In his New Year’s Day column for the Washington Post, George Will appears to endorse an idea that was explored in this blog last fall (see the post “Cato Institute: Choosy Voters Choose Smaller Government”*): Because voters aren’t taking the time to follow everything their government does, government must do less.
Will’s column includes this puzzler:
New information technologies have served primarily to increase the knowledge of the already well-informed, which increases the ability of some to engage in “rent-seeking” from the regulatory state, manipulating its power in order to transfer wealth to themselves.
Is this supposed to be a nicer alternative to Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” riff? During the 2012 campaign, Romney was caught on camera at a private fundraiser saying, “There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it.” Romney’s comments were interpreted as a criticism of “redistribute-the-wealth” policies (a phrase that dogged President Barack Obama in his first campaign) and a variant on the notion of dividing Americans into “givers” and “takers” (a theory floated by Romney’s budget chief when he was governor of Massachusetts).
But the “47 percent” doesn’t match Will’s description of big-government advocates as “well-informed,” high-turnout voters with access to “new information technologies.” Rather than criticizing low-income and less educated citizens for wanting the government to do more, Will suggests the existence of an elite class who want “to transfer wealth to themselves.” My guesses for the people in this group include children in well-funded public school systems (paid for by the childless through property taxes), patrons of subsidized arts programs, and public transit riders (recall Newt Gingrich’s snark toward “elites” who “ride the subway.”)
All of these programs also benefit poor people (I’ll concede the libertarian point that excessive permitting and licensing laws can stymie people trying to get out of poverty by starting their own businesses), but conservatives are beginning to recognize that criticizing the less fortunate is bad politics when voters are increasingly concerned about long-term unemployment, income inequality, and poverty rates. (From a report released on Tuesday by the U.S. Census Bureau: “Over the 36-month period from January 2009 to December 2011, 31.6 percent of the U.S. population was in poverty for at least 2 months, an increase from 27.1 percent over the period of 2005 to 2007.”) Too many policies that orthodox conservatives see as forms of wealth redistribution, including an increase in the minimum wage and the extension of unemployment benefits, are faring quite well in public opinion polls.
Philip Rucker and Robert Costa report in Tuesday’s Washington Post that Republicans are trying “to demonstrate more compassion for the poor after back-to-back presidential election losses,” though there’s not much consensus on how to do so. Sen. Marco Rubio wants job training for mid-career adults, Sen. Rand Paul is pushing for low-tax “economic freedom zones,” and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor advocates school choice as a way for families to climb out of poverty. The effects of such indirect programs (as opposed to direct assistance such as food stamps) are uncertain, but they mostly allow Republicans to retain their talking point that big government hurts the poor more than it helps them.
And one way to push that talking point is to keep a focus on big-city liberals voting themselves fancy government services like bike-sharing programs (a “threat to personal freedoms”), high-speed rail, public television, and research into renewable energy sources. As this fall’s elections approach, I expect conservatives to avoid denigrating the poor and instead try to attack big government by going after what they consider the lazy and entitled rich.
Indeed, Will’s disdain for the “well-informed” is echoed in Monday’s New York Times column by David Brooks, in which he teases “consumers who have boutique identities and aspirations.” He writes, “The first boutique hotels were founded by entrepreneurs who seemed more like rock producers or psych professors than corporate executives. … Boutiques cater to the sort of affluent consumer who is produced by the information economy, which rewards education with money.” Brooks doesn’t condemn this weird kind of nouveau riche (he is writing for the Times, after all), but I’m waiting for the first attack ad on a congressman who votes to extend unemployment benefits but is “out of touch” because he stays in tiny, overpriced hotels.
Will has the solution for the problem of well-informed citizens gaming the political system: “reduce the risks of ignorance by reducing government’s consequences — its complexity, centralization and intrusiveness.” As I’ve written before, this libertarian argument ignores the short cuts that less-informed voters use to pursue broad policy goals, such as voting along party lines and following the recommendations of unions, trade associations, religious and ethnic advocacy groups, etc. I find these to be perfectly legitimate short cuts; someone dedicated to reducing the size of government may see them as threats to taxpayers.
However you feel, get familiar with Will’s argument. It’s more subtle than blaming lazy poor people and “welfare queens” for big government, and it’s getting traction.
*Will cites Ilya Somin’s book “Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter,” also mentioned in my earlier post.