What Ted Kennedy never learned

September 1, 2009
Sept. 3
September 3, 2009
September 1, 2009
Sept. 3
September 3, 2009

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy is gone.

No one in the last 40 years stood as a larger symbol of “liberalism,” the view that government is the answer for everything.

A great deal has been said in recent days about his compassion and generosity. But bear in mind that in public life, his compassion consisted in spending other people’s money and authorizing government bureaucracies to interfere with the social cooperation that takes place whenever life, liberty, and property are respected.

We may grant his good intentions, but intentions can’t repeal the laws of economics, and insisting they can only causes harm, especially to the people one was trying to help.

In thinking about Kennedy, we ought to be struck by his stubborn refusal to see government for what it is: a device for imposing some people’s will on others by compulsion.

That blunt formulation is surely less romantic than any that he would have offered, but which is closer to reality?

Stripped of the democratic bunting, what lies at the heart of government is the legal power to coerce – not only violent aggressors but anyone. It’s not reason or eloquence, as George Washington is reputed to have said. It’s force. Believing that this force is wielded in a good cause does not change the facts.

In this light Kennedy and his sort are revealed as presumptuous power-mongers.

Sitting in Washington, far (both geographically and psychologically) from the people and their diverse personal circumstances, the “lawmakers” presume to dictate the rules of everyday life.

They don’t simply declare that we must not kill or otherwise harm each other. Those customary rules were well-established long before the first legislative body convened.

Rather, they seek to manage – even micromanage – the complexity of social intercourse as though it were a family picnic: the minimum wage that employers and employees may negotiate, the conditions under which children are educated, the kind of health insurance we all must buy.

This and so much more are, in the so-called “liberals'” eyes, the public’s – that is, their – business.

In theory government is supposed to be the servant. Yet in practice it is not the servant but the master. Kennedy surely would have disagreed, and he might have meant it. But facts are facts.

When a self-described servant insists on taking care of you according to his notion of your interests, whether or not you want his help and whether or not you want to surrender the necessary resources, he is no servant at all. He is the master. You will be served – or else.

Kennedy cared about a lot of things, but he didn’t care enough to grasp that fact.

Nor did he care enough to question his simple-minded economic philosophy that whatever government decrees it shall get.

The “war on poverty” is 45 years and trillions of dollars old, yet Kennedy never declared victory. Does that mean it wasn’t won? If so, shouldn’t that have prompted him to reject his faith that government can directly end poverty? Why didn’t he learn the authentically liberal insight that the straightest line to prosperity is the free market, which means keeping government from impeding the creation of wealth through taxes, privileges, and restrictions on production?

Uncharacteristically, Kennedy glimpsed this truth in the late 1970s. It was he who spearheaded the congressional move to deregulate commercial air travel and trucking.

Until then, government bureaucracies strictly regulated both routes and rates, inflating the price of travel and every product carried by truck. Kennedy apparently realized that this system of privilege for politically influential businesses harmed most people by prohibiting competition.

As a result, the Civil Aeronautics Board and the Interstate Commerce Commission (the oldest federal regulatory agency) disappeared – to the benefit of the public.

Unfortunately, Kennedy never applied this principle to health care or much else. To lower prices and better serve consumers, government didn’t have to run the airlines or the trucking companies, or create a “public option.” It just needed to get out of the way.

It’s the same for health care. Too bad Kennedy died before understanding that.