderate Republicans have generally gone along with an incremental tightening of environmental regulations far beyond the level needed to protect the public health; gone far beyond the point at which the benefits of such policies exceed their costs; and profoundly compromised the quaint conservative notion that property rights are important. Again, if environmental policy that respects property rights, constrains regulation to the essentials, and demands that benefits exceed costs are down toward the 1” end of Noonan’s yardstick, moderate Republicans aren’t even close.

To be fair, the Republicans are not entirely to blame here. Every time they have tried to fix the overreach of environmental regulations, the Left and its allies in the environmental movement and mainstream media immediately start screaming bloody murder. The tiniest tweak to an air pollution rule is portrayed as “gutting the Clean Air Act,” and will lead to children slowly strangling to death in clouds of filthy air. Still, the “moderate Republicans” who have gone along with the steady ratcheting of environmental regulation were the enablers that have led us where we are today, facing EPA regulation of greenhouse gases that will impose massive costs and burdens on the U.S. economy to control gases that are clearly not hazardous to human health, and that may not even be hazardous to the climate.

It’s no wonder that the liberals are gnashing their teeth and rending their garments over the potential loss of moderate Republicans. They are afraid that immoderate Republicans might actually stick to conservative principles and throw a wrench into their ratchet.

Kenneth P. Green is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

FURTHER READING: Green questions government-created "Green Energy Jobs," prompts "Thinking about Energy," and highlights "Lessons from the Gulf." Steven F. Hayward gives "Two Cheers for the Clean Air Act" and depicts "Environmentalists as Battered Spouses."
Image by Darren Wamboldt/Bergman Group.

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