January 22, 2004 -- In his State of the Union address, President Bush said, “A government-run health care system is the wrong prescription.” But he also praised the new government-backed prescription drug benefit under Medicare that he championed last year. He wants to keep taxes low, but he also wants four percent more discretionary spending this year. This is down from his out-of-control spending of the past few years but still drains the taxpayers’ wallets by keeping in place or expanding most government programs.

For example, he wants more federal money to help high school students who fall behind in math and science.

Republicans are thought of as the guys who don’t like a lot of government. So why would Bush, as well as many other Republicans, be all over the map with their programs and policies? Simple: Bush, like so many other Republicans, acts based on sentiments or short-term pragmatism rather than on a consistent set of core principles. In other words, Bush believes that individuals should be free and unencumbered by government except where he feels that government should intervene.

If Bush and the Republicans lived up to their limited government reputation, they would uphold the principles of individual liberty on which America was founded. The purpose of government, as set forth in the Declaration of Independence, is to protect the life, liberty, and property of each citizen. The federal government, as established by the Constitution, had certain limited and enumerated powers, with all other powers reserved for the states and the people. A system of checks and balances was established and a Bill of Rights added to make certain that government didn’t get out of hand.
These principles, in turn, were based on the understanding that individuals are ends in themselves; that they own their own lives; that to survive and prosper, they must be free to act; that they thus should be left alone and should leave others to live as they see fit. Based on these principles, it is generally easy to judge which functions of government are legitimate and which are not. Government welfare programs are seen as based on the altruist principle that individuals must take care of others and be forced by government to do so, which limits everyone’s personal autonomy.
But many individuals of all political stripes mix sentiments, or a pragmatism that in the long run is not very pragmatic, with principles—when they have any to begin with. Thus President Bush might have the sentiment that it is not desirable for sick, elderly people to go without medicine, and thus decide that the federal government should help foot their bills. Democrats have similar sentiments concerning the elderly, but they advocate far greater government handouts than do most Republicans. Because Bush also has a sentiment that favors individuals helping themselves, he might also support the expanded use of medical savings accounts, which allow individuals to avoid taxes on money that they put aside to cover their personal health care costs.
The Bush policies might be marginally better than those of the Democrats. But as long as Bush and the Republicans act from sentiments or short-term pragmatism rather than principles, the drift away from individual liberty will continue. Government has already limited the autonomy of individuals in so many ways through high taxes and heavy-handed regulations. Such limits produce adverse consequences that politicians feel they need to address by limiting freedom in new and different ways in order to produce more desirable outcomes. But these limits produce yet more unintended adverse consequences and the cycle continues.
Neither Bush nor his Democratic opponents ask whether government, for example, should provide for people’s health care to begin with, or whether such matters should be left to patients and doctors, that is, customers and suppliers. They allow their feelings to blind them to the predictable adverse consequences of policies—consequences that will still occur whether they choose to recognize them or not. And, course, if emotional reactions rather than sound principles are the currency of public policy, there is no objective standard by which to distinguish the sound from the bankrupt policies.
With the coming elections, the public square will be deluged with the mixed-up approach to public policy that was seen in the State of the Union address. But citizens who want to know what’s in store for them should look below the rhetoric and ask fundamental questions about the effects of such policies on their personal autonomy. Otherwise, the one sure outcome of the election will be the continuing limitation of personal autonomy.


Edward Hudgins

About The Author:

Edward Hudgins is research director at the Heartland Institute and former director of advocacy and senior scholar at The Atlas Society.

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