Conservative Intellectual Rigor?

December 07, 2012

Commenting on Senator Jim DeMint’s move to the Heritage Foundation, conservative columnist John Podhoretz refers to one of Heritage’s policy “blind spots:” backing a healthcare mandate in 1994. That support resulted in much back-tracking and apologizing from Heritage when the mandate became a centerpiece of President Obama’s healthcare reform plan. All of which raises an important question about conservative intellectual rigor.

Starting in about the 1980s, conservatives prided themselves on having the leadership in policy development and new ideas. Liberals, in their view, were mostly trying to defend the old ideas of the New Deal and Great Society, while conservatives were creating intellectually rigorous ideas to reform society – the Broken Windows theory, proposals about dependency and upward mobility, and consumer choice in education, to name a few. Whatever you think of those ideas, conservative intellectuals did seem to be more productive and creative.

But somewhere along the way, perhaps when partisan dogma became more important than new thinking, the conservative intellectual forces began to fade. Blind opposition to any new taxes, opposition to scientifically-determined facts, and religious correctness became more important in conservative political circles. And the switch from pro-healthcare mandate to anti-healthcare mandate by Heritage is a good example. Requiring that each person pay for their own healthcare through insurance, rather than dumping the entire burden on the public, is a matter of personal responsibility – perhaps the most important “conservative virtue.”  If the government uses some subsidy to help the poor plan ahead for inevitable expenses, that’s far better than paying the whole bill for whatever their lives bring -- whether through bad luck, poor choices, or normal human frailty.

Conservatives have wrapped their objections to the individual mandate in an ill-fitting version of personal responsibility.  The government should not require people to buy insurance, they say, because it is up to individuals to be responsible for themselves. And if they fail to do so, they must bear the consequences of their inaction. But, as has been pointed out many times, the law requires that hospitals accept very sick patients – and the unpaid bills get passed on to the rest of us.  Opposing a healthcare mandate is only defensible on conservative principles if you also advocate for the abolition of the laws that require hospitals to take all patients in need. That is a true, if harsh, policy of personal responsibility.*

I’m sure when Heritage endorsed the individual mandate in 1994, they didn’t love the idea of government interference in the market or personal decisions, but realized that it was the most conservative of the realistic options. It was an uncomfortable, but intellectually honest position.

It seems clear to me that many Republicans oppose the mandate because the President they hate is for it. Gingrich, Romney, and many others were for it just as Heritage was, until they were abruptly against it. Politicians changing their minds, particularly when a policy becomes associated with the opposition party, is not new or limited to Republicans.  But intellectual institutions, like think thanks, are not supposed to do that.

*Many conservatives object to the mandate on Constitutional grounds, but that is a separate issue.  I’m sure most also see it as an affront to personal liberty and bad policy.  To the conservatives out there who endorse the wisdom of the mandate, but don’t believe Congress has the constitutional authority to implement it, I applaud your intellectual rigor (while disagreeing with your legal analysis). 


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